Why Primitivism was Cultural Appropriation

Cubist-style painting. Five women stand or sit in front of a background of stylised draperies. A fruit bowl sits at the bottom center of the painting. Each figure is depicted in a stylised, angular manner with disjointed limbs. The overall effect is slightly menacing, but with a light pastel colour palette.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Pablo Picasso. The faces of the two women on the right were inspired by African tribal masks.

Content warning for descriptions of racism.

Cultural appropriation, a term that originated in late twentieth century postcolonial studies, has gotten more and more popular attention in recent years and is often misunderstood. It its core, it describes a process through which members of a culture or identity adopt elements of another culture or identity. While it’s a neutral term that simply describes a phenomenon or behaviour, it is often considered harmful when members of a culture takes on aspects of a culture that has been oppressed by that group.

In these cases, the people who appropriate may get cultural or economic capital – such as admiration, money, or artistic inspiration – from it, while the appropriated culture gets mistreated for doing the exact same thing. A common example is the appropriation of black hairstyles by white people. Cultural appropriation may therefore lead to cultures being exploited, misrepresented and erased.

(Note: cultural appropriation is considered different from cultural exchange – in which members of a culture actively invite members of another culture to partake in their culture – and cultural assimilation – in which members of an minority culture are forced or encouraged to take on elements of a dominant culture.

Update Jan 2021: I’ve updated my description of cultural appropriation to clarify that it is a neutral term, but can lead to exploitation.)

Most examples that receive attention online are contemporary. Cultural appropriation, however, is nothing new. Cultural appropriation in art has existed as long art itself has existed, and not always in an exploitative context. I also want to reiterate that just because we recognise that a piece of art is culturally appropriative does not mean that we should dismiss, dislike, or censor it – just that we should be aware of it. Which brings me to the art movement I want to discuss today: Primitivism.

You might not have heard about Primitivism before, but you’ve probably heard about famous Primitivist artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin. Primitivism was an art movement/artistic tendency that began in late 19th century Europe and lasted until the mid 20th century (although it’s honestly never really ended), in which Western artists took artistic elements from non-Western cultures – a.k.a. cultures that they saw as ”primitive” – and used them in their art.

Expressionist painting. Four topless people who are either naked or wearing grass skirts are dancing around a small, barely visible golden object on the ground. There's a crowd of onlookers watching them. The painting uses strong, unnaturalistic colours, with a focus on warm colours such as bright yellow and red. The figures dancing are depicted with broad brushstrokes and stylised limbs, making them look wild and full of movement.

Dance around the golden calf (1910), Emil Nolde

Why did artists do this?

Primitivism happened because of a few different reasons. First of all, the 19th century was the first period in European history when tourism exploded and travellers were able to bring back a sizeable number of artefacts from outside of Europe. Steamships and railways saw increased mobility for travellers, and while tourism had previously been reserved for a select few, it now became available to the middle class. This coincided with the increased collection of non-Western objects, and the founding of ethnographic museums.

There was also a desire amongst many European artists to return to a purer, more natural state. The 19th century saw the beginning of the industrial revolution, and as cities grew and life became more industrialised, segments of the population started longing for a time when they were closer to nature. Many artists therefore started idealising non-Western art, which they saw as more “simple” and “pure”.

Stylised Western painting depicting four African people in a row. The man furthest on the left is playing a drum, the next two women have their heads turned upwards and are likely singing, and the man on the right is playing a flute-like instrument. Behind them, the artist has used vageuly tribal patterns.

Somalitanz (1910), Max Pechstein

Finally, Primitivist artists wanted to rebel against the European art academies. In many European countries, the royal art academies strictly controlled the kind of art that was taught and exhibited at their annual exhibitions. They enforced the genre hierarchy, what styles artists should use, how they should paint and where they should get their inspiration from. In the 19th century, many artists grew tired of this and looked for inspiration elsewhere. Non-Western art was frequently used by Western artists in the mid-19th to early 20th century to find new ways of using colour, perspective, line and movement.

Why can it be seen as cultural appropriation?

From a purely neutral point of view, Primitivism fits the definition of cultural appropriation in that Primitivist artists were adopting and incorporating aspects of other cultures in their art. Primitivism has often been critiqued on the basis that this cultural appropriation occurred in a context of colonialism and wide-scale oppression of the cultures they were borrowing from. They were also using these borrowed cultural elements for social, artistic and economic gain.

Paul Gauguin, for example, used Tahitian culture to sell paintings back in Paris. His works frequently featured images of sexualised Tahitian people and vaguely Tahitian religious imagery and other cultural symbols. When he returned to France in 1893, he set up regular exhibitions in an apartment in the Montparnasse district, where he played up his adopted “savage” exotic persona.

