There is no hierarchy in Art (André Malraux)
Considered at the time to be the capital of Negro Art, Paris was soon to meet its rival. In 1935 the Museum of Modern Art organized an important exhibition on African Art. Greatly influenced by the European avant-garde scene, this young institution was driven to become a major player on the modern art scene. However, in the early 20th century long before this occurred, private art galleries in Paris were already displaying Western modern art beside African art. In 2009, the Grand Palais held, what was to be considered, one of the largest exhibitions of Pablo Picasso and the artists who influenced him. Entitled: Picasso and the Masters it showed the masterpieces of the great masters of Western art, spanning from Caravaggio to Cezanne, el Greco and Manet to Goya.
Deserving the success it received, the exhibition satisfied the general public and connoisseurs alike, this was attributed to the exceptional quality of the work and the great range of the selection.
However, there was something absent in this exhibition. There was not a single African mask on display. Today, no one can deny the fundamental contribution of the aesthetics of the arts from the extra-Occidental cultures. Particularly, those of the Songye ethnic group in the Congo, who played a major role in the foundation of the analytical and synthetic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
But what does this absence mean?
If it is not considered as an unjustifiable amnesia, it is a sign for an indelible stain in human history, a simple denial that is taking away the fundamental notion of otherness in creation.
Achille Mbembe, an African thinker I met during a lecture I was giving a few years ago at the Tate Modern on the concept of re-appropriation, told me the following: “Kader, there is re-appropriation because there was dispossession”. From re-appropriation to repair, is only a small step.
Both the Picasso and the Masters exhibition and the Georges Braque exhibition, currently on display at the Galeries nationales in the Grand Palais, do not exhibit the true genealogy of Western modern art. This is due to the complete omission of traditional African art. They are actively taking part in the denial of historical influences, thus limiting the viewer’s knowledge of the evolution of art in general. Whether it is traditional or modern the main factor in both is repair. This repair took place through a mimetic process from one otherness to another. It is the result of two variables. On the one hand, the necessity to modernize the Western artistic thought among other developments from European human activities since the Renaissance. And on the other hand the scrutiny of extra-Occidental aesthetics and their grammar devoid of any European influence due to their distance in time and space.
From tradition to modernity. Picasso, much like another great genius of modernity, Le Corbusier, extracted the foundations of a modern aesthetic by inventing another look on the cultural creations from the extra-Occidental. The absence of African masks in these contemporary exhibitions breaks the cultural continuity that these geniuses have never denied.
Pablo Picasso used to say: “I felt my greatest artistic emotions when I suddenly saw the sublime beauty of the sculptures made by the anonymous artists from Africa”.
Since then the world has changed. For the most part, the extra-Occidental cultures, formerly colonized in the past, are now emerging both economically and politically. For others, they have become strategic powers courted by the West, namely India, Brasil, South Africa, Nigeria to name a few.
Why such a denial from the Grand Palais?
The rise of cultures, which were formerly colonized, is frightening. The West sees otherness, a ground for compromise, as the last stone of its secular hegemony. Forgetting the fundamental contribution of extra-Occidental cultures had on modern art is a complete denial that must be repaired. Repair is an endless process of intellectual, cultural, and political adjustments that humanity carries on in parallel with its natural process of evolution: natural selection.
What Picasso observed in the African masks is the genuine principles of another look, of a spread perspective that grants the sculpted object a polymorph and polysemous aspect that has nothing to do with a rational flight point, but with something else: a thought that links the rational to the magical. He sees oxymora in this defragmentation: fragmenting to repair.
Covering three African masks with mirrors, three objects sculpted by the hands of those Pablo Picasso calls “anonymous artists”, following each part, each fold, the viewer sees his/her own reflection fragmented. And shall experience what the genius of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque saw in these masks: the fragmentation of the space in numerous dimensions (rational and magical), the continuity of which will be the invention of Cubism.
Pasting these mirrors on the surfaces made by another sculptor, this procedure is not to be understood as a repair of the work but rather as a kind of Western contemporary amnesia, covering the paternity of tradition over modernity and of tradition over contemporaneity.
Kader Attia, 2013