Primitivism in the 21st Century:

A Frozen Perspective

Our author Sophie Eliot took a closer look at the exhibition Modernités Plurielles 1905 - 1970 (Multiple Modernities) at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Centre Georges Pompidou), Paris. 

A Frozen Perspective

Cover Modernités Plurielles 1905-1970. Courtesy of Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

By Sophie Eliot

Internationally renowned public art institutions in northwestern Europe are clearly extending and opening their collections and exhibitions to the works of contemporary African artists, and artists from the African Diaspora. However, different critiques of modes of expression and contextualization of the works of these artists in public art institutions highlight the shifting sands of a hegemonic system of power and thought. What is the situation of the spread of works by African artists in such institutions? The Modernités Plurielles 1905-1970, at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Centre Pompidou in Paris posited a history of modern art in an “extended geography of art,” and devoted one room to “modern Africa.”

In this exhibition, Catherine Grenier, the Centre Pompidou’s former assistant director, presented a new arrangement of the modern art collection, regrouping 1000 works by 400 artists from 47 countries across every continent. She argued that this “keynote exhibition” showed a “fresh” history of modern art from a global perspective for the first time, because, in her view, “… modernities are not unified, but multiple.” (1)

Following a chronological design, the “great masters” were divided into classical categories according to tendencies and schools and among the various rooms conceived as “micro exhibitions.” They were situated in a network of exchanges and artistic inspiration as well as in interactions with cultural practices said to be traditional or even “extra-Western,” and with non-artistic forms of expression. The other modern artifacts, those not originating from northwestern Europe, were arranged according to geographical space or regional movements.

The exhibition’s stated objective was to move away from linear history to trace “a cartography of connections, of transfers, but also of resistance,” as well as showing the expansion of avant-gardes across the world just as much as of “local movements.” However, the use of such rhetoric for initiating and reclaiming postcolonial debates is not a natural path to effective questioning of the semiotics of a policy of representation and of writing a history of ethnocentric and primitive art.

A glance into the first room sufficed to show this was really not about a history of art “renewal” but much more about a history of repeated exhibitions. At the entrance stood a towering doorpost originating from “Africa,” by an anonymous artist, from the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly. Opposite it, a work by the French painter Amédée Ozefant (1886-1966), Les quatre races (1928), proclaimed a concept of reunifying art, of bridges between cultures. But what was the doorpost doing or illustrating with a label like that and with that collection in that exhibition and in that setting? What is the meaning of the world “multiple” in the exhibition title? Rooms, and more rooms. A sense of exasperation and déjà-vu set in.

In fact, after Magiciens de la terre, retour sur une exposition légendaire (Magicians of the Earth, return to a legendary exhibition, 2014, Paris), the new exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou seemed to be proposing a revival of the exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art (1984, MoMA, New York). (2) William Rubin chose “primitive art” artifacts, taken out of context, for their “formal affinities” with the works of modern Western artists, supporting the artistic genius of the latter for breaking with conservative aesthetics. Similarly, used as sources of inspiration in Modernités Plurielles, the artifacts were presented as evidence of the “great masters” opening out to the world in visual ethnocentrism. Installations such as a wall of works related to the Blaue Reiter strewn with anonymous objects from Asia, Oceania, and (sub-Saharan) Africa as in the studio of a “great master” (Vassili Kandinsky), or from a cabinet of curiosities with surrealist works (André Breton), or from the display cases of ethnographic products from campaigns in the former colonies (Michel Leiris, Marcel Griaule, and the “famous Dakar-Djibouti  mission” in 1931-33) (3) underscore the geometries and perception of the body of a “Picasso” or a “Giacometti.” Other evidence the exhibition offered of the “great interest” intellectuals and modern artists showed in “extra-European” cultural production in different areas included an exhaustive documentation of publications such as “La sculpture Africaine” (1922) by Carl Einstein, various small catalogues such as those on the collection of André Derain or Maurice Vlaminck, and exhibitions by the Parisian gallerist Daniel Henry-Kahnweiler. As for the other modernists labeled as “non-Western,” they were represented under the archetypes of rejection or assimilation: between aspiring to recover a “primitive” pre-colonial authenticity, a “wild nature,” and “being willing to participate in the international modernist adventure.”

This binary interpretation grid was repeated on the introductory panel for the “Afrique moderne” (Modern Africa) room, catalogued from 1950 to 1970. As Catherine Grenier explains in the short exhibition catalogue, “The documented history [of this continent] has yet to be written.” (4) This statement is sheer fantasy in relation to all the exhibitions, catalogues and publications on the subject. It is reflected in the exhibition’s design and, all at once, irrevocably situates the traditional and modern artistic production of the whole African continent in an ethnographical present and a history to come. Reading that panel, (uninformed) visitors from all over the world could be in no doubt: modern African artists have copied modern European art but have understood, all the same, how to integrate it into their own styles in a “re-rooting” of their traditions. The concluding explanation was equally unequivocal: “It is in this synthesis that ancient Africa speaks a contemporary language where we have to see the imprint of modernity in the visual expression of the painters and sculptors of that period.” Given there were no precise references to their founders, who were mostly Europeans from colonized countries, all the schools referred to appear to originate from initiatives by African artists, (5) and the importance of the Négritude and Pan-African movements was not mentioned.

The exhibition ignored the different exhibitions of modern African art, the various festivals, the role of the African Diaspora, African artists’ residencies and formation in Europe and on the African continent, and their contribution to European artistic scenes. This implies a one-way transfer from a modernist North to an apprentice South. The focus on a past tradition, although the exhibition concept promised a presentation of resistances and local developments, omitted mention of movements such as the “Natural Synthesis” manifesto edited by the Zaria Art Society (Nigeria, 1952), or the founding of different reviews like Black Orpheus, Drum, and the Mbari clubs in Nigeria. (6) The complex research on identity done by modern African artists was extremely simplified: Modernités plurielles proposed concretization. Local resistance to dominant local movements didn’t exist in this history of “expanded” art where “local” was synonymous with “extra-European.”

The room titled Afrique modern (Modern Africa) showed paintings and sculpture by the artists Iba N’Diaye (Senegal), Gera (Ethiopia), Jacques Zigoma (Congo), Marcel Gotene (Congo), Baya (Algeria) and d’Aniedi Okpon Akpan (Nigeria), in addition to anonymous artifacts. Dominating the display were representations of legends, of nature, and of folklore scenes, that visitors may have seen earlier on in black-and-white photographs in the room L’Afrique – photographic research mainly commissioned for ethnographic purposes. Almost all the works and artifacts were loans from the collection of the Musée des Arts Premiers. The information on the exhibit labels affirmed the discourse of the preceding rooms. A souwère, a medium that began developing in West Africa from the beginning of the 20th century, portrayed a Mami Wata spirit (anonymous, around 1950). The description on the label followed the same thread of explanation, suggesting a unique European influence and omitting the influence of composite exchanges with the southern and eastern Arab cultures and the circulation from East to West and from North to South in the Sahel as well as the link with the history of photography in West Africa. (7). The curatorial choices asserted and reproduced an understanding of creation in Africa in relation to collective practices, rituals, and beliefs, whereas topics like architecture, life in an urban environment, exile, or the construction of national identity, are just as important in the works of modern African artists and artists from the African Diaspora. This particularly applies to the period 1950 -1970, which appears non-existent in the exhibition. The Senegalese painter Iba N’Diaye, for example, was praised in a quotation from Senghor for being close to the aesthetic of Négritude. Iba N’Diaye, whose artistic formation occurred in France, certainly taught at the Senegal School of Fine Arts (until 1966) and was even involved in the creation, under Senghor’s patronage, of the exhibition “Tentations et confrontations”  during the Premier Festival des Arts Nègres (First World Festival of Black Arts, Dakar, 1966). Since then, however, N’diaye has distanced himself from Senghor’s aesthetic primitivism.

