The Quai-Branly Museum in Paris houses more than seventy thousand works - fetishes, thrones, masks, weapons, jewelry, textiles - that bear witness to the creativity of "non-Western" cultures. Presented in the form of a geographical tour, the museum's collections invite visitors to discover the cultural history of several continents and rediscover objects that have long been referred to as "negro art", primitive art", and more recently as "art premier"(Aka-Evy, 1999).
After being of interest mostly to scholar and academic circles, the European avant-garde turned these objects of curiosity into art pieces endowed, as Guillaume Apollinaire noted, with "a powerful expressiveness and poetic resonance" (Apollinaire, 1917). The interaction of artists with these crafted materials deeply influenced their creativity by questioning European conventional artistic perspectives. The contact of the cultures lead to a process of semantic sedimentation that transformed them into multicultural vessels: bearers of the symbolism and aesthetics stemming from their native culture as well as the epistemological and semantic projection of European sensibility.
The artists at the beginning of the 20th century appropriated the works exhibited in French ethnographic museums and gave them mystical meanings, intertwined with a sense of exoticism. This fascination of Parisian artists with such objects played an important role in the emergence of movements such as Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. The Art Historian Benedicte Savoy describes this phenomenon as "aesthetics fecundation" dynamics (Savoy, 2017) – meaning fusions, transformations as well as formal and conceptual blending. The result is a displacement of objects in new cultures that will then appropriate and transform them through their own symbolic, aesthetic, and intellectual referential (Terroni, 2015).
This appetite for the arts of Africa and other continents also allowed for the creation of an important market for masks, statuettes, and all kinds of artifacts, all of which were fueled by notions of a mysterious art - legends, spells, and black magic - which sellers tried to maintain in the face of strong Western demand. The ever-increasing demand also pushed Africans to set up a craft production to satisfy the appetite of the insatiable buyers, even if it meant manufacturing objects deprived of any symbolic or spiritual function, except to be sold as such. Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker in their film "Les Statues meurent aussi" [Statues die too], an anti-colonial pamphlet released in 1953 and censored for eleven years in France, denounce the European fetish for objects extracted from the colonies. They argue that, obsessed with the desire to acquire objects that serve mystical or sacred functions, the European demand led to a disruption of African creativity - they worked to produce objects that corresponded to what Europeans expected of them - which ultimately emptied their work of all symbolic meaning, mainly leaving them to reproduce stereotypes in their art."At the same time that it gained its titles of glory, « Negro art » became a dead language. [...] The particular beauty of « Negro art » is replaced by a general ugliness: an art where objects become trinkets, a cosmopolitan art; an art of the flower vase, the paperweight and the souvenir penholder." (Marker & Resnais, 1953).
The Western fever for the "Negro arts" or "primitive arts" only grew throughout the 20th century. In 1930, the merchant Charles Ratton, the Dadaist poet and passionate collector Tristan Tzara, and the gallery owner Pierre Loeb organized the Exhibition of African and Oceanic Art at the Galerie du Théâtre Pigalle. It was a success and a scandal that shook Paris; some works considered too obscene were even withdrawn from the exhibition (Biro, 2018). Among the lenders were Picasso, Derain, and other painters who paved the way for the discovery of "primitive arts". The very high quality of the pieces brought together established the long-lasting reputation of the event. Among the objects presented at the time, many are now considered major works of African and Oceanic art, including the statue of the "God Gou" that Apollinaire described in a 1909 evening newspaper:"[...] this great iron sculpture from Dahomey, a pearl of the ethnographic collections, probably the most unexpected and graceful object of art to be found in Paris [...] The Louvre should welcome in its collection certain exotic masterpieces whose appearance is no less moving than that of the beautiful specimens of Western statuary" (Apollinaire, 1909).
The history of the "God Gou '' statue, which is the result of a historical, aesthetic, and cultural hybrid between Africa and Europe, condenses the dynamics behind the construction of colonial objects into works of art. It also symbolizes the contemporary issues surrounding the return and restitution of colonial heritage to their original communities that have been shaking European museums since 2017. The statue, which was originally an insignia of the power of the kings of Benin, became a trophy of the French colonial Empire. Brought back to France, it was a subject of scholarly ethnographic study before the avant-garde' artist’s gaze made it a work of art. The statues now hold traditions and imaginations of different cultures, mixed together, illustrating the heritage of colonization as much as the symbolic and creative power an artwork can hold.
Beyond the current tensions over demands for the return of artifacts, it is undeniable that the works of "primitive art" have contributed to a rupture of artistic norms at the origin of a renewal of European artistic production. Bernard Dupaigne considers that "African art, discovered in part at the Trocadero Museum in these pre-war years, can be considered as one of the sources of inspiration that allowed painters in search of new forms, in reaction to the realism of official art of the nineteenth century, to create a new artistic language" (Dupaigne, 2012).
As European countries begin to look carefully at how some of their public collections have been built up, it would certainly be beneficial to recognize and emphasize that our artistic heritage is the product of an aesthetic and symbolic metissage undertaken, sometimes in a forced manner, between Western colonial cultures and the colonized people of the world. Thus, to acknowledge what Western art owes to the world, rather than, as it usually portrayed, the other way around.
Aka-Evy, J. L. (1999). De l’art primitif à l’art premier. Cahiers d’études africaines, 39(155), 563‑582. https://doi.org/10.3406/cea.1999.1765
Apollinaire, G. (1917). À propos de l’Art des Noirs, Melanophilie ou Melanomanie, Mercure de France, 120(451).
Savoy, B. (2017) A qui appartient la beauté? Arts et cultures du monde dans nos musées, Conference at the College de France., 2, 26/042017. https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/benedicte-savoy/course-2017-04-26-16h15.htm
Terroni, C. (2015), The recovered memory of works of art, Books&ideas, translated by Kate McNaughton. https://booksandideas.net/The-Recovered-Memory-of-Stolen-Works-of-Art.html
Marker, C. Resnais, A. (Directors). (1953). Les statues meurent aussi [Documentary]. Tadié-Cinéma-Production. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXIkzGWIAfo&t=169s
Biro, Y. (2018). Les arts d’Afrique à la galerie du théâtre Pigalle, in Hourdé, C.W., & Rolland, N. Galerie Pigalle Afrique Océanie, 1930. Une exposition mythique, Somogy, p. 108.
Apollinaire, G. (1909, october). Sur les musées, Le Journal du soir.
Dupaigne, B. (2012). La maturation du Musée d’ethnographie au tournant du XXe siècle. Outre-mers, 99(376), 544. https://doi.org/10.3406/outre.2012.4985
Cover: The Dream. Henri Rousseau. 1910. Oil on Canvas, 204,5 × 298,5 cm, Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), New York. Credits: Trish Mayo.
(1) Left: Credit: Figure from reliquary ensemble. Obamba (Gabon) Anonymous. XIXth Century. Wood, Copper and Brass. Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Credits: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Right: Woman in Black - Elvira Ventre. A. Modigliani. 1918. Oil on canvas, 73 x 54 cm, Private Collection. Credits: Amedeo Modigliani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
(2) Left and center pictures extracted from B. Savoy's lecture at the Collège de France, Credits: Le Corbusier, Benedicte Savoy, Collège de France. Right: Gou, deity of war and iron sculpture, A. Ekplékendo. (Before 1858), hammered iron and wood, 178.5 x 53 x 60 cm. Musée du Quai Branly at the Pavillon des Sessions, Louvre, Paris. Credits: Ji-Elle, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons