A New Take on “Primitivism”? Man Ray, African Art, and The Modernist Lens

Of all the images I encountered in Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens, which completed its North American tour this winter with a stay at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (the catalog also won the International Tribal Book Award) the one that most caught my imagination was a photograph by British Surrealist Roland Penrose. It shows fellow Surrealists Paul Eluard and E. L. T. Mesens posed in conversation, gesticulating vigorously, wearing dark suits and carved African masks.

What startles the eye is how completely the two men are transformed. The masks seem no more or less arbitrary a form of self-fashioning than Eluard’s rumpled socks or Mesens’s white pocket square. The picture opens itself up to a range of readings. Do the masks conceal or reveal? Did Penrose intend a Freudian allegory, using African artifacts to reveal the “savages” beneath the suits? Or are we to think of the masks of Athenian tragedy and Japanese Noh, elements of the rituals by which life becomes art?

There are other questions to ask as well. Can this be anything other than two white men reducing the artifacts of a nonwhite culture to the status of props in their cerebral games? In my years as a graduate student, the academic word on artistic primitivism seemed unambiguous. It was straight-up cultural imperialism, an act of appropriation by western artists and intellectuals eager to project their own Hearts of Darkness onto the so-called savages. But this always seemed less than completely satisfactory to me, part of the story but not the whole of it.

Many of the pleasures of Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens lay in its exploration of the many facets of the modernist fascination with African art, from serious engagement to frivolous exoticism and back again. Celebrities of the Harlem renaissance posed with African sculpture in the studio of African-American photographer Carl van Vechten. Haute couture milliner Lilly Daché collected Congolese hats, which inspired some of her own avant-garde designs. At the lowbrow end of the spectrum, a French publication entitled “Une nuit de Singapore”, would-be highbrow erotica full of dusky maidens, used images of African art to illustrate a textbook example of Edward Said-style Orientalism.

The core of the exhibition, as the title suggests, was Man Ray’s photographs of African art objects, many of them owned by the Danish collector Carl Kjersmeier. Walker Evans photographed some of the same objects, and the contrast between his images and Ray’s was striking. Where Evans photographed objects head-on, in relatively even light, as if for a catalog, Ray used dramatic angles and raking light. The play of light and shadow in Ray’s images create a sense of life, even of movement. In an untitled photograph, an antelope headdress from Mali and a female figure from the Ivory Coast are, in the words of the exhibition label, “intertwined in a web of light and shadow”; the serrated crest of the headdress, in bold silhouette, seems to be in motion.

Some photographs bring the objects quite literally into the land of the living, such as the iconic image of “Kiki.”