Through the Modernist Looking-glass:
Appropriation and Denial in Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens
The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology recently hosted the exhibition Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, from October 30, 2010 to January 23, 2011. From the title, I expected a consideration of Man Ray’s art on equal terms with African art, and a consideration of the Modernist lens that would include its critique. What I found was a celebration of the Modernist perspective that resulted in the inability to transcend its shortcomings, or even to fully acknowledge them. As a white Canadian woman, I approached the exhibition both as a (Western) Self and as a (female) Other, but encountering the uncritical presentation of Western appropriation and the Male Gaze, it was as an unqualified Other that I left it.
Entering the exhibition, one is confronted by a large photograph covering an entire wall. The wall text identifies the image as a view of an exhibit curated by Alfred Stieglitz in New York City in 1914, which was claimed to be the first North American showing of African art objects as worthy of formalist analysis. It was also tainted by the racist view, noted by the curator, that the creators of these works were ‘primitive savages’. Further wall text gives context for the exhibit with a biography of Man Ray and a description of the role of photography in the Modernist project. The focus of the exhibition is thus established not as African art, but rather as Modernist photography, and the ways in which Modernist photographers used African art to attain their aims.
As one passes into the large, openly connected rooms that make up the exhibit, this impression is reinforced. The walls are closely lined with well-lit photographs interspersed with lengthy wall texts; the photographs are by Man Ray and other Modernist artists, while the wall texts provide information on aspects of Modernism, photography, and colonialism. Scattered in the open spaces of the rooms are glass cases holding African sculptures. There are far fewer sculptures than photographs, and they are far less well-lit. The texts accompanying the sculptures are sparse, giving only basic origin information, and not including the names of the artists. Several larger glass cases hold books and other European and American publications from the Modernist period. There are several films. Gazing at the exhibition rooms as a whole, one sees dark, mysterious sculptures flanked by white walls. From the ensemble of the photographs, themes emerge. The masks and sculptures are photographed in controlled studio settings, in artificial contexts. There is a repeated pairing of the black body of the mask or sculpture with the white body of the nude Caucasian woman. Seeing the room as a whole shows the parallel between the African art objects in the photographs and their presentation in the exhibition: they are framed in black and white boxes, divorced from the contexts that led to their making, brought into a Western world with their languages untranslated.
Many of the photographs juxtapose beautiful women with ‘primitive’ masks or sculptures. Man Ray’s Simone Kahn shows the eponymous subject lying on a couch while a carved male figure from Vanuatu stands on her midsection. In an untitled work of Man Ray’s from 1926, and again in his famous Noire et blanche from 1927, women’s faces and bodies are coupled with sculptures in suggestive ways. The curator notes that “Man Ray was simultaneously exploring the potential of both Oceanic and African art as fetishized and eroticized objects of desire alongside female models.” The work of other photographers continues this theme. In a note on Curtis Moffat’s untitled photograph from the 1930s, the curator describes “the manner in which members of the avant-garde eroticized non-Western objects and projected their own sexual fantasies in such representations.”
Other photographs depict the sculptures in less sexualized contexts, but here too we can observe ways in which the photographer projects meaning into the image. Walker Evans’ images are presented next to Man Ray’s and provide a sharp contrast, particularly in their images of the so-called ‘Bangwa Queen’. Evans documents masks and sculptures straight on, whereas Ray’s use of angle and shadow create a sense of mood and narrative that goes beyond the reproduction of the object at hand.
Not all of the masks and sculptures in the photographs are present in the exhibit, and the few pieces are not privileged by lengthy descriptions. We learn that the pieces were collected from colonized territories and that their origins are somewhat obscure. What notes do accompany the sculptures speak of a context that is not present in the exhibition nor is it illuminated for the viewer. A statue of a female figure from Mali is labelled, “smaller figures such as this are used exclusively by divination specialists of the women’s Sandogo association.” What is a Sandogo association? How are the figures used? And if this sculpture is a tool, to be used only by qualified women, what does it mean to have it be photographed by (male) artists and redefined as an art object? To whom is this changed status significant? Half-figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo “derived its potency and efficacy from its role as a mediator between the human and the spirit worlds.” In a glass case in a travelling exhibition, its potency and efficacy have been doused; in celebrating the formalist quality of these objects, their essences have been erased.
The exhibition’s wall text describes the Modernist search for new forms of expression, showing how photography, particularly that of non-Western artifacts, “challenged Western classical traditions and artistic hierarchies and promoted new ways of understanding and making art”. The wall text on Surrealism indicates that “artists were drawn to the perceived authenticity and innocence of pre-industrial societies.” Much of the significance of African art for the Surrealists came from its innovative quality; indeed the wall text further notes that as African art became more popular and commonly known, its meaning changed for the Surrealists, who adopted Oceanic artifacts as more authentic and innocent than the African art, which in interpretation had been diminished by European contact, though its forms had not changed. In a review of the concept of modernism, Drucker et al. emphasize that the early Modernists focussed on form as more significant than origin or history, but it is also clear that form is never devoid of meaning or context; indeed through this privileging of formal autonomy, they argue that “modernism effectively concealed or participated in practices of oppression with regard to class, gender, ethnicity, and colonial politics.” It was not merely formal properties that drew Modernists to photograph “primitive” art. Chadwick asks us to reconsider the juxtaposition of figures in Man Ray’s Noire et blanche in this light:
the specific images and objects which he employs are already assigned complex and powerful meanings within social, sexual, and cultural hierarchies. To circulate a mask, which has a complex ritual content at its point of origin, as a studio prop, and to reduce a model’s head to an abstract shape so that it too may function as an inanimate object, may be as much an ideological function of a European cult of male individuality and control over the bodies of others as it is a result of individual aesthetic judgement. (3)
A quote from Man Ray near the entrance to the exhibition reveals something of his process: “I photograph the things I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence.” The Modernist photographers took things which already had an existence, and represented them in ways which disregarded or negated that existence. Man Ray also appropriated his own work, for example in By Itself I revisiting the same work as a modelled sculpture, a photograph, and a bronze casting of the original. The curator notes that “for him there was no difference in significance between the original object, the photographic image, and the replication”. The difference between the two acts of appropriation is, however, significant. In the former case the artist retains ownership of the work and can meaningfully control the contexts in which it is presented; in the latter, the artwork is removed from its creator and the culture of origin. They no longer control how the object is viewed or used, and its meaning can be manipulated by those who may not understand it. The issue of appropriation is not raised, however, in the wall texts in this exhibition.
