Raven Chanticleer

Museum founder who 'took wax to the max'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Raven Chanticleer, dancer, designer and artist: born Woodruff, South Carolina 13 September 1928; died New York 31 March 2002.

Manhattan is rich in eccentric spaces and improbable places , but few of its venues could match the Harlem African-American Wax and History Museum for sheer charmed oddity. Located just down the hill from Columbia University, but in the very different social milieu of West 115th street, the museum was essentially the basement of a personal residence; in fact it operated as a private institution at the whim of its founder and owner, the impresario Raven Chanticleer.

It was the unique flavour of Chanticleer and his persona that made a visit to his museum such a special occasion. Chanticleer had been inspired to create a waxwork display of famed African-Americans after a visit to Madame Tussaud's in London, where he noted the singular lack of black faces and according to shaky legend (for Marie Tussaud died in 1850) reprimanded "Madame" herself about this overt omission. Returning to New York from this revelatory European jaunt Chanticleer set about creating his own wax versions of African-American notables, including Malcolm X, Josephine Baker, Martin Luther King and even Raven Chanticleer.

The fashioning of these figures was a laborious and skilful process which included the creation of all their clothes, props and effects, sewn and styled by the man himself. Each figure, not least Madonna in "blackface", took a full month, starting from the feet up with papier-maché and plaster. Chanticleer had even embarked on a book about his waxwork techniques to be entitled "Taking Wax to the Max". For the genius of Chanticleer was to stress not authenticity or likeness but rather a sort of approximate simulacra of these celebrities, conjured as much by his spirited explanations and comments as by any tangential facial resemblance.

Thus a tour of Chanticleer's theme-park, or rather theme-room, was essentially a tour of his own life story, his colourful past and sometimes surprising connections to these stars. There might be other all-black wax museums (indeed Great Blacks in Wax of Baltimore refutes Chanticleer's claim that he had created the first in 1985) and doubtless the statues are more realistic, more professional, more recognisable, but these other institutions lack one essential ingredient, the presence of Raven Chanticleer himself.

Thus, whilst visitors were trying to figure out whether that could really be Duke Ellington looking quite so pugnacious, or a curiously small Magic Johnson, Chanticleer would amuse and entertain with his extremely elegant and famously forceful diction. The two dozen wax statues and his numerous paintings of black life tended to take up less time than Chanticleer's own tales of his days at the Sorbonne, his fashion career and various precocious prizes.

Certain cultures are known for their larger-than-life characters, and in the African-American tradition as in the Irish, the Welsh or the Hebrew, the dazzling dandy, the showman and trickster, the schmoozer and self-mythologist are much loved essentials. Thus it would be a cliché to say that Raven Chanticleer's most striking creation was himself and it would be a slight to this creation to dwell on factual bones, for surely his heady brew of anecdote and association was far richer than any "truth".

His parents may well have been sharecroppers in South Carolina and his real name was probably James Watson but his own version claimed a mixed Barbadian-Haitian ancestry firmly rooted in the Harlem black bourgeoisie. He almost certainly studied abroad as well as at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in NY and had a successful career designing costumes for his own dance troupe, the Raven Chanticleer Dancers. Chanticleer creations were stocked by a variety of fashion boutiques including Bergdorf Goodman and his outrageous outfits from the Seventies featuring transparent panels and even bin liners launched a certain hi-tech punk look, though his speciality was designing for women of a certain size.

Chanticleer bought his elegant brownstone in its then less than elegant environment back in 1985, back when Harlem still really was Harlem and just saying the word "gentrification" guaranteed a crack-head mugging. Chanticleer was a central, immediately noticeable figure in the local civic politics of what he called "Harlem Village" and crucial, in his own eccentric and unlikely manner, to the improving fortunes of that area. Chanticleer not only built his own museum with his bare hands, he also created a non- profit-making organisation, the Learning Tree, to distribute toys amongst deprived neighbouring children. He believed above all else in education and that was the real purpose of his wax museum, to stir African-American pride and teach the crucial lessons of responsibility, fiscal and personal.

No, perhaps he believed above all else in Raven Chanticleer, and quite rightly. As he said regarding his own imposing waxwork in his own museum, it was there "just in case something should happen to me. If they didn't carry out my wishes and my dreams of this wax museum I would come back and haunt the hell out of them."

Adrian Dannatt