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Imitation: The Greatest Form of Flattery? How African Art Inspired Europe's Artistic Movements

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness" - Oscar Wilde

Africa has, in many different spheres of life, always been viewed as inferior by the western world. Primitive. Lacking class, or flare or sophistication. And in the realm of art, this is no different. In Western spaces, Africa is not heralded as the home of arts and culture; maybe that title would go to Italy or Spain, maybe Greece. Unfortunately, as individulas living in Diaspora, it is all too easy to internalise these narratives ourselves. But interestingly, history brings another perspective. How would your view of African art change if you found out that many 20th century artists drew huge amounts of inspiration from art all across Africa, and actually tried to imitate the art styles of many different African nations? Does Oscar Wilde's words ring true regarding the imitation of Africa's artwork?

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is widely praised as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and as the co-founder of the Cubism movement. His name and reputation precede him, and his work is easily recognisable. What is less well known about him are his artistic influences: African artwork, masks and sculptures. Like the earlier mentioned artists, Picasso took huge amounts of inspiration from the style of African art, the broad brush strokes, and the bold, cubic structures. It is widely accepted as fact that he took this inspiration from artworks across the African continent, and even had an "African" era in his work, dating from 1906-1909. Some of his most popular works was inspired by African masks.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Seated Woman, 1908

Head of a Sleeping Woman, 1907

Picasso drew inspiration from the shape and design of masks that can be found all over the African continent, and can be clearly identifies in his early 20th century work. For reference, below are some examples of masks and their place of origin.

Masks from the Sikasingo-Bembe-Buyu people of Modern-Day DR Congo

Tanzende By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

"Tanzende" is an early piece by German artist and sculpture Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The piece, which translates to "dancing" in German, depicts a women dancing. Kirchner was a driving force behind Expressionism and was part of the early 20th century art group,  Die Brücke, who drew a lot of inspiration from artwork from the sculptures of the Bamiléké and Bamum people from modern day Cameroon. Below are some are sculptures from the Bamum and Bamiléké people.

Sculpture from the Bamiléké and Bamum people of Modern-Day Cameroon

Sitzender Mann by Karl Schmidt-Rotluff

Schimdt-Rotluff was a sculpter from the early 20th century who was also a part of the Die Brücke artistic group, and one of the early contributors to the Expressionism movement. He was inspired by masks and sculptures across Africa; his sculpture, "Sitzender Mann" closely resembles sculptures from across western Africa.

Sculptures from the Baoulé and Ashanti people from modern day Côte d'Ivoire

Reflection: What does this mean for us?

These pieces of art begs one major question - what does this mean for us as members of the African diaspora?

Many of us have internalised a narrative that art from across Africa is "primitive" or is "simple" or "lacks class and complexity". I think it is essential for us to recognise how our perspectives have been shaped by western ideals and narratives about Africa, namely that our work is primitive and inferior to that of the West. While this notion is being pushed, European artists are simultaneously drawing inspiration and great acclaim from our art styles and sculptures.

So, here are a few questions to ponder...

Do we see the beauty in the artwork and sculptures from across Africa?

If not, why not?

Is there an internalised narrative that has to be challenged?


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