Selika, Mystery of the Belle Epoque

From The Paris Review:

Selika Lazevski exists in six black-and-white photographs and nowhere else. I first saw her when those six studio portraits appeared on Tumblr in 2012. They quickly spread around the Internet as readers asked, Who is she? But although I’ve searched for years, every pin I place to try to map the real woman snaps and slides out of place, multiplying new leads that take me nowhere. I wrote a blog post about her name, guessed the wrong photographer, and saw my error replicate around the Internet, too, even turning up in the publicity materials for a short film about Selika. This much I do know: she was a black amazone in Belle Epoque Paris, a city where black “Amazons” were shown in a human zoo; she was a celebrity who left no other trace than these six tokens of her celebrity; she was a horsewoman without a horse, a power hinted at but not granted.

. . . .

Most images of black women in nineteenth-century France show slaves, sexualized nudes, or bare-breasted ethnographic curiosities. Who is this anomaly, Selika, and why, as she vaults into an equestrian world where sex, breeding, and power combine, has she no horse?

The photographs, now in the collection of the French Ministry of Culture, were taken in 1891 at the studio of Paul Nadar, son of the more famous photographer and writer Félix. Nadar fils was an artist who combined both experimental techniques—photography from a hot-air balloon—and lucrative commercial photography. His studio at rue d’Anjou turned out misty portraits of Paris celebrities. The prints were sold on cartes de visite—cabinet cards—to fans or to shopkeepers, who used them in their window displays. The accounts and visitor books for Studio Nadar are lost, but in any case, Paul Nadar probably did not photograph Selika, and neither did his father, Félix, as I’d once mistakenly guessed. An anonymous assistant is the most likely portraitist. The surviving notes that accompany the negatives state all I know about Selika: she was a horsewoman who rode haute école—the most prestigious role for a female performer—at the fashionable Nouveau Cirque on the rue Saint-Honoré. But even this information is unreliable. Her name, pinned in the records, slips and multiplies: the Ministry of Culture lists her as Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, and Laszewski.

. . . .

Valli (or Valle) de (or di) Laszewski (his preferred spelling, though there is also Laschewsky, Lasjewski, and Laczewski) and his French wife, Lara (or Laura), were haute-école riders and liberty-horse trainers at the Nouveau Cirque in 1891. Laszewski came from Poland, and he and Lara (sometimes called Mlle Laszewska) married in Riga in 1888. Though the Nouveau Cirque, with its facade and grand staircase by Garnier, was one of the most elegant and celebrated of Paris’s circuses and the Laszewskis worked there for more than a decade, they did not leave much of a mark on circus history, which is, in any case, a patchy, elusive story pieced together from ephemera and holed with lost oral accounts. There is newspaper praise for Madame on her pale palomino Trakehner stallion, Louis D’Or, and there are accounts of Valli stopping a runaway horse in the street or standing on the backs of two horses as he drove twenty-seven more before him at a gallop around the Olympia arena in London. But there is nothing about the young women he might have trained to ride haute école and who, by circus custom, could have taken his surname.

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If I shift to Gallica, the Bibliothèque National’s electronic resource site, I can find thousands of Sélikas who are not Selika. Sélika was the heroine of an opera called Vasco de Gama, which the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was writing when he died in Paris in 1864. His friend François-Joseph Fétis tidied up the material and published it as L’Africaine, transforming the heroine from Meyerbeer’s Hindu princess to a black African queen enslaved by and in love with da Gama. (Not even fiction fixes Selika’s identity.) Sélika saves the Portuguese explorer’s life and returns with him to her island home, where she is celebrated as a queen—although on seeing the love da Gama has for a Portuguese woman, she allows him to leave with her, then kills herself by inhaling poisonous blossom. The opera was popular, and Sélika multiplied into new forms. She was, word searches tell me, a pedigree dog; a thoroughbred broodmare; a scarf color; a ship; a flavor of ice cream bombe (curaçao and crushed pralines); the alabaster-skinned, lion-taming heroine of a racy novel; and the adopted name of the first black person to perform at the White House, the coloratura soprano Marie Selika Williams. To a black American woman born in a time of slavery, Selika meant a queen, a black woman ennobled; to French sportsmen, Escoffier, and authors of cheap novels seeking shorthand, Selika was darkness, a touch of the exotic, a meeting of animal and female.

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The first women to perform on horseback in the circus were trick riders and acrobats with tantalizingly short skirts, bare arms, and exposed pantaloons. In the 1830s, when the sidesaddle was reinvented, some women moved on to the haute école, the striking, disciplined “equestrian ballet” that had evolved from Xenophon’s On Horsemanship to the power play of early-modern court carousels and cavalry-school drills. These écuyères de haute école were among the first women to undertake this most masculine and prestigious of equestrian sports as professionals, and they did it à l’amazone (sidesaddle), en amazone (in a riding habit), and as amazones (the savage, romantic warriors of the Bronze Age transformed into brave but genteel sportswomen). To the dance steps of the passage and the skipping one-tempi canter, the horse and écuyère added perilous stunts: the horse walking on its hind legs as its mistress lay on his back, her hair mingling with his tail; the horse and amazone jumping high hurdles crammed onto a sloping eight-meter-square stage at the Folies Bergère; the horse skipping a rope turned by its rider; the horse throwing itself up and kicking out in the most demanding of the airs above ground, the goat-leap capriole, at the tap of its mistress’s whip and shift of her seat.

In sidesaddle, a woman is masculine and military above the waist—see Selika’s top hat and double-breasted bumfreezer jacket—and beneath the flowing skirts or apron of her habit she wears breeches and boots. (“Horsewomen’s boots” were also fashionable for men in Paris.) She grips the “leaping horn” or split pommel between her knees instead of straddling the horse as the real Amazons did on the Eurasian steppes. On the surface, she is poised like a swan on water, as if perched gingerly on a man’s lap, but below, she is all muscle. To replace her absent leg, she carries the whip or cane. A featherlight, most ladylike of dommes, she makes the horse obey and grunt as he skips and high steps in the pas espagnole.

. . . .

This male gaze was doubled: the gentlemen judged the piaffe and volte and weighed the horse flesh, and they measured the women’s flesh, too, for their busts, the span of their waists, the sadness or passion in their eyes, the queue of admirers bringing flowers and whips to the stage door. There were “two great seductions, woman and the horse,” according to the Baron d’Etreillis. And what, the journalist Hugues le Roux posed, of “the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing”? Mademoiselle wielded the whip, but not the power.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

4 thoughts on “Selika, Mystery of the Belle Epoque”

  1. Interesting mystery, suitable for a period piece I suppose.
    I’m thinking they’re looking in the wrong set of records.
    In their place, I’d look into upper crust Haitians (daughters) and colonial Africa nouveau riche (mistress or daughter) on holiday rather than residents.
    The surname might be real or it might be camouflage to protect the “patron” if colonials. She might actually have been an accomplished rider…in her native land.
    Lots of things flew under the official radar in pre-internet times.

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