ARTIST VS. MUSE (Part Four: The Jungle)

Featured photograph by Jean-Paul Goude.

This is the fourth in a series of posts I’ll be making this month about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. You can find the previous posts here: PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE. Check back on Thursday for the next installment, and feel free to let me know what you think of the series in a comment.

PART FOUR: The Jungle

The Compass Point trilogy launched Grace Jones from the club orbit into the celebrity stratosphere. Nightclubbing peaked at 32 on the Billboard 200, making it Jones’ best-selling album to date. A One Man Show was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video. Jones also won a lot of attention for slapping the British talk show host Russell Harty in front of a studio audience as punishment for ignoring her. (To be fair, although Jones was clearly in no fit state for conversation, Harty’s obnoxious condescension merited at least one of the several whacks Jones gave him.)

Jones attempted to parlay her growing fame into a career in film. She had once turned down a role in Blade Runner out of concern for what Goude would think of her participation in a supposedly soulless Hollywood enterprise, and now that the relationship was over she vowed never to let another promising opportunity pass her by. Unfortunately for Jones, Goude’s shadow proved difficult to escape. All of her major roles—including Zula, the near-feral warrior in Conan the Barbarian; May Day, the preternaturally strong, eerily silent henchwoman in one of the more forgettable entries in the James Bond franchise, A View to a Kill; and Katrina, the queen of a vampire coven in the horror-comedy Vamp—were obvious caricatures of the character Goude had made of her. Jones’ performances in these films are nearly indistinguishable from Kim Wayans’ impersonation of the singer on In Living Color. (Jim Carrey, playing a French waiter, calls Grace “monsieur” and gets punched in the face.) Later, as the outrageous celebrity Strangé in the romantic comedy Boomerang, Jones is clearly in on the joke and having a wonderful time poking fun at her reputation for eccentricity. Her appearance in that movie is delightful, but it’s a shame that none of Jones’ film acting has harnessed the performative power she displays in A One Man Show. Without Goude’s inspired artistic direction, her movie characters, those many depthless doppelgängers of Grace Jones, rapidly descend into unflattering self-parody—none more regrettable than Christoph/Christine, a circus performer Jones plays in the TV movie Wolf Girl, whose act makes an ugly mockery of those who live in the vast, unrecognized, but by no means demilitarized territory between the two hegemonic continents of gender.

a view to a kill 1985
A poster for A View to a Kill, released in 1985.

Although Goude and Jones’ romantic relationship was dead, its ghost haunted both of their careers. Jones’ next studio album, Slave to the Rhythm, consists of eight variations on the eponymous song, interweaved with recordings of Jones being interviewed by Paul Morley and of actor Ian McShane reading from Goude’s book Jungle Fever, which was published shortly before the album’s release. The lyrics, which were written by the album’s producer, Trevor Horn, and several of his colleagues, are vague enough to permit multiple interpretations—equally suitable for a ballad about the trauma and drudgery of forced labor (“Sing out loud the chain gang song”) or an anodyne dance track (“Keep it up, keep it up!”). Although Jones was still signed to the label that released her last three albums, Island Records, her part in the creation of Slave to the Rhythm was more similar to her input on her disco albums than to the work she did with Blackwell and the Compass Point All Stars. She would drop into the studio during breaks from filming, while Horn fiddled endlessly with synthesizers and syncopation. Although Jones’ singing is confident and impressive, credit for the intriguing beauty of the album can be claimed more fairly by its producer than by the performer. Still, even if Horn’s production often obfuscates Grace Jones the singer’s voice, Grace Jones the myth shines more clearly than ever in the fog of mystery generated by Goude’s alternately deifying and degrading words.

