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African Presence in European Art

African Presence in European Art
Historically, Europe and Africa have been interlinked as a result of the former's presence
and eventual subjugation of the latter. This led to the African culture being infused with that of
its colonizers, and this created a change among Africans, including that of the fine arts. Many
Africans have also made their way to Europe. Since Africans are prolific, it can only be
reasonably expected that some of them would also be present in Europe's art scene. After all,
both continents have a shared history. At a time when the world has welcomed diversity, the art
scene could also be considered to not be immune to this trend. However, during a meeting of
Dak’Art, an international gathering of artists, curators and art critics of contemporary African art
held in 2004 in Dakar, Senegal, disseminated was a letter lamenting at the “injustices of Africa’s
position vis-à-vis the West” in the art scene. 1 What this suggests is that Africans, even during
modern times, remain relegated to the back burner. The letter’s author was scholar, artist and art
critic Rasheed Araeen, who bemoaned how it has not been easy for African artists to penetrate
and gain recognition for their talents without people judging them based on their heritage. There
have been many challenges to African artists in European art scene. First, these artists had to
contend with the colonialism and after gaining independence, continue to deal with the legacy of
colonialism. Second, Araeen lamented how the West continued to consider African artists are
“primitives” and “others,” who, when they defied these perceptions, were written out of the
scene to be forgotten.2 This view is not altogether accurate, as noted by art historian Andreas
Michel who says that in the European art world, non-European art, including African art, is
considered appealing because of its social, political, and, aesthetic values.3 However, to give
Smalligan, LauraM. “The Erasure of Ernest Mancoba: Africa and Europe at the Crossroads.” Third Text 24, no. 2
(March 2010): 263–76. doi:10.1080/09528821003722264, p. 263.
Michel, Andreas. “‘Our European Arrogance’: Wilhelm Worringer and Carl Einstein on Non-European Art.” In
credit to Araeen, European artists did appreciate and adopt African art but African artists,
themselves, had a negligible presence in Europe. Against this backdrop, this essay presents a
discussion about African presence in European art, as well as, provides examples of European
artists who adopted the African artistic perspective in their works.
African Influence on European Art
African art is comprised of both modern and historical pieces, which include sculptures,
paintings, and installations depicting the indigenous cultures in the entire continent, as well as
those who have been part of the African diaspora. Considering the number of cultures in the
African continent, it may also be said that art from this region is diverse and contain their own
original elements. Since Europeans have come to colonize Africa, it is inevitable for some facets
of African art to make it into Europe and be integrated into the latter's own artworks. According
to Dorothy Brooks, a strong African influence on European art developed at the turn of the 20th
century.4 Indeed, Brooks describes this as an extra-ordinarily deep impact of African art forms on
the European mind at the beginning of the twentieth century.”5 Brooks refers to European
“discovery” of dynamic African sculptures that profoundly affected the development of
contemporary European art such that these art forms dramatically “re-orientated the course of
aesthetics.”6 Brooks considers this as a “discovery” because even though the Western world had
long been acquainted with African artifacts, it took artists and poets to recognize the value of
these art works distinct from an everyday, looking eye. To note, art pieces can be used as
mediums for social expressions. They can be created in such a way that people can look and
Colors 1800/1900/2000: Signs of Ethnic Difference, edited by Birgit Tautz, 143–62.
Brooks, Dorothy. “The Influence of African Art on Contemporary European Art.” African Affairs 55, no. 218
(January 1, 1956): 51–59.
Ibid., p. 51.
examine the subjects with critical eyes, and understand that the artists are trying to drive home a
message. Other art pieces also reflect the culture of their creators. This means that African art
works are a means for Europeans to get a glimpse of what the continent and its people are, and
thus, create their own impressions instead of relying on the accounts of others. These accounts
could not even be accurate considering how they can be tinged with bias. Art works, on the other
hand, showcase not only one's culture but the level of sophistication that a society has at that
point. Consequently, in advanced art circles in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, there was a
general re-assessment, as well as, an attitude of experiment and inquiry towards social ills,
especially among artists. An appreciation of African art thus intensified, driven by the era of
Cubism that eventually revolutionized the traditional conceptions of art works.
Prior to the early years of the 20th century, the first interpretations of African art, aside
from those on an aesthetic level, may be attributed more to vivid flights of fancy as well as
European understanding of what it should mean rather than an objective evaluation of its
significance as “a manifestation of a poetic and cosmic philosophy of life.”7 An impact of this
was greater interest in occult writings, mysteries of alchemy and magic, Cabbala and mysticism,
folk-lore, and superstitions, among others. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that
traditional African art is defined by different elements that later contributed to the development
of various movements, such as, contemporary European art Symbolism, Pure Abstraction,
Constructivism, Neo-Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism.8 Nevertheless, it was the shaping
of Cubism, a direct development from the classical tradition, that was chiefly instrumental. In
succeeding sections of this essay, European artists whose works reflected strong African
influence will be discussed.
