By Michael FitzGerald
Professor of Fine Arts, Trinity College, Hartford, CT
The Eket Ogbom headdress opens two intertwined paths through the history of “Primitivism.” The sculpture’s remarkable formal sophistication is an exceptional example of the African art that so enthralled modern, western artists during the twentieth century. Yet the Eket Ogbom’s significance extends well beyond the history of western art to the growing appreciation of African art in its own right and the fundamental role of Jacques Kerchache (a past owner of the Eket Ogbom) in this transformation of cultural understanding.
When Robert Goldwater published his landmark book Primitivism in Modern Painting in 1938, the issue of Western artists’ appropriation of pre-colonial African, Oceanic and Native American art as sources for their own work was only beginning to be studied systematically under the less than ideal rubric of “primitivism.” During the following half century, art historians and anthropologists disputed without clear resolution whether the term “tribal” was better suited to describe the art of these peoples as these works became increasingly respected in their own right among Western audiences.
So, it is not surprising that in 1984, when William Rubin organized for The Museum of Modern Art in New York the most important exhibition devoted to this topic, he used both terms in the title: “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern. The exhibition earned this distinguished status not only because it presented in the most erudite and sophisticated form the issues of sculptural shape and conceptual inquiry that had attracted European and American artists to tribal objects from the early years of the century, but also because its selection of objects and interpretive approaches reflected the changing patterns of the post-war years. Among the works in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, two sculptures from diverse regions of Africa – Eket Ogbom from Nigeria, Senufo from Ivory Coast – exemplify this evolution, both for their physical beauty as well as for the insightful objectives of the collectors who owned them.[i]
Formally, these two sculptures share characteristics that were central to modern art during the first half of the twentieth century and continued to define the work of important artists in the second half. As stated by Rubin, these features are “an extraordinary economy that makes [the sculpture] especially appealing to modern taste,” and, even more remarkably, “the sophisticated use of ‘negative’ spaces” that have “an autonomous aesthetic interest at least equal to that of the solid forms that demarcate” the body. [ii]
The Eket Ogbam sculpture is the epitome of this conception. Its exquisite dialogue of solid and void is developed both in the sculpture’s overall composition and many details. This formal interplay is introduced by the massive, spherical head surmounting the figure, which is, in turn, deeply indented by a conical facial plane. Yet this masterful carving is only an introduction to what lies below. The upper head is a foil for the highly stylized torso – a tensile, arcing framework that represents the body from collarbone to pelvis. Consisting of two outer borders of the spring-like frame and a central matching division, this tripartite, intricately ornamented enclosure is equally defined by carved wood and the empty space articulated by the airy structure. To complete the symmetry of the work, a solid footing (also carved with a head) grounds the alternation of mass and void along the sculpture’s height. Bernard de Grunne’s statement that the Eket Ogbom “is the most radical and abstract representation of the human body in Sub-Saharan art” is too modest.[iii] When the sculpture was made, and for several decades following that time, it was far more radical than western artists’ representations of the human body as well.
Documentary evidence confirms that the artist who made this sculpture was carving before or contemporaneous with the first European artists who were inspired by this type of African sculpture. Indeed, the illustration of the Eket Ogbom in the Webster catalogue of 1900 makes the sculpture one of the earliest available to western artists through publication.
Between the Two World Wars, this conception of sculpture as a nearly abstract structure liberated from realistic anatomy inspired some of the finest western artists, whether or not they knew this particular work. One need only look at the three-dimensional framework structuring a figure at the center of Picasso’s models for a monument to his great friend, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1928), or Giacometti’s articulated grid, Man (1929). Perhaps the most interesting work to compare with the Eket Ogbom, is Brancusi’s King of Kings (ca. 1920), with its majestic alternation of mass and void, rectilinear and curvilinear forms.
By 1940, the tremendous possibilities offered by African and Oceanic art had been deeply absorbed by western artists. Although some major artists (such as David Smith in his Cubi series of the 1960s, and Donald Judd in his minimalist geometries of the same decade) continued to mine the formal inventions of the Eket Ogbom and similar sculptures, the greatest impact of tribal arts had passed. The inclusion of the Eket Ogbom in the 1984 MoMA exhibition reflects a quest for the finest examples of these formal initiatives irrespective of the specific sculpture’s actual influence on Western artists. By this time, the formal appreciation of African sculpture had become a discipline in itself, even though the appreciation of its forms had first been subordinated to the inspiration western artists derived from it.
This process of defining what might be called “classic” African art in western eyes had certainly begun in the decades before the Second World War, but it reached maturity after the war, when it was no longer closely associated with activities of contemporary artists. Since that time, collectors, rather than artists, have guided the aesthetic program.