Jungle Fever traces the arc of Jean-Paul Goude’s lifelong obsession with people whose skin is darker than his. Even as a child, growing up in a suburb in the 1940s, Goude already displayed signs of this interest. He recalls envying the Indian child actor Sabu, who starred in film adaptations of Rudyard Kipling stories like Jungle Book and Elephant Boy, and gazing in wonder at “black wild men” displayed in cages at the Foire du Trône. Once, while riding the bus with his mother, he took the hand of a stranger, a “beautiful African man,” and kissed it. Goude soon graduated from doodling Indian actors to photographing Puerto Rican boxers and black models, whom he also often dated. The book includes an advertisement for fake scars Goude designed for his then-girlfriend, touting their ability to “emphasize the savage aesthetics of the face.” There are also several photographs of his next girlfriend, Toukie Smith, whom Goude describes as a “primitive voluptuous girl-horse.” Scattered among the professional images are a multitude of sketches of round, brown asses. “I had always admired black women’s backsides, the ones who looked like racehorses,” Goude explains.

About a third of the book is taken up by the many pictures Goude photographed, painted, and drew of Jones. One of the earliest, created in 1978 to accompany a New York Magazine profile, twists Jones into an impossible pose, a reinterpretation of the arabesque ballet position. (Both Goude and his mother were ballet dancers.) To create the image, Goude cut up and combined several photographs of Jones in various approximations of the position, then painted over the seams to produce a unified illusion. The artist had developed this technique in his earlier work with Smith, and continued to use it throughout his career to glaze the skin, tighten the waistlines, and balloon the backsides of his models—a pre-Photoshop premonition of the contemporary ubiquity of digitally perfected women.

jungle fever arabesque 2
“Nigger Arabesque,” 1978. (According to Goude, Jones chose the title.)

Another early photo captures one of the first shows Goude stage-designed for Jones, a Halloween night performance at New York’s Roseland Ballroom featuring Puerto Rican percussionists, professional boxers, and a caged tiger. After a dramatic cutting of the lights and music, Jones took the tiger’s place, singing surrounded by chunks of meat beneath a label reading, “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.” A version of this image mars the book jacket, serving much the same purpose as the Parental Advisory labels once affixed to CDs deemed to contain profane or offensive lyrics. Another particularly disgusting image shows a black child standing on a porch, lifting her red polka-dotted dress to expose herself to the camera. Goude calls this picture “Grace at seven, imagined.” Because Jones is a black woman, the artist assumes she has been hypersexual since the moment of her birth. Because his model is a black child, he thinks nothing of the harm that coercing her into posing for this photograph could cause. The most hideous image in a book full of them may be “Coal-Black and the Seven Dwarfs,” a still from a television commercial. Jones, wearing a bright red semi-circle headdress and clutching a microphone, is displayed atop a large black column. She points to her left, where, arranged along the steps of an oversized white staircase, seven men in blackface kneel and stretch their arms toward her worshipfully. This picture scares me, and it pains me to describe it here. But it is important to reckon with such imagery because it reveals the malice that always undergirds the so-called love that men like Goude feel for black women: like the men in the picture, whose painted smiles put a friendly face on racist mockery, Goude masks contempt with adoration.

Jungle Fever places violent imagery like “Coal-Black” and “Grace at seven” next to some of the most empowering depictions of Jones ever created. A version of the Warm Leatherette album cover is included. The image that was used as the cover for Nightclubbing, which Goude entitled “Blue-black in black on brown,” claims the book’s final page. Elsewhere, Goude shares the intent behind the image: “Black, shiny, muscular people are aerodynamic in design,” he writes. “It was to emphasize this belief that I painted Grace Jones blue-black.” Although Goude’s interpretation does not preclude alternative, more liberatory analyses of the image, once one is aware of Goude’s persistent, obsessive fetishization of the black female body, even his most satisfying work leaves the unpleasant aftertaste of exoticism and dehumanization. Always thrifty with his pictures, Goude recycled many of them, including “Grace at seven” and the Roseland shot of the singer in a cage, into the opening montage of A One Man Show. All of Goude’s art is inextricable from the racist, prurient impulses that animated the artist. Of course, this does not mean that his work should be discarded, only that, like all potentially harmful art, it should be placed in the proper context and understood as part of a long and ignominious tradition.

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