Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2021
Joshua I. Cohen The "Black Art" Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 304 pp.; 83 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520309685)

I winced the first time I read the title of this book. The cause of my trepidation was the quotation marks that enshrined “Black Art.” As a Black queer woman artist who is invested in the representation of Otherness in visual art, the symbols were striking in their evocation because, for me, they immediately raised several questions related to authenticity, aesthetics, and identity. However, my reservations lessened as I read the introductory pages and recognized the exhaustive care and attention that the author devoted to understanding the role canonical African sculpture played in the rise of modernisms in the first half of the twentieth century.

In The “Black Art” Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents, Joshua I. Cohen presents a multisited art historical investigation of the influence of African sculptural forms on modernism, the emergence and evolution of art nègre, and postcolonial identity. This book, organized into five chapters detailing pivotal moments in African modernity and emergent art practices, also presents itself as a corrective to art history’s ethnocentric treatment of modernism as an innovation of a white, male, and European avant-garde genius. As a preliminary note, Cohen offers no explicit definition for modernism or modernity but rather focuses on the social and political processes surrounding postcolonial art practices among African and African-descended artists.

Chapter 1, “Rethinking Fauve ‘Primitivism,’” elaborates on an article that appeared in The Art Bulletin in 2017. Here, Cohen argues that the growing market for art nègre generated new figural, material, and perspectival directions for European avant-garde artists. He focuses specifically on how a cohort of Paris-based artists—Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso—co-opted and integrated certain formal elements from African statuary and masks into their own art practices. Using archival research, correspondence, museum catalogs, and ledgers, Cohen traces the encounters with and acquisitions of particular African sculptural works by these artists. The most influential of these sculptures for the Fauvists was a genre of Fang (a Bantu-speaking ethnic group) masks known as ngontang. Citing Louis Perrois, Cohen explains that ngontang—a name meaning “young white woman” in Fang-language dialect (30)—was a type of masquerade mask produced by Fang artists in response to the violent and abusive sociopolitical landscape of late nineteenth-century French-colonial Gabon. While some of these masks were ritual, as Cohen argues, many were produced as export commodities to Europe. Treated mostly as “decorative art,” these items were handled, collected, displayed, and sold by way of curio dealers, private collectors, and ethnographic museums (49).

Cohen observes that this trend did not take place in a historical vacuum. Rather, the demand for such art objects throughout Europe was ancillary to the emerging zeitgeist of evolutionism and race-based pseudosciences that would yield “modern primitivism.” For Cohen, modern primitivism generally refers to “nineteenth- and twentieth-century fascinations with non-Western and non-classical material cultures” (49). In this paradigm, art objects from Africa, Asia, and Oceania otherwise known as art nègre were used by European avant-gardes, “as sources for channeling the intuition, vitality, expressive vigor, and sexual freedom of a longed-for original condition” (49). Some explanation of consumerism and late nineteenth-century industrial capitalism would have further strengthened his exegesis here.

Cohen quickly points out the ironies of colonial modernity and the art nègre objects that were produced and acquired in this context. He suggests that the Fang masks that inspired Vlaminck, Derain, Matisse, and later Picasso possibly functioned as portraits of Europeans. It is here that Cohen elucidates the complex interrelation between European artists’ appropriations of African sculptural forms and the subversive creativity of the African artists who created them. These ironies were presumably lost on the Fauvists who encountered these masks and other works of art from Oceania and Asia lumped into art nègre; however, the “glean[ing of] new formal possibilities” from them was not (39). Cohen admits that while Fauvists were already familiar with the attributes of art nègre, it was “the sculpturally daring African sculpture that prompted Fauves to rethink prescribed traditions of what they knew about painting and figuration” (53). He concludes that their interest took place “at a moment of disorientation on the Paris art scene” (52). He does not fully detail what precipitated this disorientation, but he carefully notes that Fauvists’ fascinations with art nègre “served as catalytic bridges” (52). In the remainder of the chapter, Cohen meticulously traces and describes the various ways in which Vlaminck, Derain, and Matisse used spatial elements taken from specific African sculptures to explore new strategies in three-dimensionality, geometric forms, and rendering the human figure volumetrically.

