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.
In the first portrait, she stands with her body turned away from the camera but confronts the photographer with her gaze. The backdrop is hazily painted with trees—European deciduous trees in a landscaped park, natural and artificial at once. She wears the respectable tenue sobre of the late-nineteenth-century riding habit: a light-colored top hat and a dark riding jacket that crosses under the breast and is fastened with two rows of three buttons at her waist. A white stock hugs her throat; her strong bare hands emerge from white cuffs. One holds a long cane or whip. The outline of her leg, slightly lifted, is visible through her skirt. She stands before a waist-high couch covered with a shaggy pelt—wolf or bear rather than exotic leopard or tiger. In the second image, she reclines on the fur as comfortably as her short riding corset allows. In the third photograph, the corset is tighter, and her pale habit, which matches the top hat, is wrinkled at the waist. She is almost smiling. In photograph four, she stands, sternly holding the whip at the top of her thighs. Five and six must have been taken at the same time as the first images in the same tenue sobre. Her hands shift position on the whip; her expression tips over into a frown. 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.
The last spelling is closest, but it is not her surname. 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.
There are a few fragile, handwritten cast lists and playbills for the Nouveau Cirque in 1891 in the Archives de Paris, but none of them mention Selika. They include a black clown possibly called Rafael Padilla, who was born a slave in Cuba and fast became a star in Belle Epoque Paris. He renamed himself Chocolat, for the insult Parisians called out to him in the street, and styled himself as a dandy for shows in which his partner, the English clown Foottit, beat and tricked him. The French still say je suis Chocolat for “I am duped.”
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.
Although Selika Laszevski had no real name, she did have a profession—though I can find no evidence in any newspaper, book, or archive that she ever enacted it. 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.
But this is a trio, not a pas de deux. The horsewoman and her mount circle the ring for the pleasure of men, who fill the boxes with their own top hats and double-breasted jackets. They are the sole recorders of notes for newspapers and novels (Goncourt, Daudet, Vallès), and they shoot and pose and purchase the cartes de visite and paint the masterpieces (Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Tissot). At the circus, the horsewoman is watched by the jockey club, the aristocratic equerries of the cavalry school at Saumur, the gentlemen amateurs like Laszewski. They assess the breeding of her horse and the precise configuration of its legs. They eye her whip and her spur; they praise her gentleness as she slips sugar lumps to her mount and pats his neck with a tiny gloved hand. They applaud her effortless ride, her gliding mastery.
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.
Meyerbeer’s Sélika became a broodmare. A series of erotic drawings from around 1890 called Histoire Naturelle (Natural History) includes a picture of two circus horsewomen. Their pale horses stand side by side, their rumps to the viewer. The women wear long, voluminous black habits that flow over both sides of their horses and have their heads turned left in profile. Adjust your eyes and think of that optical illusion of the rabbit head that becomes a duck’s head. Look at the drawing again, and those black habits are hitched up to reveal shapely female human hips (the horses’ quarters), pubic hair (the horses’ docked, curled tails), the cleft between the labia majora (the horses’ buttocks), legs (the horses’ own limbs), and the labia minor between them (the horses’ dangling testicles).
In the northern quarter of the Bois de Boulogne in February 1891, not far from the bridle paths where the fashionable women rode à l’amazone, an Englishman called John H. Hood positioned thirty-eight men and women from the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa in an animal enclosure in the zoological gardens. “Ethnographic exhibitions” were guaranteed money in the pot—crowds were always up a third, more francs clattering through the cash registers. Since one showman brought fourteen “Nubians” as foils to his wild animals in 1877, there had been Samis, Kalmuks, Araucanians, Somalis, Ashantis, and Senegalese. Their appearance was organized by the French government to pique the public’s interest in colonial expansion. The Society for Anthropology came to measure skulls and complain, in 1881, that they were not permitted to examine the genitals of the Tierra del Fuegians.
In January 1891, the Nouveau Cirque’s pantomime was La Cravache (“The Whip”), featuring Chocolat as a servant arrested by a policeman who thinks he is a Somali escaped from the zoological gardens. That year, the zoo offered punters the female Dahomey soldiers, or N’Nonmiton, whom they called Amazons. “These famous warrioresses, strange and legendary, who appear to us like a fantastical vision,” enthused the pamphlet that accompanied the show, “in I know not what troubling vapors of an African mirage, are here, under our eyes, with their picturesque uniforms, their deadly weapons, their dance and their war games, their savage and valiant demeanor.” The N’Nonmiton wore long striped skirts and strings of beads that crisscrossed their torsos, and duly waved scimitars and muskets in drill, while the Parisians watched from outside the enclosure. The previous October, France had defeated Dahomey in a first colonial war.
Pai-Pi-Bri, whose name we do know, was said, “not to lack a certain grace,” and “Goura, the chieftess of the Amazons,” was “a beautiful negress of about twenty-five years old, well proportioned, and who seemed full of dignity,” according to the gentlemen of Le Voleur Illustré who snuck behind the scenes and saw the Dahomey smoking pipes, removed from their backdrop of stage huts, pot plants, and animal skins. “They are the cleanest we’ve seen after the Senegalese.” The president of the republic visited the zoological gardens. Takings were up.
In the second Franco-Dahomey colonial war of 1894, the legionnaires got over their qualms about firing on women and turned machine guns on the N’Nomiton.
It is some time in 1891. Selika stands in the studio in the rue d’Anjou, under the tree bough. She tries the whip against her hand. Her corset pinches. The top hat sits easily on her hair. She lies back as comfortably as she can against the furs. She looks directly at the camera. She does not smile, but her eyes are bright and unwavering. She has no horse. For Selika to be a horsewoman of the haute école, there must have been not just the tenue sobre, not just the jockey-club top hat or the whip in a gloved hand. There must have been a man who stooped to half lift her into the saddle, who held her boot as she slipped it into her stirrup, who offered her his hand to dismount. And other men, white men, to buy tickets and to watch with knowledgeable, scanning eyes, with their groins twitching and their hearts thumping as she and Louis d’Or or Czardas or Pour-Toujours or whatever creature she rode completed that audacious mastery: the piaffe, the passage, the volte.
After these photographs, I can find nothing of Selika, who existed.
Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History and If Wishes Were Horses. She’s currently working on a third book and a series of essays about circus horsewomen in nineteenth-century Paris.