File puptcrit/puptcrit.0707, message 253

Date: Sat, 28 Jul 2007 13:20:35 -0700
Subject: Re: [Puptcrit] A Question re: puppetry and racial problems

To amplify Alan Cook's concern here is the text 
of the cancellation notice I received from the 
California Afrrican American Museum with respect 
to Discovering Chessé a retrospective exhibit 
that I had been planning with them over the last 
two years.

	To bring you up to date my father when he 
died in 1991 left behind over 900 works of art. 
Much of the work he he did before 1950 concerned 
Black subject matter reflecting his upbringing in 
New Orleans where he was born in 1900. That he 
was of mixed blood was rarely discussed in any 
detail in the family and through research after 
his death the census rolls had he and his family 
listed Black in 1900, Mulato in 1920 and White 
thereafter. Prior to going to CAAM  several Black 
of my father's were being considered for purchase 
by the LA Museum of Art who subsequently declined
purchasing any of them unless my father's name 
was listed on an official register of Black 
African America Artists (To see his art go to More simply stated my father 
was not quite black enough for consideration by 
the Museums. The fact that he was a puppeteer as 
well does not sit well with some museums either 
and dealers found that it lessened his perception 
as a fine artist.

Ben Fisler who is a black instructor at a 
community college in Maryland  wrote a PHD on the 
The Phenomenology of Racialism: Blackface 
Puppetry in America 1872-1939.
In it he discusses my fathers 1928 marionette 
production of Emperor Jones in a very insightful 
way and brings up the problem of racial identity. 
He had this to say in response to the 
cancellation of the exhibit:

Hi Bruce,

I join those in expressing my regret at CAAM's 
decision, of course.  Do keep me posted as to the 
Ogden museum's interest as it manifests, if 
indeed it does.

CAAM takes a rather extreme view of identity as a 
matter of choice, which I find disturbing.  While 
it is true that genetically speaking, race is 
nothing but a collection of surface 
characteristics (pigment and cartilage) that 
people define as being "black" or "Asian," CAAM's 
board seems to believe that we have absolute 
freedom in the world to choose our race.  It 
seems to ignore the fact that to a great degree, 
our racial identity is thrust upon us.  The only 
reason Ralph was able to "pass" (for lack of a 
better term) as a white man was that others 
looked at his skin color and facial 
characteristics and did not find trademarks of 
blackness.  So, to reduce his experience to "he 
chose to be white" is to ignore the reality that 
a few small differences within genetic 
probabilities and he would not have been able to 
make that choice.  His experience as a man of 
mixed race is significant, even if one argues 
that he never spoke publicly to his concerns, 
social, artistic, or whatnot, as a black man. 
It's also a fallacy to derive intent from any 
artist's works, and it seems like CAAM believes 
they are qualified to know Ralph intentions, when 
they claim that he only chose black subjects for 
their narrative appeal, and not in order to 
explore his identity.  It all reminds me of 
speakers who claim that Barak Obama isn't really 
African American because he's the descendent of 
immigrant Africans rather than former enslaved 
persons.  It is true that his experience is 
different from other African Americans, but to 
believe that he can live in this society his 
entire life and not have to deal with the burdens 
of enslavement and segregation, and the social 
prejudices of all races who perceive him as a 
black man, is so naive as to border on delusion. 
CAAM is making a bigger mistake than just 
rejecting one exhibition here.  They are 
rejecting the experience of every mixed or black 
American in our history who tried to or succeeded 
in passing as a pure white man.  I really had 
thought that art history and criticism had gotten 
past the "you're with us politically or you're 
against us politically" attitude of the 1980s, 
that demanded a clearly articulate agenda 
revealed in any art that dealt with identity. 
Obviously, CAAM has chosen to maintain this 
rather simplistic view of human experience and 
artistic expression.  Hopefully, another 
foundation will understand racial identity with a 
bit more complexity.

In the meantime, may I have your permission to 
discuss the exhibition with Judy Markowitz, the 
performing arts exhibitionist and librarian at 
the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center?  CSPAC 
has done quite a bit of work supporting the 
puppetry arts and might also be a venue for the 

Obviously, if John Bell or Alan Cook's 
suggestions bear fruit, it would be better to 
have the project still happen at CAAM or happen 
at a venue whose primary mission lines up more 
neatly.  But, John is likely to be too busy to 
help much and while Alan may have a point about 
broadening the scope of the project, I got the 
impression from our phone conversation that you 
don't want to pigeon hole your father's work in a 
way that distorts the legacy.  I'm not sure 
attempting to hammer your father's peg into the 
ill-conceived hole CAAM has designed will be 
anything but counterproductive.

Thanks for including me in your efforts and I 
remain your humble servant in any way I can. 
It's certainly given me plenty of material for my 
first book!


