History records that in 1920, Pablo Picasso said of African art, "L'art nègre? Connais pas." It meant, "African art? Never heard of it!" It was a bold denial, not only of African influence but of the very existence of African art. He implicitly denied that Africans had the capacity to create works worthy of the term "art". This was very ironic if not mischievous for a man who was later found with a collection of African art. Had Picasso admitted he had been influenced by Africa, it would have been enough to call him a great artist and end it at that. Instead, his petty denial of the apparent earned him another title: culture vulture.
Picasso is said to have been blown away by the "magic" of African art. Henri Matisse exposed Picasso to an African sculpture he had just purchased and soon after, Picasso was to have a life-changing experience at the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro in Paris. As he looked at the African and Oceanic collection at the museum, his art was taking a shift. He later said of the experience, "And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. That day I understood that I had found my path." He found his path in African and Oceanic works and yet denied their influence!
One of Picasso's most famous paintings, the "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" tells the story all too well. Here was a man enamored with African beauty but for some reason could not begin to publicly accept it. Maybe he was a victim of circumstance, tied down by the chains of white supremacy so tight that any admission of appreciation for Africa would have been a betrayal of his own race. Maybe he was just a coward too scared to admit to his contemporaries that Africa had moved not just his intellect but his spirit. It will never be clear why he chose to be deemed a genius when the source of that ingenuity was derided as the home of the savages.
In any case, the African influence inherent in his work resurfaced as a hot issue in 2006, in South Africa. At the Picasso and Africa exhibition, the artist's work was displayed together with 29 African works similar to those in Picasso's collection. It was described as an "innovative dialogue between Picasso's work and his African inspiration". However, Sandile Memela, then South African Department of Arts and Culture head of communications would have none of it. Memela said, "Today the truth is on display that Picasso would not have been the renowned creative genius he was if he did not steal and re-adapt the work of 'anonymous [African] artists'". It was a brazen truth that shook tables. But Memela was not done. He added, "There seems to be some clandestine agenda… that projects Picasso as someone… who loved African art so much that he went out of his way to reveal it the world… But all this is a whitewash… he is but one of the many products of African inspiration and creativity who lacked the courage to admit its influence on his consciousness and creativity."
Picasso's friend, John Richardson said Picasso would have been upset. To Richardson, a white artist's indignation should stop the truth from being said. In fact, Richardson claimed four artists - Picasso Braque, Matisse and Derain put tribal art on the map. He said it was of no cultural importance until Picasso and crew "elevated it". The defense was clearly not helpful for his case. His implicit racism lay in the misguided belief that for art to be culturally important, white men in Europe have to appreciate it. It is a very sad and blinkered Eurocentric understanding of the world. Europeans could have ignored African art and its cultural centrality to Africans would have been sufficient. African art never needed Picasso. Picasso needed African art.
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