Installation view, The Black Atlantic by Nancy Cunard at the Musée du quai Branly (all images courtesy Musée du quai Branly)

PARIS — The display for Black Atlantic by Nancy Cunard at the Musée du quai Branly evokes a period when the artistic and literary avant-garde became intertwined with the political and the glamorous. You may be familiar with the British shipping heiress, journalist, anarchist, avant-garde muse, expatriate translator, flamboyant arts patron, publisher, African jewelry collector, political activist and prolific poet Nancy Cunard from the famous Man Ray photo (cropped postcard) of her wearing a fraction of her African ivory bracelets. Or perhaps through Man Ray’s earlier (1924) photo of her dressed in men’s clothes, typical of the 1920s mode garçonne trend inspired by late 19th century dandyism that came to represent a Baudelairian modernity that questioned the clichés around masculinity for the emancipated. There her right hand is being gallantly kissed by her lover at the time, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara (he dedicated Mouchoir de nuages (Handkerchief of Clouds) to her and notoriously attempted suicide when they separated).

These and other photographs and paintings of Cunard helped make her an art flapper icon of the 1920s, an example of those rich Anglo-Saxon women who left their overly puritanical countries and settled in roaring 20s Paris to freely live out their sexual, intellectual, and creative interests. That, and Michael Arlen made her the heroine of his book The Green Hat (1924) of which Tallulah Bankhead would play the Cunard-inspired role in the 1925 London stage adaptation. In 1928 a silent movie entitled A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo, was also based on The Green Hat. Moreover, Nancy Cunard’s acute intelligence and flair for dramatic extremes also helped form a leading character in Aldous Huxley’s fascinating novel Point Counter Point. Four compilations of her poetry were published between 1921 and 1930.

Tristan Tzara and Nancy Cunard at the ball of the Count of Beaumont (1924)

Know of her or not, you’d want understand this Coco Chanel dressed outré dame and her political and cultural work within the Anglo-Saxon–French avant-garde milieu (Dada, literary Modernism, and Surrealism) through Sarah Frioux-Salgas’s distinguished exhibition that focuses on Cunard’s earlier years in Paris. It is a stimulating celebration of the young Cunard, with no hint of her tragic demise to come.

But the gut of the show is Cunard’s creation of the now-legendary 855 page Negro Anthology (1934), a DIY book (both edited and self-published and mostly neglected in her own time) that vehemently denounced colonial violence, racial segregation and its consequences, and the living conditions of colonized populations.

Negro Anthology cover

Cover, ‘Negro Anthology’

For Negro Anthology, Cunard assembled sociological essays, testimonies, raw archive material, press reports, literary extracts, photographs, sheet music, statistics, poetry, political speeches, proverbs and pamphlets about the plight of black people with an emphasis on racist America. She did so by bringing together a very diverse group of authors: women, men, activists, artists, African-Americans, Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans, sports people, journalists, anthropologists, historians, musicians, writers, poets, singers, academics, and militants. This compilation of inter-racial, international and cross-cultural pursuit is what Paul Gilroy refers to as the Black Atlantic — a phrase to which the title of this exhibition refers.

Cunard had been sensitized to questions concerning colonialism and race through her periodic lover (an affair that continued intermittently until 1935) and Hours Press associate, the African-American jazz singer and raggy pianist Henry Crowder, and it is dedicated to him, as it was through Crowder that Cunard discovered the brutality suffered by black Americans at that time. Her goal for the book was to oppose that brutality, along with all other forms of institutional racism.

Portrait of Nancy Cunard by Barbara Ker-Seymer (nd)

This opposition to the oppressive social and political conditions of the time was not completely unprecedented in white European culture. Virginia and Leonard Woolf had already published anti-imperial material and the Surrealists had been actively fighting colonization. But Cunard was deeply involved with the Surrealists, having had a two-year (1926-28) love affair with Louis Aragon, and one with René Crevel, the bisexual writer expelled from Surrealism (1923) for homosexuality, and she organized the screening of Luis Buñuel’s scandalous film “L’Age d’Or” (1930) in London when it was censored in France. But her Negro Anthology offered to the reader the widest range yet of texts on the subject of the condemnation of – and resistance to – racist conditions.

Artistically, I delighted in the breezy artist covers that Len Lye and others made for Hours Press, Cunard’s small printing press set up in a rustic farmhouse in La Chapelle-Reanville and then on the Rive Gauche at 15 rue Guenegaud.

Also on the affirmative side, in a section called Negro Star, Cunard presented forty-five photographs of trans-cultural black artists. She also included scholarly texts on African art and illustrated them copiously with African ceremonial objects from private collections like Paul Guillaume’s (the art dealer who had organized the important exhibition Première Exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien in 1919 with a catalogue essay by Guillaume Apollinaire) and from public ones: the British Museum, the Trocadéro Ethnography Museum and the Belgian Congo Museum of Tervuren. Thus making this anthology a monument to black art history and a major pan-African work.

Black Atlantic by Nancy Cunard continues at the Musée du quai Branly (37 Quai Branly, Paris, France) through May 18.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...