Dr. Ben Fisler
Instructor, Drama
Harford Community College
401 Thomas Run Road
Bel Air MD 21015


July 10, 2007

Mr. Bruce Chessé
Chessé Arts Ltd.
P.O. Box 15203
Portland, OR 97293

Re: Cancellation of the Discovering Chessé Exhibition

Dear Mr. Chessé,

As you know, the California African American 
Museum (CAAM) is an institution with a mission to 
research, collect and preserve African American 
culture.  Part of that mission is to focus on the 
exceptional work of African American artists, and 
specifically how their contributions have and do 
influence the American and world experience. 
With such a mission, CAAM must consider the work 
of potential exhibitions as an extension of our 
voice. What we say, who we endorse and how we 
mount and promote artists undergoes great 
scrutiny, internally and externally.   It has 
been a long and arduous effort on the part of our 
curatorial team trying to get at the heart and 
soul of the Discovering Chessé exhibition as 
originally premised.  It is after much discussion 
and with a sense of loss that I write to share 
with you that CAAM will not be presenting the 
Discovering Chessé exhibition.  We are 
simultaneously notifying the National Endowment 
for the Arts (NEA) that we have reached the 
unfortunate conclusion that we no longer have a 
basis for continuing our efforts to present this 
exhibition.  The following explains our reasons 
for this decision.

In submitting our initial application to the 
NEA's American Masters program, our early 
suppositions were based on preliminary reviews of 
art work, and several conversations with you 
which left us with the impression that Ralph 
Chessé was not only a strong artist, but a man 
whose African American ancestry could be found 
reflected in his art.  As we shared our written 
descriptions with you, it could be seen that we 
at CAAM were of the understanding that his 
paintings, sculptures, and even some of his 
marionettes were inspired by that ancestry.  We 
speculated that his work might have been 
influenced by the complex social issues that he 
may have encountered as a light-skinned Black man 
born in 1900 New Orleans.  It was upon these 
premises that our grant application was submitted 
to the NEA.  However, subsequent and more 
extensive discussions with you and in our review 
of the records have found that in the case of 
Ralph Chessé there is scant evidence in his 
paintings, sculpture or marionettes that confirms 
that he was unsure of his identity or that he was 
in fact struggling with issues of race or seeking 
to portray his ancestry as African American in 
his work.  While he may have utilized "Negro 
subject matter" in some of his work, it was only 
that "subject matter."

Although the census records you provided do 
indicate that Ralph Chessé had blood relatives 
identified as "colored", Ralph Chessé was not so 
identified in the records.  Of course, we realize 
that the lack of any such identification is not 
dispositive for these same census records can 
also be used to confirm that Chessé was at least 
multi-racial.  The problem is that there is 
equally strong evidence that Ralph Chessé did not 
see himself as multi-racial or colored.  Even on 
the official website you 
have written, "As happens in many mixed families, 
some identified with the French white culture and 
some identified with the black culture and 
strengthened those genes.  Chessés fought in 
black regiments during the civil war.  Jim Crow 
split families and those that could pass as white 
did so for reasons, unknown to me.  My fathers 
[sic] family chose to identify with their French 
heritage and all married Caucasians."  Frankly, 
from our research we have to agree with your 
conclusion.  We could find no evidence that Ralph 
Chessé ever referred to himself or his family 
members as being colored or Negro.  The use of 
the word "Creole" for him was strictly linked to 
the old definition as being of French European 
descent.  By your own admission, it was not 
something talked about in your family except that 
your father routinely identified himself as 
French Creole, exclusively, a descendent of 
French settlers in New Orleans. 

  In his own writings, Ralph Chessé only spoke of 
himself as French Creole.  He even spoke of the 
personality of his younger sister, Leslie Chessé 
in European terms, as a "throw back to our Irish 
ancestry..." [The Marionette Actor, by Ralph 
Chessé, p. 29].  When he wrote about his work 
depicting Negroes, Ralph Chessé never appears to 
identify himself as being a member of the race 
about which he was painting.  It was simply 
"subject matter."  You shared with us, the 1944 
letter Ralph Chessé wrote to Grace Morley, the 
founder of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 
asking Dr. Morley to consider his work for an 
exhibition.  While Ralph Chessé explained to Dr. 
Morley that the subject of his submitted 
paintings "are Negro," he also refers to his 
subjects as "them." In no way did Ralph Chessé 
ever suggest that he was one of "them" or that 
the Negro as a subject of his paintings is 
anything other than an early recollection of a 
South that was full of "rich color and simple 
primitive qualities" offering "vast material for 
interpretation."  Without getting into a critical 
analysis of Ralph Chessé's paradigm of the Negro 
as a source for exploring primitivism, what is 
abundantly clear is that Ralph Chessé did not see 
himself as "the Negro" of which he painted.  His 
lack of  multi-racial identification refutes 
every premise of the exhibition that we had 
proposed to the NEA, that Chessé was an artist 
grappling with issues of racial heritage, or that 
he was seeking to portray a personal African 
American heritage in his work.

