Antenna: How African masks inspired the greats of Modernism

In this week’s column, Meredith Etherington-Smith looks at how artists from Picasso to Basquiat have been influenced by African art — and previews an historic sale that traces this dialogue

In 1907, the armies of ghosts floating above the blood and mud of the First World War trenches were still some years off — even if they were already casting dark clouds of uncertainty over art and society.

It was in this year that, on his first trip to the Musée d’Ethnographie in Paris, Pablo Picasso turned left by mistake, entering the African art galleries and stumbling upon the artistic route map that would lead him, via the sacred Dan masks of West Africa, to a completely new way of looking at the magical, transformative power of art.

In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art’s first director, Alfred Barr, produced a chart that formally mapped the many influences on Modern art and how certain strands — including primitive and tribal art — radically affected artists of the early 20th century, as well as those that came after. It was created for his landmark 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, a show which broke radical new ground in art history, establishing Modern art as the dominant artistic force of its time rather than an ephemeral movement.

‘Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation,’ Picasso said much later. ‘It is […] a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it an image. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way.’

A Kongo-Vili power figure, Democratic Republic of Congo. Height 25 23 in. (65 cm.). Estimate $600,000-900,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York
A Kongo-Vili power figure, Democratic Republic of Congo. Height: 25 2/3 in. (65 cm.). Estimate: $600,000-900,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form: African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York
The Mendès-France Baule mask, Ivory Coast. Base by Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951). Height 12 14 in. (31 cm.). Estimate $500,000-800,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York
The Mendès-France Baule mask, Ivory Coast. Base by Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951). Height: 12 1/4 in. (31 cm.). Estimate: $500,000-800,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form: African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York

So did most of the other stars of Modern art history: Gauguin, Matisse, de Vlaminck, Giacometti, Modigliani, Kirchner, Nolde, Brancusi, Léger, Klee, Ernst, Pollock, Moore, Epstein, Arman, Baselitz, Warhol and, of course, Basquiat.  

Major early collectors, such as Modigliani’s agent Paul Guillaume, also understood this, as did the Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton, and the cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein. So too, did William Rubin, director of the Painting and Sculpture Department at the Museum of Modern Art who, in 1984, curated the landmark exhibition ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled, 1982. Signed and dated ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat Modena 82’ (on the reverse). Acrylic on canvas. 94 x 197 in. (238.7 x 500.4 cm.). Estimate on request. This work is offered in Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 10 May at Christie’s New York
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Untitled, 1982. Signed and dated ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat Modena 82’ (on the reverse). Acrylic on canvas. 94 x 197 in. (238.7 x 500.4 cm.). Estimate on request. This work is offered in Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 10 May at Christie’s New York

Now, for the very first time, an auction house is acknowledging how important — and fascinating — these conversations between living artists and long-dead, mostly nameless African artists have been, to both art historians and collectors. On 12 May, an historic 11-lot sale titled Evolution of Form: African and Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism, takes its place among the sales of the Impressionist, Modern, Post-war and Contemporary Art it influenced. 

The Helena Rubinstein Dan Mask, Probably Danane region, Ivory Coast. Height 8 in. (20.5 cm.). Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York
The Helena Rubinstein Dan Mask, Probably Danane region, Ivory Coast. Height: 8 in. (20.5 cm.). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form: African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York
A Senufo bird figure, Ivory Coast. Height 48 in. (122 cm.). Estimate $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York
A Senufo bird figure, Ivory Coast. Height: 48 in. (122 cm.). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in Evolution of Form: African & Oceanic Art at the Genesis of Modernism on 12 May at Christie’s New York

It includes a sinister Dan mask, once owned by Helena Rubinstein, which has been cited as an inspiration to Francis Bacon. There is also a Senufo bird figure admired by both Miró and Picasso, and the Mendès-France Baule mask, said to have influenced Brancusi and Modigliani. A Kongo-Vili power figure from the Arman collection, meanwhile, finds its echo in Basquiat’s Untitled (1982), offered in the upcoming Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 10 May.

My advice? Go to the views at Rockefeller Center and eavesdrop on the artistic conversations between the works on display — they transcend time and space, right in front of your eyes. Then buy the catalogue — it’s a collector’s item. 

The Human Abstract is at Jhaveri Contemporary Gallery until 7 May
The Human Abstract is at Jhaveri Contemporary Gallery until 7 May

But that’s not the end of the story.  Henry Moore and Brancusi both influenced Indian artist Dhruva Mistry (b.1957) at the very start of his career. Mistry won a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Art in 1981, becoming a Royal Academician in 1991.

Now he is back home in India, and has a show called The Human Abstract at Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary Gallery until 7 May. The strong references to tribal art, and masked figures in particular, in this beautifully mounted exhibition demonstrate that the influence of African art is very much alive in the 21st century, too.

Masquerades

In certain regions of Africa, the masquerade tradition is being preserved. Here, instead of sculptures, it is living humans who represent supernatural spirits — dressed in elaborate waxprint fabrics or hand-dyed cloth costumes, incorporating frayed threads or leaves. Carved masks transform their wearers into supernatural spirits, beasts or ancestral beings — just as the Dan masks did. 

Kambweti (Walks with Sticks) Likishi Masquerade , Zambia (2007). © Phyllis Galembo, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery.

Kambweti (Walks with Sticks) Likishi Masquerade , Zambia (2007). © Phyllis Galembo, courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery.

Phyllis Galembo is a New York-based photographer who has spent two decades capturing the vivid variety of the masquerade, travelling across Africa to witness these local rituals. More than 100 of these studies are featured in Maske, an album of extraordinarily powerful and beautiful images, featuring costumes from Zambia, Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Haiti.

It’s evidence that the body — whether represented as elaborate sculpture, or disguised as a magical vehicle through costume — can still be powerful, mysterious and transformative, even in these digitally dominated times.