University of Minnesota
What were the postures of thinking around African arts one century ago? What are the postures of thinking today? How was the taxonomy of African arts negotiated in French museums? Who were the main protagonists for these negotiations? Was there an evolution over the years? If so, was it towards a search for meaning about "production, reception and interpretation"? How did cultural politics intervene in the taxonomy of African arts? What was the outcome?
|African arts and Art Nègre|
The phenomenon of associating art with race was not a product exclusive to France at the beginning of the 2Oth century. It was the "refined", nearly universal reflection of the Zeitgeist or Esprit du Temps (spirit of the time). Called Art Nègre in France, it inspired Cubists (Picasso, Braque, Léger, Gris), Fauves (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck), symbolists (Gauguin), orphists (Delaunay) and sculptors such as Brancusi, Giacometti, Modigliani to name a few.
Called Negerkunst in Germany it influenced German Expressionists such as Kirchner, Nolde, and Klee (Lemke,1998). As African Negro Art in the United States, it strongly impacted on African American artists of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s such as Lois Mailou Jones, Meta Warwick Fuller, and Aaron Douglas.
In Europe generally and in France in particular, "arbiters of taste" (from the Académie des Beaux-Arts to museum curators, from art historians to rich and influential patrons) ostracized African arts because they were distant from aesthetic conventions of the time. African arts were also considered to have no development over time according to Western concepts and assumptions (exception made of old Benin Bronze sculptures, ancient terra-cotta in Nigeria and Mali, rock art in Tassili). Another fact differentiated African arts from "conventional" statuary and masks: they were made with perishable materials (animal skins, vegetal fibers, wood). Many years after his "initiation" at the Musée du Trocadéro (later Musée de l'Homme), Picasso recalled the fascination African masks exerted on him and their terrible "smell":
Had the materials been different however, African arts would still not have been received and categorized as works of art.
Produced by African Black peoples regarded as morally and racially degenerate and still living in a "state of nature" as defined by Rousseau in the 18th century, these arts were already condemned by institutions, aesthetes and non-specialists who read about them, wrote about them, exhibited them or simply viewed them. Indesirable in many official art museums, African arts were confined to the realm of curiosities. Not too far from Freaks, exhibited in fairs such as the World Fair of 1899 in Paris, L'Exposition Coloniale of 1922 in Marseille and of 1931 in Paris, African arts represented for the French public un art de cirque (circus art) and were received with indignation or with laughter. With a clear purpose to parody African ceremonies and rituals, French artists organized dances and folklore choreography such as "Fête Nègre" in 1919 and "La Création du Monde" in 1923 with French companies dressed up as "savages".
Cultural distance gave missionaries, colonizers, ethnographers and aesthetes a "right and a duty" to impose their own interpretation on artistic productions to which they were complete foreigners. Dominguez stated emphatically that
By its own terminology Art Nègre was inevitably bound to race and was perceived as artifacts of "uncivilized" peoples of black Africa. For the French public, Josephine Baker symbolized one of these "uncivilized" peoples. Also known as Zouzou, dancing with a ring of bananas round her waist, she was famous in the cabarets revues for her image of a "primitive" promoting the concept of Art Nègre so far from the Négritude concept. This concept defined by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire represented the synthesis of "the cultural heritage, the values and above all the spirit of black African civilization". Art Nègre was not perceived as such.
The French public looked at Art Nègre with condescension and often expressed surprise, laughter or revulsion towards an art in its "infancy" considered "without any convention" and far removed from Western aesthetic canons.
African art could not acquire its lettres de noblesse because several authorities were fiercely opposed to its acceptance into the official fine arts category.
Jean Gallotti, famous writer for the very official art magazine L'Art Vivant, spoke about the loot of the Dakar-Djibouti mission and the "people least touched by our civilization" whose "natural urges" were appeased through pathological creativity.
Par la matière, par la technique même bien souvent, tout est vulgaire, tout est grossier dans ce mobilier de gens qui vivent nus et presque sans besoins. (Gallotti, 1933, p.421)
Intrinsically bound to race, African arts were attractive to a few and repulsive to many.
|African arts in anthropology museums|
Until the end of the 19th century, African arts were most often located in two types of museums, neither of which had any relationship with fine arts: natural history museums and anthropology museums. A brief overview of a few museums clearly shows that only ethnographic identity was recognized for artifacts produced in Africa and primarily associated with other "primitive arts". Paudrat has retraced admirably the history of African art collections in these museums. (Paudrat, 1984).
