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How African Masks Changed the World of Modern Art

By BETH HARPAZ

It’s a truism in art history that Picasso and other European modernists were profoundly influenced by African masks and sculpture. The groundbreaking geometric forms and figures in seminal Cubist masterworks like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guitar can be traced to specific objects that the artist and his contemporaries collected and studied.  

But a new book called The Black Art Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents by Professor Joshua I. Cohen (City College) offers a “much-needed corrective” to this established Eurocentric narrative. The book “examines modernist appropriations of African sculpture” in two stages, beginning with the “discovery” of African art among Picasso and the circle of modernist artists known as the Fauves. That discovery was then followed by the “rise and flourishing” of Black art and Black artists from the 1920s to the 1970s. 

Cohen begins with a startling revelation: The objects that inspired European avant-gardists were not, in fact, “primitive” ritual artifacts. They were brilliantly inventive works of art from West and Central Africa that were sometimes created for export within the context of colonial modernity.

A carved mask from Gabon’s Fang ethnic group, for example, was prized by the Fauves and Picasso for its “three-dimensional and expressively stylized” facial features. But Cohen contextualizes the mask’s production amid the “escalating violence” of Gabon’s French colonial rubber industry. The mask’s ghostly visage may represent the carver’s “efforts to channel the awful authority of the white colonizer and wrest control of a world in crisis.” The modern cross-currents in these “African source objects” profoundly shaped the work of European avant-garde artists, even though they had no inkling of the “local conditions that gave life” to them. 

Western tastes and values were forever altered by European modernists’ reverence for African art. That, in turn, paved the way for a new cultural milieu in which Black artists could affirm their African heritage, embrace modernism, and thrive professionally. The resulting Black art movement was global. It included the Harlem Renaissance and was initially centered on Paris, which by 1920 had become an international destination for Black writers and artists. 

Cohen focuses on three influential figures from the era: the African American art critic Alain Locke, who “urged an emergent generation of ‘New Negro’ artists to draw inspiration from African canonical sculpture”; the South African artist Ernest Mancoba, who “discovered African sculpture in a library in Cape Town, in the pages of an illustrated book by a Paris art dealer,” then settled in Paris; and Senegal’s first president, Léopold Senghor, a poet and cultural theorist who knew Picasso from his own years in Paris. In 1972, Senghor organized an exhibition called “Picasso, Black Art, and the Civilization of the Universal” that was “less about Picasso than it was about acknowledging Africa’s place within global modernity.” 

Cohen argues that “Europe’s ‘discovery’ of African art, itself predicated on a nascent African modernity, achieved enduring significance mainly through its reverberations among African and African diaspora artists.” These Black artists “would come to write their own histories of modernism and African sculpture, while adding new layers of complexity to that larger story.”

(Photo credits: Left: Helmet mask (Bwoom), Kuba culture, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 19th or early 20th century, wood, metal, cowrie shells, textiles, glass, 41 x 28 cm. Ex-coll. Carl and Amalie Kjersmeier, published in Carl Kjersmeier, Centres de style de la sculpture nègre africaine. Vol. III, Congo Belge (Paris: Éditions Albert Morancé, 1937), pl.30; now Nationalmuseet Etnografisk Samling, Copenhagen, G.8332. Artwork in the public domain. Photo: John Lee. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Denmark. Right: Ernest Mancoba, Composition, 1940, oil on canvas, 59 x 50 cm. Image courtesy of The Estate of Ferlov Mancoba; published by permission of The Estate of Ferlov Mancoba.)