The curator describes the exhibition’s function as “revealing the role of photographs in elevating the status of African artifacts in Western eyes from ethnographic objects to works of fine art while simultaneously securing a place for photography as a modernist art form.” This is presented as a positive trajectory where the African art works move from being unknown (to Western audiences) to being appreciated (by Western audiences). This gain is necessarily paired with a loss, one that is not discussed: the loss to African artists and communities, first of the sculptures and later of the right to define their own artworks. This right was usurped by Modernist interpretation, first through photographic documentation and exhibitions and later through the creation of the scholarly narrative of African art, written in the West by Westerners, the origins of which are shown in one of the exhibition’s glass cases. It is also unclear that the sculptures did gain the status of fine art objects, when their recognition was so dependent on an externally imposed narrative; nor is the assumption that the change from ethnographic to fine art object entails an ‘elevation’ ever elaborated.
The exhibition does provide some information about the racism and sexism contained in these images; indeed it provides all the information necessary to begin a critique of the Modernist project – but it never does so. Instead, the exhibition remains solidly within the Modernist framework, and thus not only does it endorse a Western-centric viewpoint, but it fails to provide us with the context in which we could truly admire the African sculptures as fine art objects in their own right. To paraphrase Marcia Crosby, we only see Imaginary Africans, or worse, Imaginary Generic Primitives whose sole identity exists in relation to the Modern Civilized Occidental (267). One section of the exhibition is devoted to the Harlem Renaissance, whose Black artists had a different relation to the sculptures, a more personal and positive sense of connection. But even this is imaginary, based in the artists’ hopes rather than in knowledge.
At certain places in the exhibit, the Modernist narrative is pierced by commentary that begins to see outside it. A sculpture of a female figure from Côte d’Ivoire, collected before 1925 (there is no date of creation), has the following description: “Lagoon owners dressed their sacred and secular statues, but this figure has been stripped of its garments.” The violence inherent in the word, ‘stripped’, for once gives us a sense of the brutality involved in denuding these works of their contexts. The curator provides another such moment in the following text:
For most art-producing cultures in sub-Saharan Africa, the spectacle or masquerade is the ultimate form of artistic expression, incorporating not just the carved wooden masks, but also a costume ensemble, music, singing, and dance. What we see enclosed in the museum display case is but a faint echo of the artwork’s original vitality. In a curious way, the modernist photographic images often unwittingly hint at the vital force that was originally an integral part of those works.
This word, ‘unwittingly’ is revelatory. The Modernist photographers were unaware of the traditions surrounding the masks and sculptures they depicted; it is that unawareness that greets us in this exhibition. It returns us to a past where it was acceptable to appropriate the work of non-Western peoples to serve the dominant colonialist perspective. It is no longer acceptable to do this today. In an essay on Primitivism, Connelly describes what is instead now considered an ethical approach to such work: “an attempt to recover historical memory…in order to confront modern Western history rather than to escape it.”
As a student in my first year at ECUAD, but my fifth year of post-secondary education, these ideas are not entirely new to me. I find it surprising that in 2011, a Museum of Anthropology affiliated with a research university would choose to show an exhibition that is so retrograde in its engagement with critical social theory. Bringing the African art to confront its Westernized representation in an era informed by postcolonial theory could have been a powerful act; but the sculptures and photographs do not face each other. The colonialist representation is undisturbed.
Chadwick, Whitney. “Fetishizing Fashion/Fetishizing Culture: Man Ray’s “Noire et blanche”. Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1995), pp. 3-17. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Connelly, Frances S. “Primitivism.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. 20 Feb. 2011 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0422>.
Crosby, Marcia. “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, ed. Stan Douglas. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991. pp. 267-291.
Drucker, Johanna, et al. “Modernism.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. 20 Feb. 2011 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0358>.
Female figure, Lagoon region, Cote d’Ivoire, collected before 1925. In Man Ray.
Female figure, Senufo, Niena, Mali, collected 1931-32, late 19thC or early 20th C. In Man Ray.
Half-figure (nkis ya bwang), Kanyok, DRC, late 19th-early 20thC. In Man Ray.
Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver: 2010-2011.
Moffat, Curtis. Untitled, 1930s. In Man Ray.
Ray, Man. By Itself I. In Man Ray.
—. Noire et blanche. 1927. In Man Ray.
—. Simone Kahn, 1927. In Man Ray.
—. Untitled, 1926. In Man Ray.