PARIS — Following on the heels of the Dada centennial, curator Cécile Debray of the Musée de l’Orangerie, in cooperation with the ethnological Museum Rietberg in Zurich and the Berlinische Galerie, double down on the Discordian pychodelic aspects of Dada with Dada Africa, an exhibition that exhumes the collision between the Dadaists’ preconceived notions of Africa and actual African cultural artifacts.
Concurrent with the appalling butchery of World War I, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings’s Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors on February 5th, 1916, and the tumultuous Dada revolt ensued. The cabaret soon became the epitome of bohemianism by rejecting the conventional Western mores described as “civilized” that had led to such blood-soaked discord. Placed within the range of vertiginous possibilities and improbabilities released by the effort to end polite society, Cabaret Voltaire’s mischief club took up the theme of transmigration that they perceived in non-Western systems of thought and creation, leading many avant-garde artists to study and adopt radically different types of artistic production.
A jubilant, if lounge lizards’ view of Africa provides the foundation for their chimerical and ever quavering Dada, though the show also contains some influential pieces from North American Hopi tribal culture and Oceania, Asia, and Polynesia. But clearly, poly-sacred Africa fuelled the Dadaists the most. They were zealot radicals who saw African cultural objects as a powerful indictment of petit-bourgeois privilege (albeit leaving behind the sticky political problems of appropriation and a projected primitivism for us to ponder). Still, the undeniable power of African art, such of the nganga’s (a Bantu term for herbalist or spiritual healer) “nkisi n’kondi magical personage” (pre–1892), was obvious to them. It is a fierce masterpiece from the Congo that understandably helped shape the fever dream of Dada theory, as this gnarly cherished charm was used to resolve disputes, or as an avenger guardian if malicious sorcery had been perpetrated.
At first, in 1916, the founders and the other early club members — Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp — focused on the Western cultural products of several artists and writers: composer Igor Stravinsky, poet and editor Filippo Marinetti, Bohemian novelist and poet Franz Werfel, poet Jules Laforgue, poet and art critic André Salmon, novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars, playwright Frank Wedekind, the writer and critic Max Jacob, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and the painter Wassily Kandinsky. However, soon under Huelsenbeck’s driving search for new directions of art, the cabaret became more of a mental playground particularly inspired by an imagined Africa as simulated by gallerist Han Coray.
Though full of chutzpah, the Dadaists were theoretically unsophisticated by our standards. Never having visited Africa they relied solely on their impressions of imported works, images, and ethnographic studies that Cory collected and showed in Zurich. (He gleefully presented his African treasures alongside fresh Dada works as early as 1917.) Their faux contact with Africa was as dominant as it was deceptive, and it took hold of the demented Dada spirit, as we see in Tzara’s 1926 Negro Poems and Note on Negro Art. Likewise, Janco’s tribal-like masks and (later) Hannah Höch’s chiding collages looked to African objets d’art for a new formal art language. Höch is the most literal of the two artists in this regard — gluing fragments of Western figures together with pictures of African sculpture, as in the fervid “From the Collection of an Ethnographic Museum No. IX” (1929), “Streit” (circa, 1940), “Untitled, From an Ethnological Museum” (1924), and many other suggestions of an indeterminate, mutational, revolutionary tumult courtesy of Berlinische Galerie’s extensive Höch holdings.
The cold comfort of Dada Africa is that it straightforwardly presents Dada paintings, sculptures, collages, photo-collages, letters, sound pieces, and photographs cheek by jowl with non-Western cultural objects, like the stunning “Masculine Figure” (late-19th century) from the Baoulé tribe of the artistically rich Ivory Coast once in the collection of Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume. Guillaume, whose Impressionist-addled painting collection is just down the hall from Dada Africa, was one of the first to organize African art exhibitions in Paris. These came to the attention of Guillaume Apollinaire, who in turn introduced them to many artists, such as Pablo Picasso. Included in this show is Picasso’s “Nu sur fond rouge” (Nude on a Red Background) (1906), produced just before Picasso started work on “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (The Young Women of Avignon) (1907), a major painting that tipped advanced art towards African-inspired Cubism. Subsequently, Guillaume organized other important exhibitions of African art, such as the Première Exposition d’Art Nègre et d’Art Océanien (First Exhibition of Negro and Oceanic Art) in 1919. It had a catalogue essay by Apollinaire who had collaborated with Guillaume on the pioneering study Sculptures Nègres (Negro Sculpture) in 1917.
Like Picasso, Dada drew on the same bilious African stereotypes as colonialists, but those excesses are surely the price paid for the works’ wonders. An outstanding piece that sets down this early “exotic” context is a signed copy of Raymond Roussel’s homonymic pun-heavy flamboyant novel (and far-out farrago of a play) Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa) (1910), a work that features a painting machine that duplicates the color spectrum of the sky at dawn. It is this very brain-teasing work that delivered colossal creative clout to Marcel Duchamp, manifested in his frivolous and lascivious masterpiece “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915–1923). After seeing the play Impressions d’Afrique, Duchamp started producing paintings depicting mechanized sex acts such as “Le Passage de la Vierge à la Mariée” (The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride) (1912), and the masterful “La Mariée” (The Bride) (1912), an inescapable point of reference for the avant-garde of the 20th century. But other than Roussel’s imaginary Africa, Duchamp seems mainly unaffected by the Dada mania for everything African, as does Francis Picabia and his quasi-machine painting entitled “Serpentins I” (1918) that is correctly placed near Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain” (1917): the banal porcelain pissoir (urinal) signed with the nom de plume R. Mutt (much brouhaha followed). It is the same photo that was first published in The Blind Man No. 2; that is Stieglitz’s photograph of “Fountain” in front of Marsden Hartley’s painting “The Warriors” (1913).
Haunting the scene is also Man Ray’s negative print that has the effect of a blackface statement “Noire et Blanche” (Black and White, 1926); a portrait of Alice Prin (a.k.a. Kiki de Montparnasse) with her eyes closed and her face lying on a smooth table, her hand holding a seemingly whitened African mask (because the values are reversed) on the table beside her. Though Ray may not have been disabused of the use of blackface as a potentially racist trope, there is a contested elation in the absurdity of presenting a flip-flopped order to our perceptions of chromatic orthodox reality.
Part of the Dadaists’ revolutionary political ideology was clearly a call for an art that entails choices of figure and ground visibility (what will emerge, what will recede) coupled with an art-without-crisp-borders attitude, as demonstrated when Tzara, Janco, and Huelsenbeck together wrote three poems to be read simultaneously over each other. The Dadaists not only proclaimed freedom from civilization but tried to act upon it in the production of their art. Of course, from our perspective of post-colonial mindfulness, there is something tendentious about the way they appropriated out-of-context, non-Western cultural objects as a way of raising the psychological stakes. But the way they saw it, “Africa” was an antidote to the fundamentally asinine judiciousness of European culture, already apparent in the machinations of the privileged dandy Roussel, who used the fanciful idea of Africa both in Impressions d’Afrique and in the poetically convulsive Nouvelle Impressions d’Afrique (New Impressions of Africa) (1932) as a setting for his fantastical tales. But unlike Roussel’s complicated, obtuse, and interpretation-resistant opuses, Dada Africa: Non-Western Sources and Influences is a conceptually generous and lucid show that invites us to wonder what other appropriations we may have missed on other occasions.