“Whistler left America in order to remain an artist and Mr. Sargent to become one”
…Oscar Wilde, 'In Conversation'
There was a time in Paris in the late 90’s through the beginning of the new millennium when the African American culture in Paris was still cool and swinging. The black Paris or 'Paris Noir' of yesteryear was no longer there. Josephine Baker wasn’t there. Bricktop wasn’t there. Langston Hughes wasn’t there, nor was the likes of Isadora Duncan, Hazel Scott, Gordon Heath, Zaidee Jackson, Bessie Miller and so many others who flourished generations before. The breed from the fabulous 50s - that age of the 'american novelists' was not there. Jimmy Baldwin had left the scene many years earlier, and the spirit of Richard Wright’s 'protest literature' was felt though the occasional manifestation of his daughter. Ed Clark's presence and tutelage was also occasioned on his summer residencies at Cite des Arts, with the rare visit by Herbert Gentry in his waning years.
But the spirit of Paris had changed. The great writers, painters, sculptors, and other visual artists whose sojourn made Paris the epicenter of the African American artist for over 150 years, were no longer there. A few soirees around town, the most notable by Paris' Grande Dame and 'veritable' diva, Patricia Laplante-Collins, got people together on Saturdays and Sundays evenings and were also venue for the largely 'anglo' communities. Black Americans still gathered at legendary Haynes's restaurant to see Electra Weston's review and to demure Maria's inability to carry on the legacy, while 'Brothers' did there thing at Tanny Stoval's place. The sixth and fifth arrondissements became category destinations for young English speakers from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, who sought an escape from the pressures of inhibited 'anglo' or otherwise puritanical cultures and the seeming burdens of their imaginary and self-proclaimed trust funds, while sponging, leeching, and extinguishing credit across a city whose 'free' spirit overwhelmed their better judgments.
Musical acts throughout Paris included the top end Le Meridien Saturdays where Lionel Hampton played one of his last big gigs and where Ike Turner and his band rocked, but for the paltry imitation of Tina by the long legged red-boned of a lead singer with high cleavage, low voice, and even lower talent. Many other American acts ranging from Delta Blue performers to numerous 'never-hear-of' or 'long-forgotten' super talents visiting from the US. At the other end, the jam sessions at local cafes and péniches throughout the city defined cool for a generation of expats and lost souls who could not afford the 18 to 20 Euro drinks (equivalent French franc) at Le Meridien. It was always a safe bet that just about any 'known' bar in the 5th or 6th, would be crammed with beer guzzling kids from America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada (Canadians were actually allowed to travel to Paris to mis-behave in those days).
Among the throng of the hustle and bustle of Paris, the catacombs of underground night and day life, and the numerous African American artists peddling their singing, dancing, and other art-forms for a hot moment, a distinctive personality who was in fact brilliant painter marveled us all. His original forms and unique narratives were as eclectic as they were sarcastic, and as ingenious as they were poignant. He reminded us of history, reflected the present, and previewed for us, a little of the future. The bad boy of contemporary art, Ealy Mays, was making his presence felt in Paris. He painted spoofs of Aunt Jemima and The Colonel as well as the seriousness of slave catacombs in The Abyss. He painted Mexican peasants as well as Mestizo Kings, and life in West Texas as well as in 1970s New York City. He transformed biblical narratives into the present day, such ‘Eva’ in the Borda Gardens and ‘Eva’ peddling her wares in Guadalajara on eating of the forbidden fruit (as Emperor Maximilian's mistress). He painted the black Mona Lisa and wondered aloud, "If there is life form on Mars?" This he imagined to be elite Amazonian type super-human women with ultra-high intelligence who rule the red planet while laughing at the many curious earthlings attempting to invade in search of aquafied water sources which might support proof of life. His art echoed differences with distinctions while juxtaposing near impossible dreams against their difficult realities through his signature elements of wishbone (aspirations), blue watermelon (element not naturally occurring in nature - imagination versus reality), mousetraps (inherent pitfalls), and the omnipresent Horus Eye (someone is watching).
The idea of a black Pope in the Vatican is nothing new to the man who has been painting them for over 20 years. He revived this series in 2008 as Europe's only effective riposte to upstage America.. though a black Pope would indeed be nothing new at the Vatican if history reflected the truth. But as an expatriate and local Parisian, he also fuses historical contexts in telling Paris stories. Such was the idea behind "Napoleon and the Haitian Pope". Ealy Mays imagined the thought of a black Pope would have caused Napoleon to shrink in his boots. So he painted a towering black Haitian Pope looking down on ”little” Napoleon, reflecting the first monumental deflation of the diminutive dictator's ego by Haitian general Toussaint L'Overture
Ealy Mays is the quintessential artist. His first art show was as an 8 year old Monroe Elementary (Washington DC) student in Art for Kids at the White House of his distant Cousin and fellow Texan President Lyndon B Johnson, whose own father and grandfather, Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr. & Samuel Ealy Johnson Sr., share the family name "Ealy". Mays, a trained medical doctor, abandoned his medical education and family tradition (his father and two brothers are medical doctors) in pursuit of his arts. After a life in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, the man from Wichita Falls Texas has been a local fixture in the Paris art-scene for the last 15 years. He is a painter’s painter for whom art is to be accessible to all. His works glaze museums and galleries worldwide (including his 2005 and 2007 exhibits at the Carrousel du Louvre), local establishments in Paris, Mexico, and the US, as well as the homes of collectors in places as far-fetched as Russia and Australia. With over 45 years of visual arts creation and exhibitions for worldwide audiences, this collection of Ealy Mays's artworks is but a small tribute in retrospect.
......(excerpted from the upcoming book on the life of Ealy Mays by Paul Sinclair)