Appreciation vs. Appropriation

The two main threads that run through my work, my thoughts and my life in general are arts and travel.

In my opinion there are hundreds of reasons that make travel one of the best ways to spend your time and money, but for me the main draw is the possibility of understanding another culture. I want to learn about ancient cultures and the people who inhabit them. I’m fascinated by the development of art and art objects in remote cultures, including their functions and symbolic meanings.

I cast a wide net in terms of the work I choose to research and explore. I’m interested in the universal human impulse to create, which is why I feel the need to explore art practices outside of my own narrow, European heritage. However, there’s a palpable sense that no one quite knows how to approach the topic of Indigenous/Tribal/Ethnographic/Native art - illustrated by the constant flitting between nomenclature, and a reluctance to clarify the genre in any strict terms.

Up until very recently, the set term for such art was ‘Primitive’, and encompassed an array of art objects from non-Western cultures ranging from African masks to Oceanic sculptures. Western artists capitalized on the ‘otherness’ of this art, appropriating its tendency to feature simplified and abstract motifs. Heavy hitters like Matisse and Picasso weaved this symbolism into their own work, and profited off the results. Of course the cultures and communities that pioneered these techniques did not get a cut of the profits, allowing them to sink deeper into what Brigid Delaney of The Guardian calls “a cycle of poverty and appropriation”.

When I think about this issue the one painting that always springs to mind without fail is Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ (1907). Created during the artist’s troublingly-named ‘periode nègre’ (black, African or ‘Negro’ period) that lasted from 1907 to 1909, the piece combines traditional Cubism with the elongated faces, geometric noses and boat-shaped eyes frequently used in African mask-making.

Extrapolated out of the context in which they were traditionally used (African masks are regularly commissioned to honour relatives, used to connect with the spirit realm and included in burial ceremonies), it’s probably fair to assume that the representations were used purely for visual effect.

Laurence Madeline, curator at Musée Picasso, says that “Picasso never copied African art”, but I completely disagree.

What Picasso - and other artists like Matisse and Modigliani - did was essentially pick out the attractive parts of African art and plop them into their own work which was deeply rooted in European history and culture. Aside from a few vague references to Picasso’s interest in the spiritual and supernatural aspects of African art, I’ve struggled to locate any evidence to suggest that he took a deep and respectful interest in the work.

This is also a perfect example of ‘Primitive’ art being viewed as ‘other’, a sort-of novelty rather than a part of artistic discourse. It’s as if indigenous techniques and motifs were paraded on a conveyor belt for Western artists to choose from and use as they wished, with no intention of establishing a rapport with the people who made them or discussing techniques on an artist-to-artist basis.

'Lola de Valence' Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, Livorno 1884–1920 Paris), Lola de Valence, 1915, Oil on Paper, Mounted on Wood | © The Met Museum Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

African Moon Mask, ca. 1880, Wood  | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Indigenous art has always captivated me, and I imagine it will continue to do so for as long as I’m a part of the art world, yet I cringe at the thought of being viewed as having a colonial mindset - interested in the art of these cultures for its strangeness, rather than artistic merit.

As I research the topic further I hope to establish a way of discussing Indigenous arts in a way that’s not overtly Western in its perspective (i.e evaluating work based on aesthetic appearance without taking into account functionality). I also hope to look at indigenous artists working today, to consider how their work fits into the current global art market.


Sources / Further Reading:

Stout, D.B. (1971). Aesthetics in “Primitive Societies” in C.F Jopling (ed.) Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. 30-35

Muensterberger, W. (1971). Some Elements of Artistic Creativity Among Primitive Peoples in C.F Jopling (ed.) Art and Aesthetics in Primitive Societies, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. 3-11

Mattos, C. (2014). WHITHER ART HISTORY?: Geography, Art Theory and New Perspectives for An Inclusive Art History, The Art Bulletin, 96, 259-264

Clarke, C. (2006). The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curatorial Magpie Syndrome

Are group exhibitions at risk of becoming shallow collections of nice-looking things?

On a recent visit to White Cube I was delighted, and to be honest overwhelmed, by the quality and quantity of work on display, yet there were a few pieces that stuck with me for all the wrong reasons. Frankly, there was just too much ‘stuff’.

In a previous post I spoke about my aversion to the practice of wrenching big ticket names into an already over-stuffed exhibition catalogue, in this case Tracey Emin and Raqib Shaw. In the case of this exhibition (Memory Palace) they largely contributed style over substance.

In the essay ‘What is an Exhibition?’ (Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating Issue #6) Elena Filipovic discusses the idea that exhibitions shouldn’t be orientated simply towards generating knowledge, but rather towards the possibility of disseminating deeply-entrenched beliefs and perceptions. Still, this doesn’t mean the exhibition can rest on its laurels once it’s established an interesting theme, it must also consider the rhetoric of “a work of art [as] a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world”.

