Art Deco & Africa, 1925
This weekend, after picking up an ENAR Foundation Award in Paris for the Facebook page Afropean Culture (Woo Hoo!), I spent some time with my good friend Chris and his lovely (& expecting!) lady Naj at their home near the 13th Arrondissement. In between hours of musical indulgence (Chris is a dope Emcee who also goes by the name of Apocraphe and is now deep in the French Hip-Hop scene) and some incredible home-cooked meals inspired by the Ottolenghi cookbook Jerusalem (the stuffed aubergines are incroyable!) I managed to peel myself away for a brilliant exhibition about one of my favourite styles of design at the Cite de l’architecture.
© Johny Pitts Photography
Before I talk about the exhibition itself, let’s go back…waaaay back…back in time…
Art Deco first came to my attention in that strange quiet of a weekday afternoon. In those rare, peaceful hours when all the noise makers (children, teenagers and young adults) are at school or work.
I would have been 11 or 12, experiencing the difficult transition into secondary school playground politics (School yard politics, sorry- ‘playground’ is SO primary school), hence grades 7 and 8 were the years I enjoyed least and probably pulled the most sickies. Then, with my Mother and Father at work, I’d be sent to my Grandma’s house where I’d enter the glorious world of Bourbon Creams, cheap dandelion and burdock ‘pop’ and daytime television.
I’m not sure why so many women of a certain age love watching murder so much, but the enduring memory of my Nan is sitting on her settee, half-heartedly pretending I was sick and letting her spoil me rotten (with treats my Mum and Dad would have forbid), then settling down to watch the likes of Columbo, Jessica Fletcher and our favourite detective of all…Agatha Christie’s arrogant Belgian genius Hercule Poirot. For me it was a relaxing respite from the pressures of school in the warm embrace of my lovely Nan, who didn’t care what brand my trainers were, and for my Nan a break from the mid-week boredom and some quality time with her youngest Grandson.
Poirot was set when my Grandmother, born in 1920, would have been a little girl, and I didn’t know then that the aesthetic and mood of the roaring 20’s that I loved so much was called Art Deco. From the haunting whirl of Christopher Gunning’s saxophone in the opening theme, to the bold lines and elegant geometry depicting billowing black steam engines and shadowy criminals on the hoof, I was immediately spellbound by the stylized landscape in which Poirot operated.
Whilst my Nan existed in the same time and space depicted in the Agatha Christie drama, Poirot’s world of Art-Deco decadence was light years away from her lower-working class experience in the industrial English city of Sheffield. But it seems the word ‘Industry’ is key to understanding Art Deco, and why it came to fruition around the time my Grandmother was born. In fact it was the ‘Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes‘ or ‘International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts’ of 1925 that gave Art Deco its name, and is widely credited as the birth of the style in global consciousness.
The shapes, textures and colours were a direct response from artists and engineers, to the brand new technologies (many of which born from the advancements in World War 1) re-appropriated for the zeitgeist of the times…the automobile was now affordable to the general public, Albert Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect’ leading us another step closer to the use of electricity commercially, and motion pictures were captured with sound for the first time. The 20’s were indeed ‘roaring’ and a new visual language needed to reflect this great age of travel and technology. Put simply: in the 1920’s, you had to be modern.
Despite it being years before people like my Nan would enjoy the new inventions that inspired Art Deco, they nevertheless played their part in the development of them, and in many ways industrial cities such as the one my Nan grew up in (Sheffield) were the foot soldiers of Art Deco… casting its steel, smelting its iron, and cultivating its taste for bold edges that lead the movement away from the frilly realism of Art Nouveau.
Whenever I visit home I walk amongst the old industrial quarters of Attercliffe and Darnall, where you can still hear the dim clanking of mysterious machinery, holding on to the old trades. Here I see a kind of Art Deco-carcass: the sans-serif fonts of old signs on abandoned factories, the circular iron pumps, valves and engines preserved as trophies of a golden age or left to rot as evidence of its demise- but in its day, this was the kind of industrial functionality the form of Art Deco followed.
An old factory in Sheffield. Photo by Tim Dennell
Perhaps it’s because I’m from a post-industrial city then, that Art Deco resonates so much. Sheffield may not come with the glamour or luxury usually associated with the style, but the sharp angles, perfect circles and solid materials are shapes and textures I recognise from the years of industry that still lurk in the collective consciousness of the city I grew up in.
So onto what I found out at the exhibition…
I knew Art Deco was influenced somewhat by Cubism, but what I didn’t know about before was its strong connection to African Art. I own a book of work by the legendary Deco poster artist Paul Colin, and I was struck by how the form of his work depicted black people. Some images bordered on the offensive…black characters, all big lips and simplified features, but in many of his posters I felt he’d captured a certain elegance of form missing from previous depictions of the exoticised ‘black other’.
Many of his classic posters were produced shortly before the likes of Aime Cesaire initiated the Negritude movement in Paris, whose ideologies would help to unravel pseudo-anthropological ideas at the time about black people being less than human. Before Negritude though, artists had begun to set the stage for multiculturalism through their music, sculptures and paintings.
Colin’s posters, after all, were advertising clubs like the Bal Negre, where black musicians entertained a fashionable Parisian in-crowd, and where black men and white women (and visa versa) would dance together unashamedly. It was the era of Josephine Baker and an appreciation for African aesthetics as being at the height of elegance, so it was no surprise that the modern stylings of Art Deco came to fruition around the same time as this new wave of multicultural meetings, and would be used to describe them in the arts.
But the connection to black culture runs deeper. The art dealer Paul Guillaume, who traded African masks in the early 20th century said, in 1926:
“At the Great Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, the predominance of the negro motif was obvious among the really new and distinctive notes in interior decoration. The trends in the design of modern furnishings, posters and newspaper advertising show that this motif was introduced in every area of delicate and applied art…The most important lines of influence were a clearer understanding of the nature of design in every discipline, and in particular the possibility of applying negro sculpture principles to a resurrection of artistic traditions that had been considered dead. We could almost say that there is a form of feeling in it, an architecture of thought, a subtle expression of the deepest life forces that have been extracted from negro civilisation and introduced into the modern artistic world”
So here’s to Art Deco, movement and multiculturalism…to Paris and Poirot, to my Yorkshire Grandmother Ruth Stewart, to Africa and, above all, to the coming together of people and ideas across races, cultures and generations.
For more Information about the 1925: The Year Art Deco Dazzled the World at the Cite de l’architecture, Paris, visit here.