"Primitivism..."

By Camille Okhio.

The Black and White Picasso show at the Guggenheim was Black and White in more than one way. The narrative created by the show was exceptional, showcasing Picasso’s early to late career work, both in its preparatory and finished stages. A topic was missing amongst all the excessively informative wall text. The stylistic strategies and influence Picasso garnered from the Non-Western. The show focussed more on Picasso’s friends, loves and political ideas, and not so much on the aesthetic evolution of his work. That was shown only through the visual progression of the show. Stylistic changes were almost imperceptible as the show moved along, but walking the upwards spiral (both physically and mentally) through Picasso’s forte, informed the viewer of his solid reliance on exoticism and the marrying of an over-simplification of figures and visually layered complexity.

Les Demoiselles of D’Avignon, Pablo Picasso 1907.

Picasso was an avid African art collector like many of his time and before him. Peggy Guggenheim prided herself in amassing enough figurines to splay across her Venetian Palazzo, and she had the insider advantage of one who fostered the careers of more than one Master in the early 20th century. This fascination in the West with all Non-Western, which took root in the late 1920’s seems to have reached a fever pitch in the 40s and slowly declined until now, with the occasional spark from a gifted youth, Basquiat for example.


Helmet, Basquiat 1981.

The story is always different though. With Picasso his work was seen as a sophisticated though at times brusque reappropriation of the “Native.” Native was not only a look but an idea. Often an ill-informed idea. And the ideas that birth a stylistic revolution, though perhaps unfounded, often become accepted. In the 20th century Man’s darkest fear was a regression to primitivism. Perhaps it still is? This fear is illustrated in the western academics’ approach to non-western culture, history and social interactions. Traditions are regarded as primitive and underdeveloped when they do not fit within a predetermined frame showcasing “civilization.”


Souvenir de Biskra, Henri Matisse, 1906.

The term Primitive is not as often thrown around today as it was 20 or 30 years ago. When Basquiat was “discovered” no one could stop talking about the black artist with the brilliantly primitive works. He was refreshing to the bourgeoisie for his truth, though the truths he was displaying were boiled down to an awareness for his “primitive roots.” The error in this perception is obvious at this point, but there are subtle indications that the mindset that provoked this racially tinged, backwards assessment still permeates art related discussion.

“The Dance” Andre Derain, 1905.

Using the term “primitive” in an academic or social context for anything other than prehistoric man is a completely inappropriate formality which cemented itself in art world jargon many years ago. “Primitive” artwork was popularized alongside styles that were not considered serious, such as the artwork of children and the mentally impaired. How could we allow this devaluation of non-western art become so firmly accepted in western society?
Aesthetic superiority is a farce. I do not demand the marrying of western and non-western. I am simply questioning why they cannot exist on equal footing. The reference terms of “Western” and “Non-western” presuppose that western is the first, correct and the mother, from which all other forms stem. Everything is validated by its relation to the western.
I suggest that a celebration of the Primitive take hold. Primitive work can just as easily be viewed as a birth and a root of all emotional visual expression. Most Non-Western works are in fact an expression of the visually stimulating within a frame that also has an active use.


“Grace Jones” Robert Mapplethorpe, 1984.

African masks are danced, ancestor figures are venerated and reliquary figures serve as protective encasings. An art which has been formed from vibrant traditions is one that I think should be referred to with respect and awe, rather than with a vague lack of understanding. How difficult can it be to understand what is so simply a manifestation of tradition, religion and respect?
Those traditions categorized as Primitive are some of the most important influences on modern Non-Western art. They are indications of a much older and deeper human expression than those we come into contact with on a more regular basis. The truth is, we decide what is superior and we decide why we need to decipher between superior and inferior. Aesthetically nothing can be truly superior. The experience of art is too personal to be divided into superior and inferior. I propose an appreciation for the Non-Western without an inkling of condescension. Perhaps taking Non-Western works out of the repressive framework they have been placed within could aid this situation. Perhaps, if we apply a new form of thinking which links works not for their shared birthing place, but for a shared vein of thought that bridges cultures, we may unveil more interesting truths.

Camille Okhio is a contributing writer for by such and such.