“It’s 2017; why are you still doing this?” was my first thought on seeing the exhibition Imaginary Ancestors at Almine Rech Gallery. This gallery, located in the posh environs of the Upper East Side is the fifth of the eponymous Parisian art dealer’s international outposts. It is reported that Rech’s program and reputation grew rapidly after she married Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, described as the Spanish artist’s “only legitimate grandson.” This bit of back story helped me at least partially answer this question — with a depressingly predictable conclusion that wealth and success can insulate one from good sense.
The show means to look at “primitivism“‘s presence in modern and contemporary art and is organized by two men: Carlo Severi, who is the Director of Studies at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology, at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), and Bernard de Grunne, whose father was a collector of “tribal” art and who himself, according to his website, took a Ph.D. in African Art History at Yale University, later becoming the worldwide head of the tribal art department at Sotheby’s auction house before becoming a private dealer. So, academic credentials: check, and professional experience dealing with tribal art: check.
Yet for all this weighty expertise the show comes off as an exasperating magical negro narrative. What I see in one room is some stalwart modernist heroes such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Barnett Newman (I count 21 names on the gallery’s list). The work is arranged in small families with the African statuary that are all collectively attributed to particular tribes and sourced from countries including Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Angola, Gabon, and Cameroon. The curators mean me to notice formalist similarities: such as the untitled painting by Günther Förg (1993) that has alternating squares pigmented black, white, and gray that is not subtly hung next to a N’Zabi mask from Gabon(ca. 1880), whose face is divided into quadrants of contrasting colors. There are early cubist studies by Picasso that evoke the nearby mask’s expressionistic simplification of a face into a series of planes and slopes. The oil painting by Alexander Calder “Silhouette” (1948) which contains black figures in silhouette, along with his wood sculptural forms, arranged nearby, especially apes the reduction of key elements of the human form to geometric shapes: lines, flattened ovals, circles, and triangles.
One room of the show means to restage a 1933 exhibition at the Durand-Ruel gallery that featured a group of Fang sculptures from Cameroon and Gabon — Early African Heads and Statues from the Gabon Pahouin Tribes. De Grunne reunited them for this show but gives little information on them in the gallery. So the typical visitor would not know that these pieces are largely from the 19th century and are reliquary guardian figures, often attached to boxes that contained the bones of revered ancestors, and function as either abstract portraits of the deceased protect figures meant to guard that person from spiritual harm.
In their lack of didactic information and their use of the term “primitivism” an accumulated body of readily available, considered scholarship has been ignored. Mind you, the press release for the show provides a justification for using the term “primitive,” citing Severi’s scholarship. Severi describes the term in the most benign way, saying that it is simply how a group of modern artists refer to “an ensemble of African, Asian and Oceanian objects.” This is to say he is merely repeating the terminology used by others. The release also cites William Rubin who had mounted a 1984 show Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art at MoMA. Rubin is quoted as saying, “No pivotal topic in twentieth-century art has received less serious attention than primitivism.” However, as Wihad Al-Tawil finds in his study of that show:
The display of arbitrarily chosen “tribal” items against a backdrop of master Modern paintings proves that the idea of an exhibit as vague and oblivious as “Primitivism” had no intentions of educating and dispelling misconceptions of the Black and indigenous continents. In fact, the contrary occurred, in that the exhibit itself perpetuated outdated ideologies by reconstructing the imagined inferior world of “primitives” as a legitimate reality.
That is how this exhibition feels: like an opportunity to ostensibly glory in the simple, primal insights of indigenous artists — except that their work doesn’t merit wall text, captions to contextualize their practices, or even space in the press release to explain how the statues are meaningful to the makers and not just to artists who appropriated their clever inroads to the promised land of abstraction. (In fact the front half of the press release lays out the apologia for using the term “primitive” and the back half is taken up by the curriculum vitae of the curators.)
This exhibition, in its weak-kneed drawing of lines of influence without the scholarly insight to make the African sculpture more than a stepping stone to European and American success, fails both its intellectual hurdle and fails its critical audience.
How to avoid this in the future? If one has a mind to mount a show demonstrating a homology between European and American modernism and pre-twentieth century, figurative African masks and reliquary figures, I suppose one first has to ask oneself two critical questions: “Who is this exhibition for,” and “Who or what do I want to celebrate?”