During the research phase of the curatorial process the exhibition organizers didn’t consider it necessary to check the truth of the pieces of information assembled in their various narrative contexts. Knowledge was used here to confirm assumptions. This shut off discussions on periodization, the media employed, or the different forms, concepts and aesthetics of modernism in Africa, and the role of the African Diaspora in Africa and in Europe. Sally Price has shown that ignorance is at the root of the statements of many Western ethnologists attempting to explain their lack of knowledge of the author of an artifact by arguing that “primitive art” is anonymous and collective. They fired off other essentialist generalizations, self-reproducing their own discourse. (8) It is necessary to revisit the concepts of colonial, postcolonial and global modernism missing from this exhibition. (9) For example, Elvira Dyangani Ose proposes dating “African modernism” back to the 1970s around the notion of the “happening” and the interventions of African artists’ collectives in urban space. (10)

Catherine Grenier’s “expanded” and “fresh” history of art reproduces a frozen perspective of the history of art and exhibitions. The blind spots of the history of modernist art of the modern age are addressed in a vocabulary echoing that of the contemporary art field – a lexicon of globalization, of collective dynamics, of exchanges and dialogues. A symptomatic discourse legitimizes itself by using the concept of globality, and the method of contextualizing, without considering the production and transmission of knowledge in force in the exhibition space. The French avant-garde is declared to be the true source of modernity. Modernités Plurielles is caught in the double bind of adapting to the “globalization” of art scenes, but without going through the process of “delinking,” that is, without detaching itself from the colonial matrix of power in favor of “transmodernity and pluriversality,” two concepts proposed by Walter D. Mignolo. (11) Looking at the discussions around the exhibitions Exhibit B and L’invention du sauvage (Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 2011-2012), it seems important to pose the question of how debates and designs in the French museum field have regressed, and to redefine the tasks. But perhaps we are actually in a phase of reconsolidating the ethnocentric position in certain French art institutions that are holding onto the handle of their open door. Deconstructing and decolonizing the concept and forms used is still important today. We need to question the traditional role public art institutions impose on their mission of disseminating their collections and archives, and on transmitting their knowledge to their audiences in an adapted design. Fresh and updated research is also needed in consultation with competent discussion partners and critical reflection on the strategies of the gestures of pointing. We can only hope that, in this way, multiplicity will no longer be used for a linguistic game that obscures the politics of representation and regressive, anachronistic research on identity.

The exhibition Modernités Plurielles de 1905 à 1970 was shown from 23 October 2013 to 26 January 2015 at the Musée national d’art moderne (Paris).

Sophie Eliot is a Ph.D. student and art critic based in Berlin. She is currently writing a dissertation on curatorial practices in contemporary African art at the University of Oldenburg, Germany.


(1) Catherine Grenier (2013): Modernités Plurielles. Exhibition catalogue. Édition du Centre Pompidou, Paris, p. 2.

(2) Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 21.09.1983-15.01.1985, exhibition curated by William Rubin.

(3) The labels don’t contain a single line about the acquisition histories of the exhibits.

(4) C. Grenier, ibid, p. 2.

(5) Aside from the Dakar Art School funded by Senghor, the other art schools mentioned are: Ecole de Poto Poto (Pierre Lods, Congo, 1951), Workshop School of Salisbury in the National Gallery (director Frank McEven, from 1956, Zimbabwe) and the Oshogbo Art School (Ulli Beier and Suzanne Wenger, Nigeria, 1962).

(6) N’Gone Fall, Jean-Loup Pivin, Simon Njami (ed.)(2001):  Anthologie de l’art contemporain africain au XXème siècle. Revue Noire, 2nd edition. Archive of magazines and reviews published on the African continent:

(7) N. Fall, p. 120.

(8) Sally Price (1995): Arts primitifs, regards civilisés. Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. 2nd edition 2006. See also: Sally Price (2007), Paris Primitive. Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.

(9) In the article “The contemporary present and modernist past in postcolonial African art,”World Art, 3:2, 2013), Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi précise d’une part l interchangeabilité entre moderne et contemporain pour désigner l’art africain et les différents approchés de la définition de l’art africain moderne chez Elizabeth Harney, Salah Hassan, Olu Oguibe, Sydney Little Kasfir, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, Sunanda Sanyal et Chika Okeke-Agulu. Note to editor: this already appears as first Note (7) above

(10)  Elvira Dyangani Ose  : “L’esthétique de la reconnaissance dans l’art contemporain africain.” In: Koyo Kouoh (ed.): Etat des Lieux. Symposium sur la création d’institutions d’art en Afrique. Cologne: Hatje Cantz, 2013. Essay first presented at Duke University, Durham NC, USA, in 2011 during the Workshop on Diasporic African Arts & Black Esthetics.

(11) And inter alia: Nzewi (2013) and Walter D. Mignolo, Re:emerging, Decentring and Delinking (2013,



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