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

Travel, Art and Authenticity - Should Indigenous Art Just Be Left Alone?

This September, I will be travelling to Armila, Panama, and living for a while in Guna Yala (Kuna) territory. The Kuna are an indigenous community who've fought hard to hang on to their territory (stretching across the Northeast portion of Panama, on the Caribbean coast) despite encroachment from the government.

Research the Kuna for 5 minutes and you're bound to come across more than one account of the beautiful textiles made and sold by Kuna women. Called 'Molas', the square textiles have historically been used on shirts and tops, although increasingly they're made in small textiles like wall hangings, to be sold to visitors as souvenirs. 

Crafting Molas is an art in itself. They're made using an appliqué technique - several coloured fabrics are layered on top of one another, then shapes and patterns are cut through into the alternating layers, giving a multi-coloured effect. 

When I first heard that Kuna women make Molas especially to sell to tourists, honestly my first thought was, 'good for them'. Then I imaged buying one of my own to take home. Then I considered how many other tourists would be buying their own Molas ... then I retraced my steps a bit. 

If I do buy one of these traditional artworks, am I putting a weird colonial pressure on these women to produce work for the sole pleasure of Western tourists? Am I contributing to the dilution and ultimate dissolution of their culture? Or, on the other hand, am I simply supporting a local business owner and providing them with income for themselves and their families?

A tricky situation, it would seem, but whilst mulling this over I figured I wasn't the first tourist to feel this way - leading to me stumbling upon a journal entry by Larry Shiner (""Primitive Fakes," "Tourist Art," and the Ideology of Authenticity." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism). In this he contemplates the muddied waters of the Non-Western art market - the naive and futile search for a completely 'authentic' artifact and the Euro-American obsession with art from 'unspoiled cultures'. 

A few issues straight off the bat: The article shows its age (published 1994) in its repeated reference to 'Primitive' art. I hate this term (more on this in a later post), and nowadays it's considered offensive. Contemporary terms include Tribal Art and Ethnographic Art - although those don't seem quite right either. For the purpose of this post I'm going to use the term Indigenous Art. By that I simply mean art that's been produced in it's location of origin, by a person traditionally associated with the culture itself. 

 Also, I don't know if it's the wording, or if I should've just research the author more, but I can't tell whether or not Shiner agrees with his opening statement, that "we have projected either our fantasies of savagery and sexual licence or an idealized vision of an unspoiled humanity" upon these artworks.

I get where he's coming from, but I think that's a lazy balk at lovers of Indigenous Art. Ironically the accusation of admiring certain artworks out of pure fetishization, is in itself offensive. It suggests that these practices can't be admired for their pure artistry. That they couldn't possibly have risen to a position of admiration for their use of colour, form or style, but rather that they must've been put there by the bizarre fascinations of Western art historians.

Initial hiccup aside, the article does go on to make some really insightful points that got me thinking. For example, the author highlights the bizarre hypocrisy of claiming artifacts are now 'genuine' or 'authentic' if they have been bought or traded. He highlights a trend ignited by Western collectors, whereby craftspeople and artists who specifically produce work to sell are accused of shallowly "pandering to the commercial market". 

Shiner resurrects the fact that historically, unless artworks were excavated or stolen, anthropologists and historians still had to buy work or even commission it especially. It's thought that, despite being produced especially for a foreigner and never having been put to use in their local community, these are the objects that end up in our museums. Yet somehow the origin of these are rarely questioned, much less are they dismissed as 'fake'.  

Below is another example of 'tourist art'. In Cuzco, Peru, the tops of houses are adorned with ceramic bulls - symbols of good fortune, protection and happiness. It's thought that positioning the bulls in this way will shower the house with all that energetic goodness. In terms of the bulls below - clearly for sale at a market (possibly a tourist one), do they count as genuinely Peruvian, or are they just tourist tat. Do they lose all meaning when removed from their country of origin, or did they have no meaning in the first place, since they were made for the purpose of selling and money-making? 

