In 1926, Josephine Baker, the iconic French dancer and singer, burst onto the Berlin stage, mesmerizing audiences with her exhilarating Charleston performance at the Nelson Theater on Kurfürstendamm. Nearly a century later, a groundbreaking exhibition at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie now delves deep into Baker’s extraordinary life and lasting impact.
Born in 1906 as Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker exhibited a natural talent for entertainment from an early age, launching her dance career in New York at just 13. Upon her arrival in Paris in 1925 as part of the celebrated musical show La Revue Nègre, Baker captured the hearts of European audiences, challenging prevailing racial biases and colonial attitudes.
Despite her rise to fame, Baker faced relentless objectification and racial stereotyping, often conforming to demeaning racial caricatures to please European audiences.
During the turmoil of World War II, she bravely served as a spy for the Free France Committee, undertaking perilous undercover missions, including smuggling crucial messages written in invisible ink on her musical scores across borders. After the war, she remained unwavering in her advocacy for desegregation, emerging as a prominent delegate for the International Association Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.
In 1963, Baker received an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to address the historic March on Washington, where she urged the crowd to persevere in the fight for justice and equality.
Curated by director Klaus Biesenbach, along with artist Kandis Williams and scholar Terri Simone Francis, the new exhibit showcases a diverse array of archival material, including photos, drawings, books, and record covers. These pieces not only celebrate Baker’s monumental contributions to music, film, and dance but also underscore her activism as a fierce resistance fighter and champion of civil rights.
In addition to Baker’s own works, the exhibition features pieces by contemporary artists such as Simone Leigh, Faith Ringgold, and Carrie Mae Weems, all of whom acknowledge her profound influence.
“Josephine Baker: Icon in Motion” is currently on display at Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Str. 50, Berlin, Germany, until April 28th. Learn more on the museum’s website.