The Appropriation of Traditional African Expression by White Male Artists
by Chim Emuchay·
Cover image description: Korto (deangle mask), Dan artist, Liberia. February 1986. Photo by William Siegmann.
“L'art nègre? Connais pas!” (African art? Never heard of it!)
I think that for this conversation to be had, it is important to understand the context surrounding this topic. Colonialism in Africa started around the 1870s, and by the early 20th century - 1914 to be exact - only Ethiopia, Liberia and the Dervish state (a small part of present-day Somalia) had not been colonized. Not only did the imperial European powers pillage and exploit resources from Africa for political and economic gain, they also looted various artefacts back to their home countries. The list of stolen artefacts is innumerable but some notable examples are the Benin Bronzes of Nigeria looted by the British; the Nefertiti bust and Rosetta stone of Egypt looted by Germany and Britain respectively; the Zimbabwe Bird spread across museums in Europe and America.With the looting came an increased presence of African sculptures and carvings in the West, which clashed with an increased yearning for a new form of artistic expression in Europe by a white male dominated art scene. In France, artists in Cubism (think Picasso) and Fauvism (think Matisse) rejected the naturalism and realism of impressionism in favour of bold colours and forms, and depicting the emotional response of the artist. In Germany, expressionists like Nolde were heavily influenced by African artefacts in exploring ideas like human psychology and states of mind - though it is pretty much certain that they did not understand the deeper meaning intended by the Africans.
It was during Picasso’s first encounter with African artefacts, at the onset of his acclaimed ‘African’ period (1906-09), that he recognized that his ideology - which placed art as paramount - in part identified with the functionality of the African works. In 1907, Henri Matisse showed him an African artefact - some speculate that it was a mask from the Dan people, while others say it was a sculpture from the Vili people. Following this, he encountered more of the looted artefacts at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris with André Derain. Picasso’s thoughts on the museum:
"A smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately, but I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path."After encountering these masks, Picasso began to simplify shapes and characters within his works making them resemble wooden/stone idols, the faces akin to ritual masks. He also borrowed the technique of rough shading to reproduce the notches on African sculptures. A fundamental lesson Picasso learned from the African “spirit charmers” was that the primitive human did not separate themself from nature and he embodied this in his paintings by fusing characters with their surroundings - making the background seem as tangible as the figures. There is a clear difference between the works prior to his African period - like his Rose period - and those after.
His first piece of the period, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, is rumoured to have been inspired by traditional masks stolen from the Dan region of Africa (which could be traced to either Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire) and Ngil masks worn by the Fang people of Gabon.
A Fang Ngil mask, Gabon. Height: 59 cm (23¼ in). Sold for €2,407,500 in the African and Oceanic Art on 30 October at Christie’s in Paris
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Paris, (African period*), June-July 1907, Oil on canvas.
Although Picasso based the faces of the 2 women on the right on African masks in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Picasso, he never acknowledged the influence African art had on him and on his subsequent works. He notably said “L'art nègre? Connais pas!” (African art? Never heard of it!). In his paintings, we see that he depicted timid characters rather than the strong powerful images the masks represented. Some speculate that he did this to downplay the African influence on his art for patriotic and political reasons. However, Picasso himself said something along the lines of “lesser artists borrow; great artists steal”, which leads me to believe that Picasso was not merely ‘inspired’ or ‘influenced’ by African culture but that he knowingly stole ideas, styles and techniques.
Sadly, in this case, history repeats itself yet again. It is not just the greats like Picasso, Gaugin, and Matisse that are guilty of this cultural appropriation but contemporary artists like Damien Hirst as well. At the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, Hirst’s piece Golden Heads (Female), was criticized by Nigerian artists Victor Ehikhamenor and Laolu Senbanjo for appropriating a Yoruba sculpture originally entitled Ori Olokun which was looted from Nigeria during British colonial rule.
Damien Hirst, Golden Heads (Female), 2011
Late 14th-early 16th century
The Ife Head, ca. 14th-15th Century. Head representing ruler (with elaborate head-dress) made of brass. Image via the British Museum.
Hirst claimed that the show was “a collection of works influenced by a wide range of cultures and stories from across the globe and throughout history” and claimed to include a small reference to Ife heads in the exhibition guide, but he neglected to include proper historical context within his exhibition.
The Yoruba head (Ori Olokun) at the heart of his exhibition was found in the city of Ife in 1938, during the British colonial rule. Ori Olokun was named after the Olokun, the god of great wealth and the bottom of the ocean. New York-based Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo argued that it is of particular reverence to the Yoruba people, as it “holds the passageway for the living to be able to connect with their ancestors.” Another important critique was by Nigerian artist, Victor Ehikamenor’s: “for the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s”.
In appropriating the sculpture, Hirst tells a story that entirely neglects to account for Britain’s colonialism, and erases the true Yoruba heritage of the sculpture. Worse still, Hirst fails to acknowledge the immense ‘influence’, or accept his blatant thievery if you may, his spokesperson merely echoes Hirst in saying that the show is “a collection of works influenced by a wide range of cultures and stories from across the globe and throughout history.”