Featured Image

Is art boundary-breaking if it’s stolen?

Anna Dunn, Managing Editor

March 17, 2021

Imagine you’re back in high school, working on a group project with the artsy philosophy guy who exclusively talks back to his female teachers. The project requires you to bring in some sort of family heirloom from home to share with your partner and then present to the class.

Let’s say you brought in a book that is significant to your parents. When it’s time to present the book to class, the philosophy guy grabs the book out of your hands and decides presents for you. He had obviously not listened to anything you said about the book’s plot and sentimental meaning, and instead spends ten minutes describing how the cover art challenges the oppressive art norms set by society. The class initially laughs, but years later you see the same guy on the cover of a magazine being celebrated for his unique, groundbreaking art style. It’s a blatant copy of the cover of your family’s book. The book which he barely cared to understand.

What I’m getting at is that Pablo Picasso is the artsy philosophy guy. He’s also sexist and colonialist.

Demoiselles d’Avignon was Pablo Picasso’s groundbreaking piece that drew ire from art traditionalists and respect and love from modern day art historians. The piece became famous for its explicit depiction of female nudity, which was “unflinching” and unfeminine. It was also one of the benchmark examples of Picasso’s developing cubist style, and displayed the women with flattened, misshapen faces and bodies. Two of the women’s faces are so distorted that they resemble masks.

It was well known that Picasso admired African masks and referenced the collection of masks he owned while painting Demoiselles. “African masks” as it is used here functions as a catch-all term, as Picasso considered all the cultures of the continent as one homogenous art form. 

Picasso admired African art not because he understood it’s history, purpose and intent, but because, to him, it represented a civilization untainted by industrialization and development. According to art historian Patricia Leighte, Picasso saw this condensed African culture as a primitive, authentic, simple one that served as a refreshing escape from the “decadent” West. 

Picasso saw these masks as inspiration objects that guided him on his path of abstraction and eventually cubism. When recounting a trip to a museum, he described the wonder he felt when studying a mask originating from Sub-Saharan Africa. “These objects [were] created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between [the artist’s people] and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them color and form.”

Picasso thought he was coming from a good place, and that by “celebrating” what he called “primitivism,” he was acting against colonial forces. However, his philosophy came from a place of egoism and psycho-social colonialism. He thought that African people were, by natural, “primitive” and unburdened by invention. He interpreted the African masks with no research into their history or origin. (Even if he wished to, how could he? They were stolen from Africa by French colonizers.) Rather than learning more about the art’s original context, Picasso injected his own that was based off of stereotypical and reductive assumptions of an entire continent.

Africa is a diverse continent full of thousands of ethnic groups and tribes that have been divided across European-imposed geographic lines into 54 countries. African art should not be boiled down, misconstrued and taken as an aesthetic or ideology for Western artists to play with. It belittles the wide variation of cultures, the complexity of its people and the depth of it’s art. Belittling all of one continent’s culture is what justified colonialism for many years.

Imagine if the Western world had been introduced to African art through the people rather than by theft. What kind of art would come from a respectful cultural exchange between European painters and African performers and mask-makers? What if Western painters could witness the Baule peoples’ portrait masks in action during a performance? Or learn about the way that the Chokwe people celebrate and honor mothers and women through masks and performance?

As art historians recognize Pablo Picasso’s influence on the art world, they should pay equal attention to the African artists whose art is inspired by the same source material, but on a much deeper and empathetic level. Francis Nnaggenda, a Ugandan artist, is often compared to Picasso. His response? “People tell me my work looks like Picasso, but they have it wrong. It is Picasso who looks like me, like Africa.”

Comment Form is loading comments...