We are not disputing the quality of the paintings 
we reviewed, but rather making clear that within 
our museum context and mission, our early 
supposition that Ralph Chessé's art reflected his 
attempt to come to terms with his African 
American identity was not accurate.  Even if we 
were to define Ralph Chessé as being African 
American according to the old "one drop of black 
blood" rule, for CAAM this matter ultimately 
boils down to an issue of moral integrity for our 
institution:  Whether it was appropriate, and 
important enough, within the context of the show 
we had proposed to the NEA, to strip Ralph Chessé 
of his right to self-identification.  Black 
racial identity has been historically defined by 
whites, and, too often solely for the purpose of 
imposing some restrictive negative condition. The 
right of self-definition was routinely denied 
Americans of Black African descent.  We are not 
blind to the realities that race and racism play 
in our society nor are we suggesting that there 
is not a place for discussion and analysis of the 
issues of racial identity in our museum.  Quite 
the contrary, we believe strongly that race will 
continue to be for many years to come an 
extremely important topic requiring extensive 
analysis and presentation, but this is not the 
right circumstance for that discussion.  In this 
instance, to go forward with Discovering Chessé 
as a visual arts exhibition about the work of an 
African American artist, would mean that the 
California African American Museum would have to 
actively choose to perpetuate the practice of 
imposing an unwanted racial classification on 
Ralph Chessé for the purpose of having him 
identified as an African American.  This is not a 
position that we are willing to take.  No matter 
what interpretation can be made of the census 
records, it is clearer that Ralph Chessé was not 
unsure of his racial identity or struggling with 
issues of race in his artistic presentations. 
Ralph Chessé made a choice.  He may have been 
multi-racial, but even your confirmation that his 
death certificate listed him as Caucasian is 
evidence of how he chose to be identified.  It 
was not as an African American.   Under these 
circumstances we feel we have a moral obligation 
to stand by Ralph Chessé's right to 
self-identification, and in this case to be 
French Creole if that is what he wanted to be. 
That having been said, it became impossible to 
continue the Discovering Chessé exhibition under 
our NEA grant and thus, we have removed the show 
from our exhibition calendar.

We are prepared to send your art work back to 
you.  You will find attached a list of the works 
of Ralph Chessé that are currently in our 
possession.  We have packed and prepared these 
works to be returned to you via insured and 
climate controlled ground transportation.  You 
will be contacted by our Registrar, Drew Talley 
on or before July 16, 2007, who will call to 
confirm the address to which the works will be 
returned and to set up a delivery date.  Should 
you wish to speak to me directly prior to that 
date, you may feel free to contact me at (213) 
744-7513 or via email at

Please know that this has not been an easy 
decision for us and thank you for the interest 
you have shown in the California African American 
Museum.  We have come to know you personally and 
respect your devotion to the memory of your 
father and to the power of his art. We understand 
that this decision will be a disappointment for 
you as well.    I wish it could be different, but 
we are confident that Ralph Chesse's work will 
find a place for others to discover its 
importance in other venues with less stringent 
processes of representation.

With deep respect,

Charmaine Jefferson
Executive Director, California African American Museum
Executive Vice President, Friends, the Foundation 
of the California African American Museum

Cc:	Dr. Jill Moniz, Program Manager, Visual Arts Curator
	Dr. Christopher Jimenez y West, History Curator
	Drew Talley, Registrar
	Brenda Tyson, Managing Director, Friends Foundation of the CAAM

>I was sorry to hear that the California African 
>American Museum in Exposition Park, Los Angeles 
>decided not to have a Ralph Chesse retrospective 
>exhibit---it could have shed light on past 
>problems in American History.
>I would appreciate any comments from African 
>American puppeteers about financial survival in 
>puppetry, if any challenges came up, etc. Any 
>comments on puppetry as a means of addressing 
>social/racial problems in our culture also 
>I am considering an essay from puppetry aspects. 
>What is a stereotype puppet, what is a folk art 
>puppet (the two different categories have been 
>confused in the past), what is a non-stereotype 
>All related thoughts welcome.
>As previously mentioned, while installing the 
>puppet exhibit at St Paul  Central Public 
>Library in June 2007, an African American 
>library patron expressed pleasure that the 
>exhibit INCLUDED 2 Black Puppets.
>List address:
>Admin interface:
List address:
Admin interface:


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