Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #1 - The Black Pin Up

Following on from my post about the Vogue Ball introducing work I will be doing with Manchester dance troupe The House Of Ghetto I've begun to look into the history of the black pin up which will be the project's starting point.

Obviously, I adore the Pin Up and when speaking of the Pin Up I refer to models, dancers and performers who have all appealed to popular culture through their work and mass produced image. I have even painted pin ups myself in the past. Yet pin ups are almost always shown as white women. It seems the Western world never quite managed to embrace the idea of other races having a sexual identity. The Pin Up's black sibling (and for that matter Hispanic or any other race) is majorly under represented in mainstream popular culture. 

That's not to say that the beloved Pin Up hasn't donned the apparel of other cultures, but she's hardly given those cultures any agency or freedom of expression. She was simply play acting and appropriating cliched ideas.

Despite the lack of portrayal in the Western world, the black female form has long had a power to fascinate the Western audience. Going back as far as the early 19th Century we can find the example of Sara Baartman

Born in the Cape Colony (present day South Africa)  Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction because of her unusually large buttocks. Her 'performance' drew huge crowds across England (where she was baptised in Manchester Cathedral) and France, where she eventually died at the young age of 29. After her death her skeleton and body cast were put on display at the Natural History Museum in Angers. 

I understand it is a far leap to put Baartman in the story of the black Pin Up yet she holds an important place in terms of non white women being seen as more 'exotic', animal-like and sexually primitive by white audiences. She wasn't accepted as a 'normal' woman because of her different physical qualities, she was an oddity and her threat was minimalised by making an example of her. This is something to bear in mind when thinking of how the black woman's image has been represented in popular Western culture through the ages.

Moving forward a century, most people will have heard of Josephine Baker and her 'Danse sauvage' where she thrilled the audiences of the Folies Bergere dancing in her famous banana skirt. Baker embraced the things that made her stand apart from the Western ideal, and unlike the upsetting and unsettling story of Baartman, she was able to freely exploit Western notions of the primitive woman to her own advantage. Often referred to as The Black Pearl,The Bronze Venus and The Creole Goddess, Baker created a colourful parody which gained her money, fame and lasting notoriety. Her legacy was to create a shift in how a black woman could hold the power to her sexuality whilst being objectified.

As technology evolved and took hold of the entertainment industry, performers from the burlesque scene became popular fixtures in Hollywood musicals. One such talent from the chorus line was Jeni LeGon. 

Jeni LeGon (see more @gemma_parker_artist)

Dancing from the age of 16 for the Count Basie Orchestra, LeGon had a distinctive gangly style both acrobatic and comedic. She was soon spotted and whisked to Hollywood to appear in her first film Hooray For Love in 1935. As she credits herself, 'I had moves that were typically men’s moves because they were so technically difficult - flips, splits, cartwheels - I could do it all'. No one else offered the particular package LeGon could and because of this she broke new ground as a black woman singing and dancing in mainstream Hollywood films pre the likes of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge.

You can see her technical ability and sweet girlish style on the screen as she performs alongside Fats Waller and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Yet despite the film's success leading to a contract with MGM, her dancing career on film was short lived. She was so skillful she outshone the white leading ladies and soon MGM couldn't find a project suitable for her. She was pigeonholed into typically black roles such as the grass skirt wearing dancer in Swing Is Here To Stay (1936) or increasing, during the 1940's, as a housemaid. It is sad to think of all that frenetic talent going to waste. 

It's interesting to note the difference in how LeGon was represented as the savage black woman to how Josephine Baker chose to do it. LeGon had no authority over her image in this scene. Unlike Baker her control has been taken away so she becomes a 2 dimensional cartoon, another minimalised black stereotype with no sexual identity and no threat.


Jeni LeGon had varied success in her career and, as with most true greats, her talents weren't fully appreciated until much later in life. There is a brilliant article where you can read more about her highs and lows HERE

While researching the black Pin Up I hope that my brief notes give some context to the power of the images that these women left behind.
Join me next time where I'll be looking into the past at the little known stars of the black burlesque scene through the 1950's and 60's.

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