Art in Europe,  English,  Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Musings: Anti Racism or Human Stupidity?

On the lively Parisian street of Rue Mouffetard there is a supermarket. Above this supermarket is a sign, which reads “Au Negre Joyeux” along with a fairly crudely painted picture of a black man and a white woman.
This may stir up some feelings in you. We see a black man, dressed in what would have been deemed fine clothes, a napkin around his neck and holding aloft a wine carafe. There seems to be some controversy around the actions being taken in this painting with some saying that he is serving the white woman, and others pointing out that the woman is holding a tray. My interpretation of this is that the man appears to be ready to take a seat, and join the woman as she brings what looks like chocolates and coffee to the table. There is little doubt that the women is supposed to be of a higher class, but she is wearing an apron, which indicates that in this painting she is serving him.
The sign and the painting were the signage for “Au Negre Joyeux” (The Happy Negro) chocolate company (which also seems to have produced coffee at some point so the serving of chocolate and coffee on the tray makes sense), which was moved when the factory was destroyed to this street.

The signage dates back to around 1748, so we need to put the picture in to context. At this time slavery was still rife, and those in the slave trade were not above the human trafficking of people to achieve their supply.

It is thought that the couple depict the slave Zamor and Madam du Barry. Zamor had been taken from his home in Chittagong, Bengal Subah, by slave traders. He would be educated by Madam du Barry, who effectively became a mother figure to Zamor, and he would later become her slave, although their relationship was often speculated about due to their closeness. This closeness was not to last as Zamor became a revolutionist and would eventually assist in getting Madam du Barry arrested and ultimately sentenced to death by guillotine. Zamor himself was later arrested as he was thought to have been a conspirator to Madam du Barry, but he managed to secure his release and he fled Paris. He died a poor man, but was buried in Paris.

Zamor’s time with Madam du Barry, was probably much nicer that most slavery experiences at the time in France (although slavery of any sort is not something that should have happened) and before their parting of ways he would become governor of her estate.

 This is what made them the perfect symbol (at the time) for The Happy Negro Company. The sign, was supposed to indicate the small pleasures that could be brought about from the product, although if we look to how Zamor has been portrayed, he has the stereotypical facial features of how black people were portrayed during this era, with bulging eyes and a leering grin, bringing to the forefront feelings of racism in today’s society, as in contract the facial features if Madam du Barry are proportionate and fairly complimentary to her looks.

The painting has been placed behind a sheet of plexiglass, as this has been subjected to vandalism over the years. People would throw stones at the painting, and you can still observe dents and smashes where people have continued to show their discontent with the picture.

More recently the painting has undergone further vandalism in having paint balls thrown at it, obscuring the woman in the painting, but more thoughtlessly it impacts the apartment which the painting is now housed over and the supermarket below.

Seeing this type of vandalism, to any painting irritates me. I really do appreciate that this type of art (along with many others that have had paint and acid thrown at them) can spark all kinds of very emotional feelings, but defacing a painting will not change history. These are things that have happened and this will not change the past.

Slavery was not completely abolished in France and its colonies until 1848, and personally I think that art work such as this, serves as a reminder of the atrocities which has come before us.

Aside from the vandalistic protests, there have been many other more peaceful protests around this painting, both for and against is right to stay in such a public place. Those who protest for it, share my train of thought, with it being a clear reminder of what has come before and why history should not repeat itself. Those who protest against it remaining in Rue Mouffetard, feel it encourages racist views and could incite extreme behaviour.

In September of 2017, it was finally decided that this painting would be removed from its current home and moved to the Carnavalet Museum. The Council of Paris are set to spend 90,000 Euros restoring the sign before it is displayed. The sign is set to be removed very soon and will not be able to be viewed again until 2020 when the Carnavalet reopens. This move was heavily debated, but with backing from the French communist party, the final vote was to remove.

Personally I think that this could have remained in it home, with something to educate those viewing it. This is clearly not a piece of art created today, and marks a moment in our history, this doesn’t denote the feelings of Paris, nor the shopkeepers of the supermarket below, so the vandalism and protests are really achieving nothing more than bringing attention to the painting and for the wrong reasons. I am however glad that this rather awful painting will still be displayed somewhere, to keep the memory of our actions alive.

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