Who’s That Lady?

The post below is somewhat out of date. My essay on Selika was published by the Paris Review Daily on 9 February 2018, and can be found here.

Here’s a post listing the research undertaken about Selika and giving pointers for further investigation.


This lady has been Tumblring around the internet lately, and she’d crossed my path a couple of times before Riding Aside asked the obvious question: who is she?

And Marie answered in the comments. Selika Lazevski. She provided a link to a French government website which gave two images of Selika and stated that she’s an écuyère “of haute école” – might this mean that she’s one of the women I’ve blogged about previously who rode high-school dressage in French circuses in the nineteenth century (I was inspired by Hilda Nelson’s recent book)? Selika isn’t mentioned in this Xenophon Press title. Time to Google.

Very few hits other than the photoshoot (by Atelier Nadar, ie Paul Nadar in 1891). She’s not in Baron de Vaux’s history of horsemen and women in the circus. And that’s it… further investigation is required. I think I know where to look, although I’d have to be in the right library.

Sélika is the name of the heroine of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1865 opera, L’Africaine, and was adopted as a stage name by the first black woman to sing at the White House, the coloratura soprano Madame Marie Selika Williams. According to this site, the opera was hugely popular among African Americans, and Selika became a fashionable name. Popular among horse owners too: a filly called Selika won the Kentucky Oaks in 1894.

UPDATE: hello all Selika seekers! Earlier this year I used a couple of spare hours in the British Library to search old newspaper/magazine texts and indexes of circus performers, but sadly there was no sign of Selika. I’ll keep on hunting when I have time and resources.

FURTHER UPDATE: here’s a long Guardian piece on Félix Nadar, whose son Paul was probably Sélika’s actual photographer – a fascinating overview of both the man and of Paris in that era. No mention of Selika in the review, but if anyone can get a hold of a copy of the book, perhaps she gets a mention.


ANOTHER UPDATE: 13/9/2016 still no sign of an equestrienne called Selika, but I have just learned about a Black British circus horseman/écuyer of the nineteenth century called Pablo Fanque – he even comes from my home town of Norwich. I’d love to write something about him when I have more time, but for now here’s a lovingly tended Wikipedia page.

OCTOBER 2016 UPDATE: A Livejournal post claims that The Equestrian filmmaker Sybil H Mair is making a film about Selika starring French actress Karidja Touré called The Adventures of Selika.

FEBRUARY 2017 UPDATE: I’ve started to research the life of the real Selika.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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