Continental Drift

John Haber
in New York City

Africa: The Art of a Continent

Was Picasso an imperialist? When he borrowed from African masks, was he as unconcerned for the culture he pillaged as for the women whose faces he hid? Was he manipulating his viewers' vulnerability or sharing his own? Do artists continue the same old games today when they invoke the primitive?

These old questions have become central again to debates over twentieth-century art. They ask how liberating Modernism could really be. In a huge survey of African art, from 15,000 years ago to the early twentieth century, the Guggenheim acts them out all over again. Ekoi, Nigeria, Mask with Large Spiral Headdress (private collection)

The question must seem strange at first. Surely the imperialists were the colonizers, those who impose on others their European power and European ways. Here a Spaniard down and out in Paris takes from Africa. Let me explain, then, why many postmodern critics focus on the word "takes," with all its associations of arrogance and theft. I hope to explain, too, why the taking has nonetheless offered so much of value to the cultures of both continents.

Appropriation and acceptance

When artists first looked at African artifacts, they saw an impulse missing from their own culture. Artists found a means to liberate feelings and unleash formal invention, both constrained by the conventions of a so-called realism. The creation—and the emotions—became at once theirs and another's. In a sense, they saw their own reflection in their opposite. If art is a mirror of life, here the mask was the mirror of art.

The artists universalized art as its form, meaning their own western signs and symbols, dismissing its roots in African life. In the package, however, they also rejected the particulars of western cultural conventions. They could not know the purpose of individual objects, and they may not have cared. Yet they promoted a standard for art that was closer to tribal practice, breaking at a stroke through distinctions between fine art and native craft.

In short, they denied and exalted a "dark continent," all-too-handy sorts of condescension. (Women, including at least one Abstract Expressionist, will be familiar with them both.) If a colonizer claims to bring wisdom to backward peoples, here art invoked the wisdom of the unfamiliar—but only on condition that it remain mysterious and strange. Simultaneously, though, they entered into a productive exchange with the new culture. Artists offered at once an impertinent awe and a respectful acceptance.

Identity and respect

The Guggenheim cleans up their act without quite dropping it, and so those paradoxes will not go away. On the one hand, each ramp or gallery looks at a single region of Africa, allowing it at last its distinctive history. To each object, the museum assigns a precise function and its rough date. This is not African art seen with abstraction's formal eye.

At last, too, European art is not held out as an end or a standard. In fact, it is not even on display. The curators are out, one might say, to refute the controversial "primitivism" show at the Museum of Modern Art some years ago—or what another show calls "Négritude." Call it "Primitivism Revisited." This time, it is Picasso who gets shunted off to the side, on permanent display in the Guggenheim's first-floor wing. And forget other appropriation artists of the "primitive," such as Constantin Brancusi and Amedeo Modigliani.

On the other hand, objects on display generally have functions that fine art can tolerate—personal, spiritual, or religious. A handful of arrowheads in the first room attest to the greatness of civilization long before Europe had one. After that, as the curators themselves note, choices reflect esthetic standards. And the setting still is that temple of modern art by Frank Lloyd Wright.

So Africa remains, in a sense, the dark underside of Europe, like Vikings in the work of Max Beckmann and Beckmann in New York, as if Africans never found refuge or captivity abroad. Is that altogether racist? I doubt it. People necessarily seek a firmer identity in relation to what lies outside them. Then too, I have never seen an art museum, even the Studio Museum in Harlem and even when showing young black artists like Wangechi Mutu who themselves riff on African sculpture, so successfully draw black Americans. No show of contemporary black artists has come close.

Above all, the paradoxes are kept alive because here cultures get a real chance to collide. They do more than assert their own identity; they also throw into question the very identity of art. Continents may look dark at first, but Europe and Africa also are lenses to turn on one another, with no assurances as to what one might see.

Happily, then, I remained conscious that I lack the qualifications to review this show, and this review will quite often be about my responses. It is intrinsic to the themes of this review that it may be foolish. I can offer only some personal impressions and chance insights. They allow me to hope that, in this show, a whole continent does becomes less dark to dumb westerners.

The many colors of black

All the continent's many regional arts appear to have had much in common, except perhaps for the intrusion of the Muslim and Christian worlds in certain parts. In fact, this stock of imagery largely remains in place regardless of when the art was made, too. That is just another way to say that the traditions retain their power. I could forgive the unfeeling imperialist for boasting that "it is all the same to me."

Some kinds of objects turn up over and over again, as they do in the work of contemporary artists like Willie Cole. Head rests, almost unadorned wood that looks awfully uncomfortable compared to down pillows, acted as signs of status. Staffs and masks evoked fearful spirits, often as part of a boy's rites of maturity. Smaller statues of mother and child presented frequent reminders of a more comforting, maternal spirituality. Images such as these affirm the stunning lack of boundaries between spiritual and functional that so intrigued modernity—and ritual may persist in performance art now.