In this case I can see how the ceramic bulls sold at market could appear a little soulless. If a Cuzco local bought one of these, positioned it on top of their house for a year, then took it down and sold it to a tourist, I guess the item would naturally have accrued more meaning. Yet that doesn't change the fact that the item was (presumably) made by a local, and sold by one, too. Only the context has changed. 

Another point that stood out in Shiner's article was the relationship between art, money and making a living. Personally I believe that the connection between art and money is inherently weird, and I don't know if it'll ever change. The art we learn about in school (for me that was mainly Renaissance art) seems to have originated from the artists' divine purpose to create great art. It was presented not so much as an occupation, but rather a mysterious, God-like skill, too exquisite to be associated with banalities like money.

Since then we've been fed the charming rhetoric of the 'starving artist', whilst simultaneously being bombarded with auction houses announcing the sale of works by long-dead artists in the hundreds of millions. Personally I'd love to live in an arts economy that recognises a skill, pays the artists for possession of a work demonstrating said skill, and so the artists continues to make the work. It could all be so simple.

That's how I view the purchasing of 'Ethnographic' art. Although I'm travelling to a relatively remote Panamanian location, I have no preconceptions of an 'unspoiled' or 'untouched' community. I love seeing these women selling their creations, if that affords them a good life. Perhaps it's more cruel for tourists to refuse locally-made or indigenous artworks, on the basis that they were made solely for tourists.

Shiner builds upon this superficial aversion to 'tourist art' in his article - highlighting that the terms 'inauthentic' and 'fake' are based upon Euro-American perceptions of what constitutes a genuine artwork. Shiner's frustration with the hypocrisy of our Western classifications (the most cringe-inducing is the concept that we are yearning for expressions of cultures that our own colonization ruined in the first place) is evident through the article, and the frustration is contagious. I mean, of course Non-Western art has been mass-produced and monetized. These people have identified a market, and it's within their rights to make the most of it. 

For me, the decision to buy these artworks is based upon the situation and person that created them. When an artist creates a piece, they intuitively embed it with their skill, training, influences, and inspiration. Whilst I wouldn't care for a Mola punched out by a machine in a factory (the equivalent of purchasing a mass-produced print of 'Guernica' and celebrating its cultural heritage), if I was to buy a Mola made by a Kuna woman, I don't think it should matter whether it was clipped straight from one of her own garments, or sewn that morning in her living room. The geographical origin is the same, the inspiration is the same. 

Also, at risk of sounding like a complete Neanderthal, I'd quite like to purchase a Mola as my own personal collectors item. Not to parade around and boast of my travels, but as a reminder of the location, contemporary culture and history of the country I got it from. I'm quite a tactile person, and lately I've been thinking about how I'd love to collect a small, locally-produced object (like a Mola) from each country I visit, as a physical reminder that goes beyond a framed photograph. So far I have a rune from Iceland (I painted it myself, but the pebble is from a beach in Skagaströnd), and hope to collect much more. I hope that doesn't make me sound like a superficial magpie. 

An assortment of Greenlandic 'Tupilaq' priced up and ready for sale | 'Kulusuk museum' | © James Petts/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Mexican street vendor selling wooden masks and textiles | 'IMG_7120-27' | © ijokhio/Flickr | Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

I think the purchasing of Indigenous Art is all about intuition. Personally I wouldn't buy an item that was evidently factory-produced or made in China and imported in, but I would probably buy a textile or pottery work sold, for example, by a Kuna woman in her home town. 

Evidently the mangrove-like web we've got ourselves tangled in is going to take some time to climb out of. The Indiana-Jones style of discovering foreign treasure is outdated. As an ethical traveler, I want to see small business owners doing well, and would happily contribute to that by purchasing a piece of work from them. Perhaps the process of travelling, meeting locals and exploring their work, what ever that may be, should be the end goal, rather than finding that one item that's destined for a glass cabinet in a museum. 


Shiner, Larry. ""Primitive Fakes," "Tourist Art," and the Ideology of Authenticity." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52, no. 2 (1994): 225-34.