In the early years of the century, artists had dominated the collecting of African art. In later decades, only a few artists, such as Arman and Baselitz, have equaled the role of collectors. Picasso set the tone when he claimed, “je ne suis pas collectionneur,” even though he acquired at least 110 African and Oceanic works during his lifetime.[iv] Still, his statement was correct in the sense that he gathered the sculpture as source material for his own work, and he accurately said that he did not need a masterpiece in order to understand what interested him – the idea of an object as he conceived it. Nonetheless, Picasso’s admiration for Africa sculpture led his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, to collect the finest available examples of the types of sculptures that had inspired Picasso.
Picasso’s influence on the collecting of African art transcended the early decades of the century and probably had its greatest influence on the growing audience for tribal art after WWII. This influence is particularly evident in the activities of Rubin. Rubin’s discussions with Picasso in the early 1970s and his visits to the artist’s home, where tribal objects were in evidence, had a great impact on the interest in African and Oceanic art he had long nurtured from his knowledge of Goldwater’s book and his discussions with the author at New York University’s Institute of Fine Art, where both men were on the faculty. More than any other source, however, Rubin’s experience with Picasso inspired him to present “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art.“
The Senufo Ancestor Figure, which Rubin owned from the 1980s until 1991 and included in the exhibition, is a masterful example of the tensile economy of form and open space he praised in the catalogue and Picasso and other artists had admired for decades. [v] Like the Eket Ogbom, the Senufo is a study in balance between mass and void. Although exquisitely honed to suggest arm, spine or breast, its wooden limbs are no broader than the empty cavities they surround and articulate, making a composition both physically grounded in a sharply-defined presence and almost ethereal in its nearly equal balance of solid and void.
For all the exhibition’s scholarly discussion of western responses to tribal art and its magnificent display of the finest tribal sculptures, “Primitivism in 20th Century Art sparked great controversy over its presentation of tribal works as sources for western art rather than as representations of their own cultures. Indeed, it became the marshaling event for worldwide campaigns to honor tribal art on its own terms. No country responded with greater commitment than France. In 1989, the Centre Pompidou organized the landmark exhibition Les magiciens de la terre to present contemporary tribal art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas on an equal footing with the art of Europe and North America.
The real impresario of tribal art in France was Jacques Kerchache, who was himself inspired by Picasso’s example. As Kerchache recounted, “For me, studying Picasso should be a universal requirement, like learning English or history and geography.” [vi] Yet, Kerchache stepped beyond the framework of Picasso’s perceptions of tribal art to engage it directly with legendary intensity. His manifesto, “Les chef-d’oeuvre du monde entire naissent libres et égaux” (1990) proposed what would become the most substantial resolution to the issues of presenting tribal art in western cultures. His recommendation that the Louvre found a department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas led directly to a permanent installation of this art in the Louvre. He became the mentor to Jacques Chirac (then President of France) in his plan to create a museum devoted to “the three-quarters of the world’s humanity that were unrepresented in the Louvre.” [vii]
Chirac wrote of Kerchache in the highest terms of friendship and admiration: “I don’t know what I loved most about him, the soundness of his vision, the force of his convictions, or his immense generosity. He approached life with passion and voluptuous pleasure. He realized his dreams with an exceptional obstinacy, overcoming all obstacles, galvanizing all energies.”[viii] Chirac demonstrated his confidence in Kerchache by nominating him in 1996 for the commission to create the Musée du Quai Branly – France’s institution devoted to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Only his premature death in 2001 (five years before the opening of the Quai Branly) prevented him from completing the project.
Kerchache’s involvement with tribal art ranged across the full spectrum – dealer, curator, scholar, and collector – and as a collector one of his greatest possessions was the Eket Ogbom sculpture. Like Rubin, Kerchache shared his private fascination with this art with the public through exhibitions and publications. Yet, he surpassed Rubin by establishing an honored place in French culture for tribal art without reference to western traditions. In a sense, this was the culmination of the admiration initiated by western artists almost a century before the founding of the Quai Branly, but it was also the declaration of independence of tribal art. Now, we have the freedom to respect tribal art either for its important to western art or for its roots in tribal cultures, or, indeed, for both equally.
[i] These sculptures are reproduced in the catalogue on pages 47 and 131 (respectively).
[ii] William Rubin (ed.), “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. Affinities of the Tribal and Modern, New York, 1984, p. 47.
[iii] Bernard de Grunne, “The Eket Abstract Obgom Headdress,” PLEASE COMPLETE REFERENCE
[iv] Peter Stepan, Picasso’s Collection of African and Oceanic Art: Masters of Metamorphosis, New York, 2006, p. 9.
[v] The sculpture was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 1991, lot 54.
[vi] Quoted in Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly, Chicago, 2007, p. 14.
[vii] Ibid., p. 15.
[viii] Ibid., p. 11.
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