Woodblock print by a Western artist. A naked Tahitian woman is standing in front of a tropical background full of trees and flowers. Above her head the words Nave Nave Fenua are printed and to her left a strip of vageuly tribal-looking symbols are printed.

Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land) (1894), Paul Gauguin

Primitivist artists also often misrepresented the cultures that they were taking inspiration from. Gauguin, for example, wrote a book, Noa Noa, about his life in Tahiti, where he described it as a primitive, erotic idyll. Art historians have since shown that Gauguin greatly misrepresented Tahiti, and that he lifted much of the book from a Dutch ethnographer’s account from the 1830s.

Cubist painting. A highly stylised image of a nude woman with her arms raised and against a drapery background. The artist uses sharp angles and a flattened perspective.

Nude with raised arms (1907), Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s Nude with raised arms (or The Dancer) from 1907 is an example of how Western artists misrepresented the actual visual qualities and meanings of non-Western, in this case African, artworks. Picasso was very influenced by African art, particularly sculptures and masks, and became an avid collector of it. Robert Goldwater, an American art historian who wrote the 1938 bookPrimitivism in Modern Painting, argued that Nude with raised arms was influenced by a reliquary figure from the Kota (or Bakota) culture in north-eastern Gabon. While Kota figures are static, symmetric and harmonious, Picasso’s work is wild, asymmetrical and full of movement. Looking at Picasso’s own descriptions of African art, it’s very likely that he misinterpreted the Kota sculpture through his own impression of Africa as a wild, “magic”, “primitive” place.

Kota statue. A flat oval face or mask sits on top of two leg-like structures that form a diamond. Above and next to the face are shapes that indicate some sort of hair or headdress.

Reliquary Figure (19th – 20th centuries), Unknown artist. Exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Racism and Colonialism

Primitivism happened within a cultural environment where colonialism and racism towards non-Westerners was rampant. For example, while Picasso was being inspired by African art, mistreatment of and stereotyping of African people was commonplace. In the late 19th century, European nations invaded and colonised most of Africa. This is sometimes called the “scramble for Africa”. By 1914, a staggering 90% of African was under European control.

This corresponded with Europe’s fascination with African people, who were stereotyped as wild, dangerous, cannibalistic, uneducated, hypersexual and practically inhuman. They were treated with violence and dehumanisation. In the late 19th and throughout the first half of the 20th century, “human zoos” sprung up across Europe. People of colour, and especially African people, were put on display in these zoos, in their “natural environments”. These exhibitions were not anomalies, either; they were massively popular, drawing millions of visitors, and most famously being housed at the Paris World Fairs. The last of these exhibitions happened as late as 1958. In addition, although it was cancelled, a human zoo showcasing an Ivory Coast village, with inhabitants who were contractually obligated to be topless, was planned in France in – wait for it – 1994.

Black and white photograph of a man standing in front of a tree and bushes. Only the top part of his body is included in the photo. He's shirtless and wearing some sort of wrap skirt. In one hand he is holding a chimpanzee, who clings to his body, and in the other hand he's holding a piece of wood.

Photograph of Ota Benga, a man from Congo, exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Photographer unknown.

This means that Primitivist cultural appropriation involved a power dynamic of Western artists exploiting non-Western cultures while their own societies were oppressing actual non-Western people. In other words: Western artists were rewarded for taking parts of the same culture that non-Western people of colour were punished for.

Why we need to talk about this

Western art history has always had problems when it comes to representing non-white and non-Western art and artists. Even today, the attitudes that gave rise to Primitivism are commonplace and continue to affect the contemporary art market.

Look at, for example, the 1984 MOMA exhibition ‘Primitivism’ in 20th century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. The exhibition, as stated in its description, juxtaposed “modern and tribal objects” to show how Primitivist artists drew inspiration from the latter. It included a section showcasing “a group of superb tribal objects notable for their appeal to modern interest”. Notably, it didn’t challenge or question the artists’ interactions with non-Western art.

Hilton Kramer’s 1984 review of the exhibition discusses the quotation marks around the word “Primitivism” in the exhibition’s title:

Today, three decades after the MOMA exhibition, Primitivist art is still often idealised at the expense of non-Western art. Luckily, artists and art historians have started speaking up against this narrative.

African artists, for example, have spoken up in order to reclaim their cultures from the harmful legacy of Primitivist art. Contemporary Ugandan artist Francis Nnaggenda has stated, “People tell me my work looks like Picasso, but they have it wrong. It is Picasso who looks like me, like Africa.”