Carl van Vechten, “Féral Benga”, 1937, Gelatin Silver Print
Born in Dakar in 1906, François Benga, better known by his stage name Féral, was a Senegalese actor, cabaret dancer, artist’s model, and nightclub owner. Although his principle art form was performance in film and stage, he left an equal legacy in visual arts with his immortalization in the works of such artists as painter James A. Porter, sculptor Richmond Barthé, and photographer George Platt Lynes.
The son of a wealthy French colonial administrator in Dakar, Benga relocated in 1923 at the age of seventeen to Paris where he worked in odd jobs to support himself. For a brief period in May of 1930, Benga danced with American-born Mexican dancer Myrtle Watkins at the Enfants-Terribles Restaurant. After auditioning for the Folies-Bergère, Paris’s famous cabaret club, he quickly became noticed among the public through his dances and close friendship with Josephine Baker, one of the most celebrated performers to headline at the Folies-Bergère. Baker was also the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 “Siren of the Tropics”.
In the evenings, Féral Benga and Josephine Baker performed the “Danse Sauvage” to the delight of the French spectators, he wearing a loincloth and she dressed in a skirt of artificial bananas. The pair’s artistry and technical skill in dance was admired but also crudely exoticized by some of their audiences. Like Josephine Baker, Benga understood the commercialization of black culture and body in the artistic marketplace as well as his own marketability as an object of desire. Due to his skill as well as his popularity in Paris’s artistic and homosexual circles, Benga was able to appear in many cabaret revues throughout the 1930s.
In 1930, Benga had one of the starring roles in Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde film “La Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet)”, the first film of Cocteau’s “The Orphic Trilogy”. At this time, images of Benga began to appear as postcards, cabinet cards and other materials for consumption. British photographer Lucien Waléry, who had photographed many prominent people including Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith, took several photos of Benga including a portrait of him hoisting a machete in the air. This photographic pose inspired Harlem Renaissance artist Richmond Barthé to create his iconic 1935 bronze sculpture “Féral Benga”, a new and dramatic representation of the male figure.
In 1933, Benga and his partner, anthropologist and author Geoffrey Gorer, took a trip to Africa where they studied native dances performed in the remote parts of Africa. Inspired by this trip, Gorer wrote a 1935 book entitled “Africa Dances: A Book About West African Negroes” which, in addition to its vast visual documentation, is one of few existing texts which details Benga’s life. In 1935, artist James A. Porter painted a portrait of Féral Benga, dressed in the khaki uniform of the Senegalese Tirailleur, entitled “Soldado Senegales” which is now housed in the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC. After the publication of “Africa Dances”, Benga and Gorer slowly drifted apart but kept in touch through letters.
Until the outset of World War II, Féral Benga lived a lavish lifestyle with an apartment near the Champs-Élysées, a custom Delahaye convertible, and his own small cabaret. In 1943, he performed a personally choreographed dance in the ballet “Tam Tam” held at the Olympia Theater. Trapped in France as a result of the German occupation, Benga was aware of the Nazi’s hateful opinions of French-speaking black men and hid for some time in the countryside. Though his hosts treated him well, the hard living conditions took a toll on both Benga’s physical and mental health.
From 1947, Benga owned, in partnership with bisexual filmmaker Nico Papatakis, a popular and fashionable cabaret-restaurant on Paris’s Left Bank called “La Rose Rouge”. Visited by the wealthy Parisian crowd, it featured over its eight years an African cabaret including drummers and dancers who, during the day, were African students studying at universities in the city. In 1951, Benga met his former partner George Gorer for the last time during Gorer’s trip to Paris. Due to changing times and bad business decisions, Benga was forced to close “La Rose Rouge” in 1956.
At this time, Féral Benga’s family in Senegal decided to welcome him back into the family circle, from which he had been disinherited at the age of seventeen. Submitting to familial pressure, he traveled back to Senegal and unexpectedly married a cousin. However, Benga soon returned to Paris where he died of a pulmonary embolism on the fourth of June in 1957. He rests in the Saint-Denis cemetery in Châtecauroux, France. Due to cemetary regulations, Benga’s funeral concession will expire in 2028.
Notes: In Manhattan, New York, Féral Benga was well known in the Harlem Renaissance artistic and social circles and seen by many as a gay icon. In 1938, the openly homosexual surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew painted a portrait of Benga entitled “Deposition”, a nude study of the dancer on his back. This portrait later was held by American writer and impresario Lincoln Kirstein, a co-founder of the New York City Ballet.
Jean Cocteau’s 1930 “La Sang d’un Poète” was produced by French nobleman Charles de Noailles; the cinematography was done by Georges Périnal, a renowned artist who also worked with, among others, directors Jean Grémillon, Charlie Chaplin, René Clair, and Otto Preminger. The film, a study of the main character’s obsession with fame and death, was a surrealistic work in which dreamlike states were intercut throughout the film. Its release was delayed a year due to rumors of anti-Christian messages and the threatened excommunication of its producer de Noailles from the Catholic Church. “La Sang d’un Poète” is available for viewing at the Internet Archive located through this link: https://archive.org/details/JeanCocteauLeSangDunPote1930
All Insert Images: Carl van Vechten, “Féral Benga”, Photo Shoot, 1937, Gelatin Silver Prints, Private Collections