The exhibit, “Alexandre Dumas’s Afro: Blackness Caricatured, Erased, and Back Again,” at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, grapples with the issue of identity and the mixed race experience through the historical depiction of Alexandre Dumas and his family.
Best known for influential French literature, Dumas’ Black racial heritage was suppressed for more than 200 years. BAMPFA’s exhibit explored the Dumas’ history, as all the men of the family were of mixed race and married and bore children with French women.
“Alexandre Dumas’s Afro” was filled with an assortment of photographs, caricatures, cartoons and newspaper clippings that manifested the reflections of race in regards to Dumas.
From the personal collection of UC Berkeley professor of art Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, the gallery’s assortment of artifacts “pose complicated questions about caricature’s exaggerations, racial typologies, individualization, portraiture, and the rights to one’s image,” according to a description at the exhibit.
BAMPFA employee Laila Karkori noted the abundance of self portraits make the exhibit stand out and add an interesting element to visualize Dumas.
Museumgoer Luc Barrera, a multimedia graphic designer traveling from Paris, reflected a similar sentiment. When he happened upon the exhibit, Barrera was infatuated with how BAMPFA depicted Dumas and the French.
These depictions of Dumas as a Black man were central to the gallery — although some were derogatory in intent, others served as testament to the author’s appearance.
“It’s not very well known in France that (Dumas) was mixed,” Barrera reflected at the museum. “It’s interesting to see the vision in the past compared to the present, like in the colors of the magazines.”
BAMPFA also particularly draws attention to the origins of the author’s last name.
“Like his father, Dumas pére chose to bear the surname of General Dumas’s slave mother rather than the white aristocratic planter who owned her,” BAMPFA’s exhibition description read. “Yet his Blackness has come in and out of view, sometimes attacked, sometimes erased, and sometimes celebrated.”
The exhibit also featured rare portraits of Dumas with Adah Isaacs Menken — well known, but equally racially ambiguous. The most well-paid actress of her time, Menken was the muse of many revolutionary nineteenth-century writers, including Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens.
BAMPFA quoted Black scholar Daphne Brooks in her speculation about Menken’s ancestry, as the actress “assumed a half dozen pseudonyms throughout her life (and) identified five different men as her father.”
“Blackness Caricatured, Erased, and Back Again” juxtaposed the world’s love for Dumas’ words with the media’s prejudiced hyperfixation on the author’s mixed race.
While Dumas became a civil rights icon, as portrayed by the “Golden Legacy” comics that spotlighted successful Black artists, the words of one of his critics, Eugène de Mirecourt, encapsulated how so many viewed the writer.
“Scratch the surface of M. Dumas and you will find the savage,” de Mirecourt wrote, as displayed at the exhibit. “He holds together the nègre and the marquis.”
As part of the Cal Conversations series, BAMPFA developed this exhibit in collaboration with both UC Berkeley students and faculty for the program’s sixth annual exhibition. “Alexandre Dumas’s Afro” will be open through July 30 to the general public.