In 1855, the Musée Permanent des Colonies first hosted, along with Asian and American Native Art, a small section of Oceanic and African arts.
In 1878, the Musée Ethnographique des Missions Scientifiques had a section of African art.
In 1879, set in the lobby of the Théatre du Châtelet in Paris, the Musée Africain was, for a couple of months, used as exhibition space to display objects from Africa.
The Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, administratively ruled by the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, was created in 1907. Later rechristened Musée de l'Homme in 1937, this museum represented a genuine treasure trove for anthropology aficionados. There, whether amassed, collected, looted, pillaged or seized by Griaule, Leiris, Paulme, Dieterlen and others, isolated and dematerialized objects from Africa were exhibited or piled up in the basements.
In order to legalize this cultural pillage the Ministries of Colonies delivered a permis de capture scientifique (licence for scientific capture) to Marcel Griaule (Herbert, 1998, p.62). After their arrival, pieces were selected and displayed according to their "function". Extracted from their local environment and cultures, they lost their "identities" and their meaning to become trivialized objects belonging to "trivialized societies and cultures", misinterpreted and mocked by Westerners.
Georges-Henri Rivière, the director of the Musée de l'Homme, insisted on the necessity to "abstract aesthetic characteristics and then "situate them...restore them to their social setting" (Herbert, 1998, p.74). The idea behind this association was to replicate the social context of the artifact and to a larger extent provide information about the ethnic groups. Very little or no explanation about any practice, technique, artist, material was usually given. Paul Guiart noted that unless an "economic value was involved", no information was given about the objects. (Guiart, 1985, p.13)
This idea is very similar to that of Hardin, Geary and Arnoldi arguing that
Upon these terms of circulation and exchange in France, African art objects lost a tremendous amount of their cultural value to "gain" a primarily market value. Their contribution to modernism and to modernity in art history is nevertheless irrefutable. How was this contribution negotiated yesterday and today? Can we define the instrumental tools or institutions that enabled or froze these negotiations around the taxonomy of African Arts?
|African arts and cultural politics|
As shown above, during the first three decades of the 20th century, the fate of African arts in France was closely bound to ethnography.
The progressive loss of French colonial power during the 1950s, the achievement of independence by African countries in the 1960s, the cultural politics of the newly independent states and their claim of cultural identity as well as the increasing value of African art on the market generated new negotiations around taxonomies of African arts in France. Although European museum officials made efforts to accommodate these cultural shifts, the results were rarely deeper than the surface.
To illustrate this, the example of the former Musée Permanent des Colonies is worth mentioning. This museum, built for the Exposition Coloniale of 1931 in Paris, hosted works of art produced in the French colonies of North and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1935, this museum adopted the "politically correct" name of Musée de la France d'Outremer (Museum of Overseas France). After the independence processes in the 1960s, the latter was rechristened Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens before becoming in 1992, Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie (National Museum of the Arts of Africa and Oceania).
This change had no impact upon the taxonomy of the art objects, still categorized today according to the ethnic groups of the producers and their geographical regions rather than according to the typology, materials, medium, morphological aspect and significance of the artistic productions.
A similar situation could be observed in Lyons with the former Musée des Missions Africaines (Museum of African Missions). Created by Père Planque in 1863, this museum exploited the "taste" for African curios and heavily promoted the "action civilisatrice" (civilizing action) of the missionaries in Africa in order to educate the primitive mind, "la mentalité primitive", as used by the sociologist Lévy-Bruhl.
In the middle of the 20th century, following political events concerning the role of the French colonial empire and that of the Catholic Church in Africa, the orientation of the museum slightly integrated a "cultural approach" to African civilizations and their material culture.
In the late 1970s, the museum became officially the Musée Africain. Despite a new orientation and a new direction, the museum still presented African artifacts in their social contexts rather than with any aesthetic and semiotic approach. Modeled after the example of the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Museum of Traditional Folklore), the Musée Africain definitely continues to this day to be ethnography-oriented. (Derbier, 1990, p.128).
Over the last decades, political, historical and social changes in the relationship between France and African countries have led us to presume these changes would also mean a kind of "acknowledgment" of African arts' cultural and aesthetic contribution to the Western cultures. Unfortunately this has not been the case.
