I will be presenting “Breaking Free? Anna May Wong in London” at the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH) session at the 2023 College Art Association (CAA) Annual Conference. The talk is part of a session titled, “Harlem-on-Thames: NY/LON, 1919-1939.” The panel explores the global impact of the Harlem vogue on London, considering the movement and exchanges amongst Black and British persons along this transatlantic axis during the interwar period.
The other talks are “Unruly Desires, Unruly Geographies: Mapping Black and Queer Interwar London,” by Idroma Montgomery, Birkbeck, University of London; “The Unnnamed James Van Der Zee: Londoner’s Cecil Beaton’s Encounter with a Harlem Photographer,” by Emilie Boone, NYU; and “Modernist Clarence “Buddy” Bradley: NY/LON,” by Jacqueline Francis, California College of the Arts.
The Chinese-American star, Anna May Wong, regularly appeared in films in roles that were non-Asian but always racialized. I am currently obsessed with how often imagery linked her with blackness, as in this Paramount Studio photograph by Eugene Robert Richee:
I didn’t have the chance to discuss this photograph of Anna May Wong wearing a hat referencing the one worn by Neferetiti in her famous portrait bust in my recent talk about Egyptomania and fashion — and I don’t even know why Wong was photographed wearing it — but it’s such a great image so I couldn’t resist acknowledging it in some public manner.
My CAA talk went very well according to the feedback that I received. I focused on how shadows assumed a new expressive role as a racial metaphor in modernist photography. I previously shared some of the images that I was considering. Here are some of the ones that were included in my presentation:
Garbo by Clarence Sinclair Bull, 1931
The Beginning of the World by Brancusi, 1924
Kiki by Man Ray, 1926
Josephine Baker by Huene, 1927
A made particular note of the fact that shadows ultimately acquired their own autonomy in images like this:
It’s CAA time and I am participating in a panel called “Photography and Race.” My talk is about race and modernism in interwar photography. One key phenomenon that I have noted is that lighting and shadow take on a metaphoric role beyond their descriptive function that gives visual expression to the period’s racial imagination in new ways. Older notions of race as biology and blackness and whiteness as material properties of the body are supplanted with more elusive codes that reside in the darkness and the light. That is not to say that move traditional means of visualizing race entirely disappear but the burden of representation is removed from the body in subtle but significant ways that allow for the articulation of changing racial paradigms. The preponderance of these shadows that limn blackness makes it difficult to select which images to show in my fifteen minutes. What a dilemma! Here are some of my current objects of fascination:
Carole Lombard by Otto Dyar, 1931
Anna May Wong by Hurrell, 1938
Katherine Hepburn by Ernest Bachrach, 1935
Model Helen Lyons Wearing a Dress and Matching Cape by Boue Soeurs, in Vogue, April 1922 by Baron de Meyer
This is a portrait of the actress Anna May Wong in tuxedo drag taken by Carl Van Vecthen in 1932. This image is the cornerstone of the introduction to Afrochic, the magnum opus that I hope to complete soon. I argue that this type of photographic portrait and its attendant racial dynamics is emblematic of the ways that moderns constructed their identity between the Two Worlds Wars. Intrigued…stay tuned!
Since I will never be able to include all the images that I would like into the final manuscript, I will share some of my favorites here as I work towards the completion of the manuscript.
This is an topic that I am very intrigued by. I am familiar with a couple of black entertainers that spent time in London during the Jazz Age (i.e. Paul Robeson, Florence Mills…) but I had not previously come across research on blacks who were members of the Commonwealth who lived in London during this period in the manner that Black Paris and the Negro Colony is discussed. Of course we have learned that black jazz entertainers circulated throughout Europe but that information is elusive at best. So I hope that this project endures and flourishes.
Of course if a lot of information were available I would want to include it in my book and I already have too much information to contend with dealing with New York, and its satellite in Paris (with a bit of a detour to Hollywood, and even Taos…)
Nancy Cunard is the main figure of English origin included in my dramatis personae but she spends most of this time based in Paris. I am trying to restrict myself to the Man Ray portraits of her but there are some important photographs by Cecil Beaton and Curtis Moffat that will require a mention. I justify their inclusion because of the network of fashion/celebrity/glamour photographers that Man Ray is part a of, with an obligatory connection to Carlo (Carl Van Vechten–he knows everyone LITERALLY).
Anna May Wong spends time in London but it is the portraits taken by Carlo and her Hollywood experiences that are most concern to me. (At present…)
We’ve recently created the first of a series of postcards and maps highlighting some of the artwork and histories which touch upon the themes of Drawing over the Colour Line. The postcard created is a reproduction of William Roberts’ 1923 The Creole, a portrait of a woman called Hélène Yelin who lived near Bloomsbury and was a friend of the Roberts family – we’ll be blogging more about her in the next few months. We’ve also used this image as the front of our new walking tour leaflets entitled ‘A Walk Around Bloomsbury’.
The tour explores the black presence in Bloomsbury during 1919-1939 in relation to London’s artworld and focuses on places and spaces connected to individuals and organisations including African-American musician and performer Florence Mills, artists Nina Hamnett and Duncan Grant who created artworks depicting Black Londoners, Harold Moody, Jamaican doctor and President of the League of Coloured Peoples set…