I suppose you could argue, then, that the Shaw and Emin works I griped about previously are works in and of themselves and I have no business questioning their relevance within the exhibition as a whole. However, bundled in with Imi Knoebel’s sickly sweet ‘Ort-Rosa’ and Cerith Wyn Evans’s neon amorphisms, the rooms felt a bit like an over-indulgent pic’n’mix. Much like how a magpie collects shiny things to adorn its nest, perhaps in this case the curators possessed the same impulse of indiscriminate hoarding.

Cerith Wyn Evans 'Neon Forms (after Noh X)' reflected in Robert Irwin, 'Black Painting' | White Cube Bermondsey

Wyn Evans’s work has been described as fostering ‘dazzling and intense sensory environments’, so would perhaps emit more gravitas in a darkened, grotto-esque space than in the sterile White Cube format. Similarly, Knoebel’s fiercely Minimalist and self-referential work would have performed better if allowed a bit of breathing space - perhaps placing it slap bang in the middle of the gallery’s entrance hall would have afforded the piece the curiosity it deserves.

In a culture of information overload and vociferous image-sharing the last thing we need is another situation in which there’s just too much going on. Perhaps I have a terrible attention span, but personally, when presented by a large volume of work in one room, my attention gets thinly spread amongst them all as a result. It’s the phenomenon of focussing on more, whilst paradoxically taking in less. Individual works are at risk of becoming objects we glance at, rather than visual mementos we luxuriously ruminate over, and grant a permanent spot in our memory.


Filipovic, E., What is an Exhibition?, Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, 6

Wild Within @ Guest Projects Hackney - The Exhibition For People Who Don't Like Exhibitions

In a city with plenty of museums and galleries conscribing to the classic (dare I say - boring) model of displaying work, Guest Projects has stepped in to shake things up. 

The canal-side exhibition space gives artists and art collectives a free (!!) month-long period in which to display their work, affording them the time and space to test out new ideas, encourage collaboration and feedback and promote their work and their cause.

From July 21 st - August 8 th, the space was occupied by a collection of work curated by La Wayaka Current, a UK-based art initiative, whom I happen to be doing a residency with in September. They organise residencies in remote locations - Arctic, Desert and Tropic - and encourage artists to explore the implications of working in these environments. 

La Wayaka Current packed their allotted exhibition time with talks, workshops and film screenings, and managed to smoothly arrange 21 pieces of work in a single square room. With a selection of works ranging from sound installation to traditional Panamanian Molas, the catalogued items were as diverse as the countries they came from. 

The work celebrated the diversity of plants, cultures and biomes whilst promoting the potential of earthy materials like wood, cotton canvas and clay. With many artists exploring themes of climate change and the increasingly strained relationship between city and wilderness, the collection of work could have easily become accusatory or preachy. 

The actual result was far from it, rather a celebration of the professionalism and potential of a collection of diverse artists, in which the viewer is subtly nudged to ruminate on the fragility and transcendence of the last few wildernesses on Earth (one of the best ways of turning people on to the realities of climate change, in my opinion).

guest projects 3.JPG

The 'gallery' was reminiscent of an informal pop-up exhibition or artist-led space. It was refreshing to see so many works of art in a space that wasn't the least bit intimidating, nor creaking under the weight of institutional norms (no 'Do Not Touch' signs or gallery reps pushing to make a sale). 

I visited on the exhibition's final day. I hate to say it, but if there wasn't a solid 'end point' or fairly short duration to the show, I probably wouldn't have made the effort to travel down to London to see it, which piles credibility onto the 'pop-up exhibition' model. The work felt new and exciting and wasn't like anything else I'd seen over a few days in London.

Everything had a place - it didn't feel like anything was included just for the sake of it, and unlike older, more established galleries, there wasn't the slightly morbid sense that the work had been wheeled out of a store room for a few weeks, just to be stuffed back in when the exhibition ended. Furthermore, since each piece was, if not created, then at least conceptualised whilst on residency in a remote location, the work maintained a sense of ephemerality.

The one gripe I did take away, was the lack of clear marking against each piece of work. There was a floor plan posted near the entrance, where the works were named alongside corresponding numbers, so I guess if I was really concentrating I could've made a mental map, but I ended up feeling a bit blind. 

Call me old fashioned, but I love traditional gallery plaques that at least tell me the artist's name, the medium and a short description of the work. If I have to work hard to unearth this information, chances are I'll give up out of frustration. The thought of artists not being fully recognised for their work gives me anxiety, and it seems as if the process of forgoing traditional museum placards is making this a real possibility.

I remember first seeing this method at Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester whilst I was at university. Rather than using traditional information plaques the curators decided to number each piece and provide a laminated sheet with the titles of each corresponding number. This did allow for more paintings-per-wall, but I found the whole thing immensely confusing. Not to mention the fact that museum hand-outs have a 90% chance of being left in the cafe/cloakroom/handbag of an elderly lady and so half the visitors didn't even get to see the listed titles. 

I have a hunch this will be the next challenge for contemporary curators. Until then, more inter-disciplinary pop up shows, please.


Guest Projects, 1 Andrews Road, London, E8 4QL