Dialectics of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker's Self-Representation
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The archive of Josephine Baker’s images is staggering. Hundreds of her photographs—dancing or frozen as in a reverie, with melancholic or comically crossed eyes, naked or glamorously clad—illustrate numerous books and writings, which portray, and attempt to explain, the celebrated African American expatriate in Paris. These photographs, paintings, and memorabilia are stored in museums and private collections; they are read and reread by performance and film scholars and those who are simply fascinated or intrigued by her countless personae. Multiple binaries have been used to explain her, but I argue that Baker invites us to see her as positioned within the boundary line that separates these binaries. I further ask what it means to be in-between, and how we are to make sense of a body that carries its spatiality marked on its body. In this paper, I offer a reading of Baker that concentrates on her infamous banana skirt as an important element of her dialectics, which brilliantly captures the contradictions and ambiguities of Josephine Baker’s self-representations.
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