Unequivocal in his professed lack of interest in incorporating any sort of African influence into his work, Palmer Hayden once famously quipped: “I never had any desire to paint anything about Africa. I painted what Negroes, colored people, us Americans do … we’re a brand new race, raised and manufactured in the U.S.” However, in the early 1930s during the artist’s Paris sojourn, Hayden painted four works that incorporate African content, including three watercolors featuring African dancers. With exaggeratedly rounded heads, elongated jawlines, grinning outsized lips, and outlandish outfits, Hayden’s dancers strike the viewer as more “primitive minstrel” than primitive modern—the effect more silly than sauvage. After briefly considering the artist’s well-known work Fétiche et Fleurs, this article explores Hayden’s three watercolor sketches of African dancers. Understanding these works in the context of the epic 1931 Paris Exposition Coloniale Internationale, contemporary representations of Africans and African Americans in French visual culture, and Hayden’s acknowledged penchant for visual satire, I contend that the exaggerated physiognomy and general ridiculousness of Hayden’s African dancers should be understood as a cheeky critique of the staged performance of Africanness Hayden witnessed at the colonial fair rather than an uncomplicated expression of internalized racism. In portraying the dancers with the mask of blackface minstrelsy, Hayden sought to unmask the epic Exposition Coloniale Internationale as a great colonial minstrel show—an artificial spectacle of blackness constructed for the white gaze.
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Mia L. Bagneris; The Great Colonial Minstrel Show: Reconsidering Africa in the Art of Palmer Hayden. Nka 1 November 2017; 2017 (41): 14–29. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10757163-4271619
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