The Modernists Marginalized Under Colonialism

Mapping Modernisms points us to the unequal way in which Western Modernist art histories characterize influence between cultures.

Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigineity, Colonialism, edited by Elizabeth Harney and Ruth B. Phillips and published by Duke University Press

If you came across the term “Modernist artist” who would you think of? Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, or Piet Mondrian? Maybe Marc Chagall or Georgia O’Keeffe? At least these are the first names that come up in a Google search of the words. You would have to scroll through quite a few pages before encountering Zizwezenyanga Qwabe, Mathias Jauage, and Jackson Hlungwani. A new volume, Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigineity, Colonialism, published by Duke University Press, aims to change this. It introduces the reader to an array of visionary Modernist artists who, because they lived under colonial rule, have been inequitably dismissed from the canon or relegated to its margins.

The wide-ranging and meticulously researched essays in Mapping Modernisms focus on indigenous artists from Inuit, Zulu, Māori, Pueblo, and Aboriginal cultures, among others, around the world. Historically, works created by artists from these communities have been grouped in Western art history under the umbrella of “arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” To this day, the Metropolitan Museum of Art places these very diverse cultures and traditions in one single department. An Ecuadorean ceramic sculpture from 2300–2200 BCE is grouped with a photographic triptych from Auckland, New Zealand, made in 2004–5, despite the distance and millennia that separate them.

The traditional justification for the category “arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” is that they are all “primitive.” This term homogenizes whole swathes of world culture and dismisses them as childlike and naïve. It also situates non-Western art outside of time, depriving it of any sense of evolution or development. In this vision of world art, movements such as 20th-century Modernism are necessarily confined to Western countries, as non-Western artistic traditions remain eternally fixed and unchanging. However, as Mapping Modernisms proves, this is an impoverished view of global culture.

In their preface to the volume, editors Elizabeth Harney and Ruth B. Phillips describe how non-Western Modernists, such as the Nigerian painter Aina Onabolu and Native American sculptor George Morrison, radically “reclaimed and reworked visual forms, materials, or techniques.” Of course, Modernism — a “notoriously slippery and contingent term” — was not always expressed in the same way in different parts of the world. For many Western artists, Modernism involved rejecting history and experimenting with form, and typically tended toward abstraction. For non-Western artists, however, Modernism often manifested as an engagement with traditions that had been “distorted, disfigured, or destroyed by the colonial project.”

The editors point us to the unequal way in which Modernist art histories characterize influence between cultures. While Picasso is celebrated for his quotations from African sculpture and pre-classical Iberian art, indigenous artists are dismissed as derivative or imitative when they borrow from European art. What emerges from Mapping Modernisms is that Modernism was not a process of diffusion from Western centers to non-Western peripheries, as it is traditionally constructed in Western narratives, but rather a complex web of mutual influences and exchanges across the globe.

Take the example of Nicolaï Michoutouchkine and Aloï Pilioko, sensitively described in a case study by Peter Brunt. Michoutouchkine (1929–2010) was a French-Russian artist and collector. Pilioko (born in 1935) is a Pacific Islander painter. The two met in New Caledonia in 1959 and began their artistic collaboration, which would last until the end of Michoutouchkine’s life. The nomadic pair exhibited their works across the world, from New Guinea to Sweden to Morocco, and left a compelling archive of diaries, notebooks, and sketches documenting their cross-cultural lives. Blending Polynesian and Western modes of expression and juxtaposing their own works with ethnographic artifacts, the artists showed the potential for cultural cross-pollination in art and simultaneous engagement with the local and global.

In their introduction, Harney and Phillips describe the evolving ways in which African and Indigenous North American Modernisms have been treated: “first silenced and marginalized, then primitivized and appropriated, then celebrated (albeit lost in a space between anthropology and art museums), and finally hailed as the global ‘contemporary.’” This is perhaps an optimistic view, as proven by Google searches and the departmental divisions in major museums. The desire to “universalize” the history of Modernism is still by no means universal. However, Mapping Modernisms is a step toward the rightful recognition of a number of fascinating and overlooked Modernists.

Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigineity, Colonialism (2019) is published by Duke University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

comments (0)