6 December 2023


Zoom lecture

Black France 4

French Modernism and African Art

A Story of Fascination, Appropriation and Controversy, 1905-2020

The fourth and final lecture in our new Wednesday series

with Anne Catherine Abecassis

Man Ray, Black & White, 1926
Man Ray, Black & White, 1926

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, New York, MoMa
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, New York, MoMa

Since the turn of the 20th century, when Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and later the Dadaists and Surrealists discovered African masks and sculpture, modern artists have continued to show a keen interest in the art and culture of tribal societies. The term "Primitivism" was used to describe this Western response to tribal cultures. European ethnographers and anthropologists of the 1920s and 1930s were also keen to explore the traditions and customs from which these fascinating objects sprang. The Dakar-Djibouti Mission, a French ethnographic expedition to Africa led by Marcel Griaule from 1931 to 1933, is the most famous of the period.


This colonial-style expedition, which largely consisted of robbing the African peoples encountered of their cultural heritage, led to a controversy between Griaule and the writer Michel Leiris, the expedition's secretary, and author of the book L'Afrique fantôme. In 1935, the groundbreaking "African Negro Art" exhibition was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was the first exhibition in the United States to display African sculptures as works of art, rather than as ethnographic objects.


In more recent times MoMA hosted another influential and controversial exhibition on the relationship between African tribal art and French Modernism: “Primitivism” in Modern Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984-85). The Centre Pompidou in Paris hosted Africa Remix, the first major exhibition of contemporary African art in 2005. The Philips Collection in Washington presented in 2019, Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, an exhibition of works of the 20th and 21st centuries engaging, often ironically, with the early 20th century French artists with who championed “Primitivism”, thus coming full circle from the beginning.


These four major exhibitions will be used as the basis in our talk for discussing the rich connections between Western and French Modernism and tribal Africa, the evolution of the relationship over time and the ongoing controversies around this fascinating cultural mix.

You will receive the Zoom meeting details as soon as you register for the chosen lecture(s)