Free to be

What does it mean to be free? You might include the freedom of expression and ability to pursue aspects of life that make you happy and allow you to contribute to society. At times, when you enjoy such a concept of freedom it can be easy to forget many people have had to fight and struggle so that we can live the lives we do.

The fact is that not all aspects of history are documented and told to the masses. Leaving stories untold can often lead to a one-sided view of history. However, there are people dedicated to learning about and telling those untold stories. During the rest of PIFA (we’re in the seventh day of the takeover) and through September 4, 2011, the African American Museum in Philadelphia will explore the unique experiences of African Americans who lived and created art in Paris.

Photo courtesy of PIFA

Free to Be: The Artistry & Impact of African Americans in Paris, 1900-1940 will join PIFA’s celebration of French-inspired arts by unraveling the remarkable – and often unknown – stories of African American cultural contributions in both The City of Light and The City of Brotherly Love during the era of Jim Crow and jazz.

While enjoying the pieces presented to you, pay close attention to the differences of contributing to the art scene in Paris, where the most important aspect was a person’s creativity and innovation and not skin color. How is it possible to be highly celebrated in France, but subject to segregation and racism at home in America?

Through collaboration with the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, and other local and national collections, the AAMP will help you discover an interdisciplinary selection of artists such as:

  • A rarely displayed painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the first African American expatriates to reach success in the international art world
  • Artists and designers such as Julian Abele, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Augusta Savage.
  • Costumes, sheet music, and other ephemera will highlight the lives of performers including Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and the iconic Josephine Baker, who defined Parisian nightlife in the early twentieth century.
  • Writings by W.E.B. Du Bois and poems by Langston Hughes will examine the limitations of American discrimination, the lure of opportunities abroad, and the transatlantic culture during this time period.

Free to Be will also be accompanied by a series of programs that will spark further discussion and encourage future scholarship. A Josephine Baker Film Festival will feature Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934), and Princess Tam Tam (1935), and introduce audiences to the mesmerizing dance performances and charming comedic talent that made her a world-famous entertainer.

The sounds of Sidney Bechet, African American expatriate and pioneering jazz musician, will fill your ears as you contemplate the exhibits during Paris ‘til Sunday, a weekend-long jazz summit including performances and film screenings. Additional programming will include a gallery tour with the curator and a panel discussion with descendants of the cultural figures presented in the exhibition.

So what are you waiting for? Go out and expand your history!


Stay tuned for more live coverage and impressions of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts through May 1, supported by PIFA.

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