In chapter 2, “Picasso’s African Influences,” Cohen presents a comparative study of Pablo Picasso’s engagement with African art and the contemporary Kru artists’ masks that inspired him. Cohen uses a similar methodology as he did in the previous chapter by tracing “identifiable objects and ideas that informed Picasso’s practices” (56). However, the considerations that Cohen makes in analyzing Picasso’s encounters with African sculpture are less acerbic and more genial than his critiques of how the Fauves co-opted, decontextualized, and appropriated elements from art nègre. Picasso, more so than his contemporaries, acknowledged the spiritual embodiment of the masks he encountered and used this understanding as a heuristic in his work. As such, Cohen’s description of Picasso’s interest in African art may be interpreted more so as an engaged enchantment with the bewildering “aesthetics of disjuncture in African sculpture” (57). He proposes that there were “interventions” that influenced Picasso’s practice between 1906 and 1912 (56–57). Primary among these interventions were a number of works on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in 1907, which inspired the painting of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that same year, and a cylinder-eyed Kru mask from Ivory Coast that prompted the novel technique of assemblage in Picasso’s construction of Guitar (1912). For Cohen, it was the “visual discontinuities” of African art that added important innovations to Picasso’s repertoire of rendering and applying sculptural dimensionality to his figurative paintings and diverse materiality to his sculptures (69). Cohen offers a reflective end to this chapter by recognizing that the African influences evidenced in Picasso’s artwork reveal larger “transculturations” (Mary Louise Pratt’s term), taking place between West Africa and Europe (92).

These exchanges yielded new developments in art that were also appealing to artists across the Atlantic. In his third chapter, “Harlem Renaissance and Diaspora,” Cohen investigates the ways in which the trend of art nègre catalyzed new schemas about modern identity for African-descended artists in the New World. He focuses primarily on the emergent “Africa interest” among Black modernist artists’ use of sculptural traditions and symbolism in the New Negro Movement in the 1910s to 1930s (94). Central to his thesis are his examinations of how ideologies such as ancestralism, the intentional acquisition and exhibition of African art objects by members of the Black intelligentsia (namely Alain Locke), and the recontextualization of African sculptural forms by Black American artists (James Lesesne Wells, Palmer Hayden, Norman Lewis, Lois Mailou Jones) cultivated a new, collective transatlantic identity for African Americans.

For me, chapter 3 offers one of Cohen’s more contentious critiques on how artists beyond Africa and Europe drew upon African art aesthetics in promulgating sensibilities related to modernism and racial identity. As in previous chapters, he grapples with the many ironies surrounding the how and why of artists’ appropriations and (mis)translations of African art. Cohen’s primary discomfort, in this chapter, is with the “presentism” that guided the artwork that New Negro artists produced (98). His interpretation of these artists’ use of African sculptural forms is caged in opinions about authenticity, which he admits “would be unimaginable for European or Euro-American movements” (125). His disclaimer reflects art history’s acclamation of African art as original and its tendency to disavow diasporic art as mimetic.

In his remaining two chapters, Cohen assesses the strategies that South African artist Ernest Mancoba and Senegalese culture theorist Léopold Sédar Senghor implemented in recontextualizing art nègre as a visual poetics of African modernist art, humanism, and anticolonialism. Like the Fauvists and New Negro artists, Mancoba, Senghor, and the Négritude artists of the École de Dakar encountered canonical African sculpture in the colonial contexts of museums, collections, and art historical books. The differences between these latter groups of artists and the former were their translations of African sculptural forms, as evidenced by Mancoba’s Bantu Madonna (1929), and their use of “black art” as a mediator that bridged “disparate epochs, geographical locations . . . [and] pre- and postcolonial cultures” (164).

Cohen concludes that “modernist engagements with African art by European, American, and African artists set African aesthetics into an arena of visual art where it was acknowledged for its formal elements and its social possibilities” (194). As problematic and complex as the fetishistic origins of the art nègre trend were, for African and African-descended artists it was heuristic as a discursive space for reckoning with postcolonial identity. In my assessment, Cohen pivots between this acknowledgment and his own questions about whether early engagements with African art by European artists can be examined in relation to a “transcontinental history of African and diaspora modernisms” (190). He admits, and I agree, that this is a reiteration of Eurocentric inquiry. However, his attentive examination opens lines of new inquiry that can center the creative epistemologies of African and African American artists who inspired European avant-garde artists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Kara Mshinda
Temple University