The Senegalese cabaret dancer François Benga, better known by his stage name Féral — French for “untamed” — emerged on the scene in the 1930s as a darling of the Parisian music hall scene. Though performance was his principal art form, he left a commensurate legacy in the visual arts, immortalized in the works of artists for whom Benga held infinite possibilities as a subject. A pair of portraits of Benga by the Polish photographer Lucien Waléry, included in Swann Galleries’s upcoming LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History sale, epitomize the dancer’s allure as an artist’s model and his rise to an icon of the Harlem Renaissance who redefined representations of Black masculinity.
Born in Dakar in 1906, Benga visited Paris when he was 17. During the trip, he ran away from his father, an employee of the French colonial administration, and worked odd jobs to make ends meet before auditioning for the Folies-Bergère, the fabled Parisian cabaret club. Benga quickly made a name for himself, dancing in step with Josephine Baker and forging a close friendship with the American-born vedette and civil rights activist. The pair’s artistry and technical prowess were both admired and crudely exoticized by white audiences, for whom Benga and Baker exemplified the hyper-eroticized racial stereotypes of 20th century primitivist discourses popular at the time. They performed the risqué danse sauvage to the delight of French spectators, him in a skimpy loincloth, her in a banana skirt; in the words of critics, he played the “black Mercury” to her “ebony Venus.” In 1932, Benga starred in Jean Cocteau’s first avant-garde film, Le sang d’un poète, as l’ange noir, the “Black angel.”
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At the same time, images of Benga began to proliferate. Waléry, who rose to prominence as a photographer of female cabaret stars such as Baker, produced cabinet cards, postcards, and other materials for popular consumption. His dynamic portrait of Benga hoisting a machete in the air, a pose from his signature danse du sabre recreated in Waléry’s London studio, inspired an iconic sculpture by Harlem Renaissance artist Richmond Barthé across the Atlantic. Created shortly after meeting Benga in Paris, Barthé’s sinuously sculptured bronze sold for slightly over half a million dollars in Swann’s African-American Art sale last summer, more than ten times its high estimate.
The double portraits at Swann depict Benga in a mannered twist, his torso in three-quarters view, gazing mischievously to his right; in one composition, he holds the sabre below the hips, the horizontal blade bisecting his immaculate vertical stance. The photos are “well within Walery’s typical presentation,” Deborah Rogal, Director of the Photographs Department at Swann Galleries, told Hyperallergic.
“His images of Josephine Baker also show the star dressed for her performance, isolated against a plain background, a visual reminder of a performance a collector may have just seen or wish to see, and certainly a format that allows the performer’s charisma to be the primary force,” Rogal said.
Still, Benga never achieved Baker’s level of fame, not least because his gender — and his homosexuality — complicated the dominant gender dynamics of primitivism, which centered on the objectification of Black women. For James Smalls, Professor and Chair of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Benga’s body functioned as “a site of critique” of imposed perceptions of masculinity.
“To many people at the time he may have been threatening, because he represented an objectification of the male body. He welcomed that, it was exactly what he was doing onstage,” Smalls said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I see it as very avant-garde and modern, going against these elements of primitivism that are very exploitative of women and upending them. But I think that also hurt his career, it did not allow him to develop as she did.”
The many layers of Benga’s identity — Black, male, African, gay, artist, muse — were intricately entangled in a complex character who defied easy characterization. Portrayals of Benga in the popular imagination and the revues in which he performed, embodying racial tropes as part of his stage persona, leaned toward the caricaturesque. When he debuted a classically-inspired choreography at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1933, critics slammed the piece; it was not “African enough.”
“But Benga had a lot of agency in terms of how he wanted people to see him, how he wanted to portray himself, in terms of spectacle,” Smalls noted. “And I think he had a say in these photographs, too.”
In Benga’s role as a coveted artist’s model, in fact, we may come closer to his ineffable essence. The artworks he inspired — Barthé’s sculpture; an oil on canvas by James A. Porter, the first African American art historian; photographs by George Platt Lynes, who shot homoerotic images during a time of rampant gay persecution — tell the story of American modernism through the lens of those seduced by Benga’s singular aura and the radical embrace of the Black male body that he came to represent.
“These were underground folks,” Smalls said. “And Benga was an icon for them.”
Yet Benga has been marginalized in art history as well as dance history, and Smalls says his research on Benga, which focused on his imprint on Afro-modernism, is made more difficult by a dearth of documentation.
“There are no archives. He didn’t write anything about himself. We have anecdotes from people who knew him, and we have the imagery, Waléry’s photographs, and photos by other publishers,” Smalls said.
“We have others who were contributing to this history, to the visual culture and the material culture, that we don’t know about because they’re forgotten about or deemed unimportant,” Smalls says. “I’m an advocate of a revival of these people and investigating how important they were in this fabric of modernism.”
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Gerda Wegener, Keith Haring, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, JEB, and Robert Mapplethorpe, will take place on August 19, 2021.