Surreal Anthropology

Phantom Africa

by Michel Leiris, translated from the French by Brent Hayes Edwards
Seagull, 711 pp., $60.00
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris/© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, ARS, NY/DACS, London/Artimage 2018. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.
Francis Bacon: Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976

On April 15, 1931, a host of Parisian luminaries gathered to attend a boxing match showcasing “Panama” Al Brown—an Afro-Panamanian bantamweight and the sport’s first Latino world champion. If a resurrected Proust had wanted to evoke the social life of Paris at the time, he could have done worse than to focus one of his swirling crowd scenes around this sporting gala. Marcel Mauss, the great sociologist, nephew of Émile Durkheim and well-known author of the brilliant The Gift (Essai sur le don), fresh from giving his first classes as the new chair of sociology at the Collège de France, epitomized the elite of the French academy. Representing the social elite was the Vicomte de Noailles, patron of all the arts. He had commissioned music from Francis Poulenc, financed Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or, and was the first major collector of Salvador Dalí. Accompanying him was his friend and protégé Jean Cocteau, who (astonishingly) was then Panama Al Brown’s boxing manager and (rather less astonishingly) seems to have been one of his client’s many male lovers. Brown was no more a standard pugilist than Cocteau—artist, writer, filmmaker, doyen of the avant-garde—was a traditional manager: he had been a jazz singer in Paris and tap-danced in Josephine Baker’s Revue Nègre.

The bout was a fund-raiser, and a successful one, yielding more than 100,000 francs for a notable cause: Brown announced that he was fighting “to increase the knowledge about and understanding of Africa.” In particular, the event was in support of an expedition across French Africa, stretching more than five thousand miles from Dakar, Senegal, capital of French West Africa, to Djibouti, capital of French Somaliland. Subvention had already arrived from the French parliament, various other French ministries and institutions, and the Rockefeller Foundation, but this mission—at its core a shopping trip that was to last more than a year and a half—would not be cheap. Every franc counted.

The Mission ethnographique et linguistique Dakar–Djibouti was led by the entrepreneurial anthropologist Marcel Griaule and included a couple of trained linguists, a botanist, an ethnomusicologist, an official artist, a fellow with expertise in transportation as well as in film and photography, and a handyman who also served as a nurse, mechanic, cobbler, and barber. Then there was the mission’s “secretary-archivist,” Michel Leiris, who was also in attendance at that Paris gala.

Leiris, not yet thirty, was a curious choice for the position. He was a lightly occupied litterateur: a poet, a critic, and an editor at Georges Bataille’s Surrealist journal Documents, a fantastic mélange of ethnography, archaeology, and music and art criticism, with photographic celebrations of everything from abattoirs to the big toe. Leiris—who had allied himself with André Breton’s…

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