Meanwhile, there was negligible presence of African artists themselves in the European
art scene at that time. The neglect of African artists in European art is embodied by the
experience of Ernest Mancoba, who for many art scholars, represents art history’s neglect of
Africa.9 Mancoba was a black South African, who migrated to Paris in 1938. He immediately
immersed himself in the art world of European modernism, and studied at the Ecole des Arts
Décoratifs. His friends included Danish artists Ejler Bille and Sonja Ferlov, as well as,
intellectuals such as Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Alberto and Diego Giacometti, Max Ernst and
Constantin Brancusi.10 Mancoba and his wife eventually moved to Denmark, where they became
the founding members of the CoBrA. To note, the CoBrA was an international art movement
established in 1948 by artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, thus the acronym,
whose painting style reflected Expressionism.11 However, Mancoba’s works were published in
only a very few texts that address African art but only in response to Araeen’s letter in 2004. Just
like other African artists of his time and even before him, Mancoba was forgotten in European
There are three reasons for why African artists are overlooked in the European art scene
that overlap in complex ways. First, as a black South African, Mancoba was marginalized by
other CoBrA members even if he was one of the founders, simply because they perceived him as
primitive. This does not seem logical or reasonable from an outsider's point of view. Not all
Africans are primitive. True that there are still tribes in the continent that stuck with their
traditions and remained uncivilized. But for majority of Africans, they have been educated, and
many even have education from Western institutions. For Europeans, however, this view remains
because they failed to appreciate that Africans are not primitive. Instead, they have their own
Op cit., Smalligan
Tate Museum, “CoBrA,” 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/cobra
culture and their own ways of expressing that culture through art. By rejecting diversity in the art
scene, Europeans perpetrated the notion that a different form of art is not something that can be
recognized along with European art works. Because of this prevailing thought, Mancoba was
thus eliminated from opportunities for scholarship.
Second, fully cognizant of CoBrA’s colonial mindset, Mancoba formally distinguished
his work from other fellow members. He left Africa to escape that colonial mindset that
constrained is artistic freedom, but Europeans imposed that same constraints on him due to his
race. This unfortunate attitude persists despite the fact that by the artist has distinguished himself
in the art scene. Europeans simply refused to acknowledge the fact that primitiveness is not
defined as simply being different from mainstream art. Being different from mainstream makes
the artwork unique but not necessarily primitive. It is reasonable to infer then that other artists
have also suffered from this marginalization.
Third, an analysis of Mancoba’s historiography reveals that he has been labeled as
African, making him “ghettoised, celebrated as uniquely ‘African’ but denied the possibility of
being understood in a dialogue, not with other African art but with the work of European
modernists.”12 In other words, he was simply being tolerated or patronized by others who
believed themselves his superiors. Examples of Mancoba’s works are shown below. Image 1
below a sculpture of his, while Image 2 is one of his paintings.
Op cit., Smalligan, p. 265
Image 1: Sculpture
Image 2: Painting
European Artists and African Art
Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, several European artists created art inspired by the
African motif. This means that their artworks show aspects of the African continent or facets of
the African cultures. These artists are the following:
1. Pablo Picasso
As discussed earlier, during the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture
powerfully influenced European artists who eventually established the avant-garde in the
development of modern art. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their peers at the
School of Paris, combined highly stylized treatments of the human figure in African sculptures
with painting styles inspired by post-Impressionist works of Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne and
Paul Gauguin.13 This blending resulted in “pictorial flatness, vivid color palette, and fragmented
Cubist shapes” that defined the beginnings of modernism.14 Picasso did not know about the
original meaning and function of Central African sculptures that he encountered, but he
immediately acknowledged the spiritual dimensions of the composition and adapted these
characteristics to his own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that defined Western art since
the Renaissance. His African Period occurred from 1907 to 1909, which succeeded his Blue
Period and Rose Period. Picasso’s African Period was also known as Negro Period or Black
Period.15 Picasso countered Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) and The Dance (1909), with the
masterpiece that became the foundation of his fame, which is the Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,
shown in Image 3 below.16 It was in this work where Picasso began incorporating African
influences into his art. Picasso’s clear adaptation of African influences in his artworks only
Pablopicasso.org, “Picasso's African-influenced Period - 1907 to 1909,” 2009,
showed that African art has its own unique attractions that may have escaped or have been
ignored by previous art periods and their artists. But modernists like Picasso have made it
possible for African art to be finally acknowledged for its beauty and richness.
Image 3: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
In the painting above, the faces of the subjects are clearly not European and may even be
regard as those of Africans. Interestingly, Picasso denied later on in his life that he had been
influenced by African art at all while he was working on the Demoiselles. This was due to
political and patriotic reasons considering that Picasso wanted to emphasize the Iberian flavor of
the painting.17 Meaning, he wanted the public to associate the artwork with Spanish and
Portuguese influences. However, art scholars insist that there is sufficient evidence showing that
Picasso was not only familiar with African art while working on the Demoiselles, he was
collecting them too. For example, Picasso admitted that a visit to the Trocadero museum changed
his approach to art. The museum houses thousands of artefacts, recordings, and photographs of
African art. It was not, however, discussed why Picasso never gave credit to African art.18 There
are noteworthy African art pieces in the Trocadero due to their emotional intensity. In the
majority of Picasso's work, one would find references to African masks he encountered at the
Trocadero, but in comparison to the vividness of the originals, his versions were rather pale and
timid. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he was always secretive about the influences of
African art on his own, because the latter pale in comparison to the originals.19 Picasso may have
secretly harbored feelings of insecurity about his works not meeting the level of artistry used in
the originals. To claim that he was influenced by African art and then to have people criticized
his artworks as being far from the grandiosity of the original may be something that the artist
wanted to avoid. Another possible reason is that Picasso did not want to showcase artworks that
may not be popular among the viewing public because of their strong African influences.
2. Henri Matisse
Matisse, a perennial visitor to museums, was said to have encountered African sculptures
also at the Trocadéro museum, with his with fellow Fauve painter, Maurice de Vlaminck, before
he departed for a trip to North Africa in 1906.20 When he returned from that trip shortly
thereafter, Matisse painted two versions of The Young Sailor, and his second version, shown in
Image 4 below, replaces the original version’s naturalistically contoured facial features with
Murrell, Denise, “African Influences in Modern Art ,” 2008,
more rigidly abstract countenance that resembles a mask. In a biography written about Matisse, it
was revealed that he purchased a small African sculpture in the fall of 1906, which was
subsequently identified as a Vili figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.21 Picasso
was present at that time, and Matisse showed the sculpture to him. Unlike Picasso, Matisse did
not deny African influences in his artwork because he explored the African continent and its art
prior to creating the artwork below.
Image 4: The Young Sailor II
3. Erich Mayer
Mayer was a German-Jewish artist, born in Germany in 1876, and who settled in South
Africa in 1898.22 Mayer had a solid European background but he became interested in Boer
pioneers living in rural areas. He was trained at different art academies of Germany.23 Shortly
after settling in South Africa, he realized that South African society had little awareness for an
aesthetic consciousness regarding the fine and applied arts. Mayer’s interest in arts motivated
Basson, Eunice. “Pottering around in Africa: Erich Mayer’s Search for an Indigenous Outh African Style as
Exemplified in His Ceramic Designs.” De Arte 41, no. 74 (January 1, 2006): 3–19.
him to study and document examples of folk art among the different cultural groups in South
Africa, in an endeavor to establish an aesthetic awareness among South Africans.24 Mayer
believed that developing and marketing the South African art objects and artefacts would
contribute towards a distinctive indigenous South African national character and artistic style.
Mayer was the first artist who sought the establishment of a national art identity in South
Africa.25 He reviewed his ideas about a national art identity for South Africans with his friend
Pierneef, conducted lectures, and published numerous articles. Notably, Mayer approached the
rise of Afrikaner nationalism in art from a distinctively European point of view and produced
several art pieces, himself, influenced by South African art. These are shown in the images
below, and the art pieces which he also marketed in Europe.
Image 5: Pencil and Watercolor
Image 6: Etching
Art does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it can evolve and reflect influences on those that
create them. For instance, an artist who travels to another continent may showcase his
experiences by painting about people and places he encountered. The same should be applicable
to African art and how Europe is influenced by it. However, African artists have lamented that
they have been excluded from representations and art discourse in the West. This suggests that
despite its influences in Western art, African art and artists may have been intentionally excluded
because of prevailing biases against them. Society cannot simply forget that Africa is a continent
that is vastly different from the colinizing Europeans. Being different, Africans were considered
Indeed, African artists have been mostly forgotten and hardly mentioned in art history
from the West. One point of view here is that Westerners, particularly Europeans, consider
African artists as primitive and are relegated to the status of “other.” As shown in this paper, this
common experience among African artists is embodied by Mancoba, one of the founders of
CoBrA, who happens to be African. However, on the other hand, since the turn of the 20th
century, several renowned artists, such as Matisse and Picasso, were powerfully influenced by
African art. Picasso’s masterpiece, the Demoiselles, shows a distinct African influence. In other
words, while African artists themselves did not have a presence in European art, African art has
strongly influenced European art. To address the objective of this paper, it may be said that there
has been an African presence in European art but not in terms of African artists.
Basson, Eunice. “Pottering around in Africa: Erich Mayer’s Search for an Indigenous Youth
African Style as Exemplified in His Ceramic Designs.” De Arte 41, no. 74 (January 1,
2006): 3–19.
Brooks, Dorothy. “The Influence of African Art on Contemporary European Art.” African Affairs
55, no. 218 (January 1, 1956): 51–59.
Michel, Andreas. “‘Our European Arrogance’: Wilhelm Worringer and Carl Einstein on NonEuropean Art.” In Colors 1800/1900/2000: Signs of Ethnic Difference, edited by Birgit
Tautz, 143–62.
Murrell, Denise, “African Influences in Modern Art,” 2008,
Pablopicasso.org, “Picasso's African-influenced Period - 1907 to 1909,” 2009,
Smalligan, LauraM. “The Erasure of Ernest Mancoba: Africa and Europe at the Crossroads.”
Third Text 24, no. 2 (March 2010): 263–76. doi:10.1080/09528821003722264, p. 263.
Tate Museum, “CoBrA,” 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/cobra
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