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.