The exhibition gives insight, however, into the remarkable differences between regions and local cultures. I am reminded of how eyes trained by the Renaissance long overlooked the variety of figures on medieval churches. One sees perpetual motion in the many figures on those staffs, plus a range of smaller works in gold. One sees beautiful manuscripts from the Christian art of Ethiopia, a cat mummy from the tombs of Egypt. (And here I thought my mother took her cat too seriously.)

Clearly regional differences go far beyond religious boundaries. In one place, for example, spirits have a dark power that art and ritual can only evoke but never dispel. In yet another place, coming to adulthood means taking on the power of the spirits, gaining a kind of mastery.

It looked to me as if the more pessimistic region had more maternal images. That should interest feminists and Freudians out to guess just what a boy is trying to master—and perhaps never can. Spotting my shadow behind a staff decorated with disturbing figures, I was suitably startled. The more optimistic region, meanwhile, seemed to embody more animal imagery in its representation of the spirit world. I doubt that the differences match up cleanly with matrilineal as opposed to patrilineal cultures.

The survey disrupts some clichéd responses to African art. It is easy to think of its figures as frontal, flanked by equally stark sacred writing. For quite some time Egyptian has even meant rigid. From the beginning, however, the mixture of symmetry and fluidity supplies a bold realism. Outside of Egypt, the tolerance for irregularity quickly becomes astonishing. There are those fine goldsmiths' works. Writing, where it appears, looks more like contemporary graffiti art than like rows of text.

Finally, besides renewed interest in Africa and its people, I gained renewed respect for the pleasure of being over my head. Golly, people have learned so much about what all these things mean.

The uneasy and the difficult

Obviously it was not an easy show for me. Visiting the Guggenheim as a fan mostly of Western art, I confronted hundreds and hundreds of strange objects. At the end, I had to rush through a gallery of photographs by Africans today. The prints selected combine documentary styles with rich colors and themes of a changing rural scene.

I had no overt link to the images first pillaged from them from artists and archeologists a century ago. I could not even know for sure what was missing. Besides the museum, time has exerted its choices. One sees only the objects thought important enough to preserve. Still, I knew I was working within a curator's history and, again, very much still a modernist one.

For example, the commonalities I have noted suggest that centuries of conflict have kept change local and small. I wondered whether that is so. Does the show minimize the price paid by cultures and people for an obvious historical change, European colonization? I also wondered about artists today even in America, amid international commerce, museum mergers, and consumer logos. Imperialism has shifting faces even in a postmodern era—and sometimes greater successes.

In fact, it cannot be an easy show for anyone. An expert demanding cultural breadth and exactitude will find esthetic choices. An African-American searching for cultural identity will find purposes as remote as the styles' origins, some thousands of years ago.

What matters is that the show does not have to be easy. The modern museum and an entire continent can still both maintain their dignity and their power. They can still face each other with bravura and self-questioning.

I am simply dismayed at conservative critics of art, science, and philosophy. Why must everything be as clear as common sense?

I have argued that everything of value must be learned patiently. I have said that meanings as multiple as life deserves must take time to discover. I have noted, too, that the creative fields under attack invariably criticize common sense harshly for what it hides. They all aspire to a new precision that will uncover far more. I have, however, probably also understated something just as important—the need to let one's guard down, to accept some amazement and confusion.

The gaze of the artist

Artists know all these pleasures. They accept the need for patience in a craft. They know about continually evolving meanings, about sudden tears in ordinary ideology and pat sentiments. They strive for intuitions that are hard to put in words. They see connections between artifice and ritual.

To return to Picasso, I recalled a recent exhibition of his portraits. He could be brutal to the feelings of his lovers. But he also uses the stylistic liberties of Modernism to foreground his emotions and theirs, not to mention the limitations of each. In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, faces become more and more like masks as one turns an eye across the face of the canvas, anticipating the use of masks in collage today. Perhaps in that juxtaposition of realism with African masks, he challenged a world with its limits too.

So is the gaze condescending when it takes on Africa? Yes, but not all imperialism is the same, and distinctions matter. They always do when one evaluates art and artists. In the hands of the modern museum, Modernism can even dangerously assimilate its heritage. When a gallery artist such as Tim Hawkinson toys with "primitive" rhythms, one's laughter puts him and the gallery alike on the spot.

The distinctions do not have to be subtle. The shock of Africa's art has not always been subtle. Nor are distinctions in art eternal. Old shocks lose their force, opening up new kinds of awareness. In this case, one knows that the modernist rebellion cannot straitjacket an artist today. Yet out of comparable distinctions come art, morality, and love.

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"Africa: The Art of a Continent" ran through September 29, 1996, at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.


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