Except for the Musée Dapper in Paris, which stands out very significantly, museums in France presenting collections of African art still remain ethnography-oriented. In 1983, the Dapper Foundation, based in Amsterdam, opened a new branch in Paris. Its purpose was to "promote and preserve the artistic patrimony of pre-colonial Black Africa" (Dapper, 1988). By promoting cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa through exhibitions combining historical, aesthetic, semiotic and philosophical approaches to art, and by encouraging scholarly research, Dapper became a definite "threat" to official "rusty and dusty" museums displaying African arts in France (Musée de l'Homme and Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens).
Considered subversive and consequently denied museum status for many years, the Foundation eventually acquired this status in 1986 after several legal settlements. Still ostracized by "official" museums and guides for Museums in Paris such as Nouveau Guide des Musées de France, the Musée Dapper has nevertheless gained a sustained reputation and represents today with its counterpart in Geneva (Musée Barbier-Muller), one of the finest medium-sized museums displaying African material culture in Europe.
I have chosen to emphasize the taxonomy of African arts in only a few museums in France. Needless to say the reception by the public represents the last step of the work initiated by professor, scholar and exhibition curator. The first step is interest in the subject, then its treatment or mistreatment at the academic level, in scholarly publications, national, international art magazines, and at conferences. If African art is already misrepresented and marginalized within the discipline of Art History itself, how can I get recognition from outside or from non-specialists? How can new theories, new approaches, new practices and new subjects be considered if the discipline is in such a critical state? Where is the place of African art if not in departments of Art History?
From my student experience at the University of La Sorbonne, I can easily say that the subject of African art does not just stand apart in the general curriculum of Art History, it stands way out, in another world. If there is no link between scholarly research, teaching and art museum officials how can the taxonomy of African arts evolve from the trivial "anthropological-aesthetic" orientation?
If art scholars from Africa itself do not emerge to be interpreters, griots, and praise singers of their own cultures to the Western world who will do it for them? Will they let the new intermediaries, the arbiters of "good" taste, distort, interpret, or perform some sort of "cultural translation" often leading to cultural relativism? Who will, as Mudimbe suggested, proceed to an "analysis of the structure and the logic of [African] cultural artistic values" (Mudimbe, 1986)?
To deny any critical historical approach to the taxonomy of African art means to kill its legitimacy as art. Clifford draws our attention to this fact and offers other alternatives that would " question the boundaries of art and of the art world" and that would displace "practices of representation" from the Western world to strategies of presentation of the non-Western worlds. (Clifford, 1988, p.213).
At the dawn of a new millenium, the recognition and the acceptance of African arts in France has not yet occurred. The status and categorization of the arts of Sub-Saharan Africa still sleep in a concentrated formalin jar between the Musée de l'Homme and the Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie. This jar will soon be broken to be replaced by a new one whose name will either be Musée des Arts Premiers (Museum of Early Arts), Musée des Arts Primaires (Museum of Primary Arts) or Musée des Arts et Cultures (Museum of Arts and Cultures). Thus the concept of primitivism generated by Rousseau in the 18th century and used by many generations of writers, cultural anthropologists, ethnographers, and artists remains very much alive.
Despite great progress during the 20th century in sciences, technology, transportation and communication, French society remains very attached to its valeurs sûres (permanent assets). In these we find tropes widely inherited by the works of ethnographers. We find racial and cultural biases as well as intolerance and chasses gardées (reserved grounds). We find the predicament of African arts, which contributed so richly to modernism and to modernity across a century. This shows emphatically that the traversing of time in France has never implied the traversing of perspective on African arts.
. Most of the statuary and masks presented in museums or sold on the market were relatively recent (from the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century).
. In my view, it is from the African arts example that many artists included perishable materials in their productions. One thinks of Dadaists (Duchamp, Picabia) in the 1910s, Nouveaux Réalistes (Arman, Nikki de Saint-Phalle, César) and Arte Povera artists (Anselmo, Kounellis) in the 1960s.
. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote in the 18th century about man living in a state of nature versus man living in the society with its rules, regulations and laws. Rousseau sentimentalized this "pregolden age" linked to the idea of original paradise since the "modern man" fully advanced beyond it
. Freaks was a movie directed in 1930s about the different "monstrous" people who were hired in a circus in order to show their deformities.
. In these fairs, artefacts and models of traditional African architecture were exhibited. The purpose was to present different cultures within the French colonial empire.
