When the French Prime Minister Gaston Doumergue confides in André Citroën that the Republic needs a liaison between the African French colonies and Madagascar, an island isolated in the Indian Ocean, the French engineer quickly gets to work. By then, the two giants of French car manufacturing, Renault and Citroën, were in a tight race to prove their vehicles had the technical endurance to withstand the harsh conditions of Sahara.
Shortly thereafter, on October 28, 1924, Citroën departs for a very ambitious expedition. They call it the Black Journey (La croisière noire). Set to traverse the African continent, from Algeria to Madagascar, it’s considered by many a “suicide mission”. Eight Citroën caterpillars (half-track cars) transport a team of 24 people over 28 000 km, among them ethnologists, cartographers, geographers, geologists, zoologists, anthropologists. Also, one painter: Alexandre Jacovleff.
Alexandre Jacovleff (1887 – 1938), a Russian artist that moved to France in his 30s and gained French citizenship, had the task to document the expedition through his art. Being the first painter to arrive in Central Africa, he aroused the curiosity of Africans and helped them to open up and slowly trust the expedition crew. By then, the Africans still remembered the blood shedding caused by the French colonialists and they were initially extremely hostile to the foreigners. Through his art, Jacovleff found common ground with the tribes he encountered, every chief asking him to do their portraits. Whether chieftains or simple children, the Africans were delighted to pose for Jacovleff, amazed by his skill and the speed with which he worked.
In spite of the colonial and capitalistic allure of the expedition, Jacovleff’s portraits and figure drawings carried a sympathetic, dignified view of his subjects. Such was the case for Banda Woman with a Child (1926), a portrait of a pregnant African woman, almost completely naked, carrying and breastfeeding an infant. The woman is looking gleeful and leaning forward. Her body pose and the tilted perspective give the impression of dance and movement, especially considering that the Banda people – an ethnic group across Central Africa – were known for their musical celebrations.
Alexandre Jacovleff ended up completing over 400 paintings and drawings during the October 1924 – June 1925 journey and in 1926 he was awarded with the Legion of Honor medal from the French government.