Josephine Baker in Belgrade and Zagreb: Opposing Receptions to European Entertainment in Interwar Yugoslavia

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:20 PM
Room 201 (Hilton Atlanta)
Jovana Babovic, Louisiana Tech University
On her first tour of Yugoslavia in 1929, Josephine Baker visited only two cities – Belgrade, the state capital, and Zagreb. In light of her long-awaited performance in Belgrade, Baker’s famous “banana dance” was the talk of the town, the city’s public had already read her memoirs as serialized feuilletons in the daily newspaper Novosti (News) in 1928, and the entire city appeared to be dancing the Charleston. During her stay in the capital, sold-out audiences cheered on Baker by night and crowds of urbanites trailed her around the city by day. Despite some objections from church leaders, Baker was ultimately celebrated in Belgrade. Her visit to Zagreb, a mere few days later, garnered an entirely different response: the performer was pelleted with beets upon arrival at the rail station, the venue hosting her show swarmed with protesters, and Baker was eventually booed off the stage during her first appearance. A second performance scheduled for the following night was cancelled. In this paper, I explore how the visit of the African-American performer stirred the imagination of residents in interwar Yugoslavia and why the responses in Belgrade and Zagreb we so starkly opposing. I argue the reshuffled urban hierarchy of Southeastern Europe played a key role. The Europeanization process underway in the Yugoslav capital primed residents in Belgrade to embrace entertainers like Baker who evoked “metropolitan” or “European” culture. In Zagreb, a once central Austro-Hungarian urban center demoted to a regional outpost within Yugoslavia, Baker’s rejection was evocative of the elite investment in preserving the city’s legacy of “high” culture. Josephine Baker’s visit to interwar Yugoslavia sparked debates about gender, race, and performance but, most of all, I suggest that it questioned the place of Europe within the unified state.