. La Fête Nègre" took place in May 1919 at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris. A poet, Paul Guillaume, organized recitations, music and choreography around the theme of Africa. The painter Fernand Léger designed the stage and the costumes for "La Création du Monde".
. Léopold Sedar Senghor cited in Lilyan Kesteloot, Les Ecrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'une littérature. Brussels: Institut de sociologie, 1963, pp.110, 112-114.
. It is important to note here that traditionally in France ethnographic museums were under the authority of the National Museum of Natural History. Susan Blier made an interesting parallel about the status of the National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. which "has its primary affiliation with the Smithsonian, by tradition a natural-history and cultural museum, rather than with the National Gallery of Art, a prototypical fine-art museum". (Blier, 1996, p.31).
. During the Dakar-Djibouti mission, ethnographers did collect by various means several elements of African material culture (especially in Mali among the Dogon peoples). Their practices have been often associated with a loot.
. One of ethnographers' motifs in looting African Dogon masks and statues was to "salvage the pieces from destruction in the caves of Africa". In their "rescue mission" they acted as civilization keepers, these civilizations soon transferred into another world.
. From the article "De l'objet d'un musée ethnographique comparé à celui d'un musée de beaux-arts" written by Georges-Henri Rivière in 1933 and published in Cahier de Belgique.
. Until today, the museum holds impressive frescos and bas-reliefs representing colonial subjects working for the glory of France.
. In 1946, the French colonial empire shifted to l'Union Française with a series of political measures: rechristening of the Ministère des Colonies to Ministère de la France d'Outremer (Ministry for French Overseas Departments), institution of an elected assembly with financial powers in the colonies).
. Levy-Bruhl wrote extensively about cognitive systems in non-Western societies. According to him, natives, as part of "inferior societies", had a "primitive mind". (Levy-Bruhl, 1939)
. For an interesting parallel of the discipline in the United States, see S. Blier in African Art Studies: the state of the discipline, pp. 91-107.
. See J. Herbert, Paris 1937: Worlds on exhibition, 1998, p.185 and The Arts Council of the African Studies Association 54, April 1999, pp.8-9.
Hannah Arendt. L'impérialisme: les origines du totalitarisme (1951). Paris: Fayard, 1982.
Susan Blier. "Enduring Myths of African Art", in Africa, the Art of a Continent. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1996, pp.27-32.
Susan Blier. "African Art Studies: an American perspective", in African Art Studies: The State of the Discipline. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, 1990, pp.91-107.
James Clifford. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press , 1988, pp.189-214,.
Alain Derbier. "Du Musée des Missions Africaines au Musée Africain". Colloque Européen sur les Arts d'Afrique Noire "De l'Art Nègre à l'Art Africain" Arnouville: Collections Arts d'Afrique Noire, 1990, pp.127-129.
V. Dominguez. "Of Other Peoples: Beyond the "Salvage Paradigm", in Discussions in Contemporary Culture 1, ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1987, pp.131-137.
Jean Gallotti. "Les collections de la Mission Dakar-Djibouti", in L'Art Vivant n.177, 1932, p.421.
Raoul Girardet. L'idée coloniale en France 52-65. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1972.
Marcel Griaule. Conversations with Ogotommeli. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Paul Guiart. "The Musée de l'Homme, the Arts and Africa", in African Masterpieces from the Musée de l'Homme, ed. Susan Vogel & Francine N'Diaye.New York: The Center for African Arts, 1985, pp.13-19.
Hardin, Geary, Hardin (eds.). African Material Culture 2. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.
James Herbert. Paris 1937: Worlds on exhibition185. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998, pp.62-66.
Sieglinde Lemke. "Picasso's Dusty Manikins", in Primitivism Modernism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp.31-58.
Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. L'âme primitive (1939). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.
Andre Malraux. La Tête d'Obsidienne 17-18. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.
V.Y. Mudimbe. "African art as a question mark", in African Studies Review 29 (1), March 1986, pp. 3-4.
Jean-Louis Paudrat. "From Africa", in Primitivism Modernism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984, pp.125-175.
Mariana Torgovnick. "Defining the Primitive", in Gone Primitive. Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 3-41.
Dr Diala Touré is an architectural historian. She is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota in the Department of African-American and African Studies. Among her latest publications are "Bureaux d'Etudes Henri Chomette in West Africa" in Encyclopedia of 20th century architecture (Dearborn), release in 2000 and "Modern Architecture in West Africa" in La Revue Noire 31, December 1998.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century