Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference
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Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003) 455-480

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Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference

Simon Gikandi


Sometime in the mid-1950s the Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, a leading member of Afro-modernism and black abstractionism, was introduced to Pablo Picasso by Albert Camus during a visit to Paris. Given Williams's association with various factions of cubism and his attempt to emulate its style to capture the hybrid cultures of his native Guyana, the meeting with the great artist was supposed to be a highlight of his career, perhaps a catalyst for new directions in the troubled relation between artists of African descent and the international avant-garde. But as it turned out, the meeting between Williams and Picasso, far from being an ephiphanic encounter, was to be remembered as anticlimactic:

There was nothing special about meeting Picasso. It was a meeting like many others, except that meeting Picasso was a big disappointment. It was a disappointment for stupid little things: I didn't like how he looked; I didn't like how he behaved. I never thought I would not like people like that. But the total of the whole thing is that I did not like Picasso. He was just an ordinary past-middle-aged man. I remember the first comment he made when we met. He said that I had a very fine African head and he would like me to pose for him. I felt terrible. In spite of the fact that I was introduced to him as an artist, he did not think of me as another artist. He thought of me only as something he could use for his own work. 1

Williams's disappointment may have arisen from a sense of heightened expectation about the master, or even the hurt that came from not being recognized as a fellow artist, but what stands [End Page 455] out in this description of the encounter is that what Picasso found most enchanting about the Guyanese painter was a "fine African head," he valued as a model for art. Williams was disappointed that he was appealing to Picasso merely as an object or subject of art, not as an artist, not as a body, not even as a human subject. And yet, it is possible that this disappointment arose because Williams had assumed, as many historians of art have assumed over a century of modernism, that because Picasso was the most important figure in primitivism, the movement in art when the Other, often black or brown, became a catalyst for modern art, that he must have had some respect for the cultures and bodies that had made modernism possible. How else could one make other cultures and subjects the sources of art, the agents of the major breakthroughs we have come to associate with modernism, unless one also valued the people who produced it? We now know, of course, that the relationship between Picasso and his African sources was much more complicated than Williams might have assumed. Indeed, the fascination with the "fine African head" did not simply reflect the insensitivity of an artist past middle age; on the contrary, Picasso's relationship to Africa, or his investment in a certain idea of Africa, which is evident from his early career to his high cubist period, was a meticulous attempt to separate the African's art from his or her body, to abstract, as it were, those elements of the art form that would serve his purpose at crucial moments in his struggle with established conventions of Western art. This is the gist of the argument I want to present in this essay.

Much has been written on Picasso and primitivism but little on his specific engagement with Africa. Indeed, a major part of the argument I will be presenting here demands a separation of primitivism, as a now canonized idea in the history of modernism, from African cultures and bodies. Picasso loved the idea of the primitive and tribal, but his relationship with the cultures and peoples of Africa and Oceania was more ambiguous. We are told...