Modernist Primitivism & Indigenous Modernisms: Transnational Discourse & Local Art Histories

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Anitra Nettleton, 28 March 2011

Editor’s note: Anitra Nettleton was discussant for “Modernist Primitivism and Indigenous Modernisms: Transnational Discourse and Local Art Histories”, a panel convened by Ruth B. Phillips (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada) for “Other Views: Art History in (South) Africa and the Global South” at the University of the Witwatersrand, 12 – 15 January 2011.[i]

In this response I want to try to bring together some of the themes raised by the three panels of clearly related, yet quite diverse papers.[ii] I want to do this from the idea that they are representative of views falling outside of the usual totalizing history, but also acknowledge that they reflect their genesis in that history.

Two important issues that, I think, need to be laid out first arise from a reading of, on one hand, Frederic Jameson’s[iii]- critique of the contrasts that have been drawn between the supposed temporality of modernism and the spatiality of postmodernism, and on the other hand of Terry Smith’s-[iv] exegesis on the question of the contemporaneity of ‘contemporary’ art, which resonates with the questions of the modernity of modernism.

Jameson points to the unevenness of the processes of modernization in Europe at the height of the modernist experiments in art, a process which he sees as being completed only after 1945, and the expansion of these uneven levels of modernization through the colonial expansion of western powers into other, apparently non-modern communities. Jameson is, of course talking of modernization in its technological and economic guises, as a set of social processes often centered on urbanization, which were accompanied by modernism, the aesthetic dimension of modernity. From a European perspective, modernism defined modernity in art, and it was this view that held sway in their dealings with and dealing in the arts of other peoples. As these other peoples were the inhabitants of colonized territories, their encounters with modernism have generally been reported in western terms, although they may well have been conceptualized in different ones. The persistence of modernist modes of art making in many post-colonial contexts, suggests that modernism was ‘turned’ because postcolonial artists are still re-defining what it means to be modern at the same as they are defining their contemporary relevance. This relevance, furthermore could be validated, because, as Caroline Jones has argued in a dense analysis of the modernist “paradigm” in the 1960s to choose the modernist paradigm was “to choose art itself, as opposed to that which might never prove to be Art”.

The contemporaneity of the many contemporary non-western artists who work in modernist modes has been questioned by western critic because, as Terry Smith noted in a recent article, the modern is now regarded as an historical category. He argues that because the distinctions which modernism drew between modern and pre-modern peoples have been superseded by multiple temporalities and diverse spatial localities, the contemporary has other dimensions of peculiarity and specificity which are unavailable to the totalizing tendencies of modernism. Where modernist artists from the supposed periphery engaged, first with naturalism or realism, which for them was possibly the most prominent form of visual modernity, or later with Impressionism, abstraction or Surrealism, their art was inevitably labeled as derivative or secondary. I say inevitably, because one of the prime criteria of western modernism for the validation of artworks was the proof of originality and not necessarily, as van Robbroeck points out in her paper, of mastery. Ironically where “other” artists began to work in abstract or apparently Surrealist styles, but arrived at these forms directly from their own traditions, they were seen as, or at least marketed as, genuinely ‘primitive’ and not really modern. In this context it is also useful to remember, as Caroline Jones[v] argued, that for at least three of the master voices of High Modernism Cavell, Fried and Greenberg the question was “whether artists operating outside modernism (if we could agree on who those artists might be) could possible be making Art…”

Rankin and Nzewi both broached the issue of training of indigenous artists, by western modernists, often following an art school or workshop model. In these instances students were given formal training in various arts media, often with an emphasis in saleable objects. Nzewi’s analysis of Senghor’s Negitrudinist approach to art making and training reveals within it an assumption of an essential nature to African aesthetics that was shared by the liberal westerners who taught in workshop schools across colonial and post-colonial Africa. Both Rankin and Nzewi trace the ways in which particular black African artists responded to these assumptions and the routes through which they found an Africanized modernism. Interesting in this respect that in neither the Senegalese nor the South African contexts were there recognized traditions of ‘classic’ African sculpture on which to base a local African identity and so “Africa” and Africanity were derived from central and West African tradition at some degree of remove from the artists’ own heritages. This remove is of course much more obvious, and clearly estranged, among the white artists from Europe such as Vestman and Klopcanocs, whose Africanity is dissected by Gers. The Afro-Caribbean artists that Dacres and Bernal annalyse in relation to both a European and an African heritage, are argued to be connected by forms of cultural memory. In all these instances modernity is an outcome of a subscription to a modernist paradigm of primitivism in the making of the works.

Almost opposed to this, the process to which indigenous, artists arrived at modernism via a reinvention of their own traditions in new forms seems to deny western training interventions, but in fact was subject to other kinds of intervention. These processes are raised in a number of papers. Wheoki’s is perhaps the most successful in decentring such western interventions and in establishing a reverse order when he asked not whether Picasso inspired modern Maori art, but whether he, and other non-Maori artists, can be counted among its ancestors in a kind of Foucauldian genealogy. However, the modernist Maori artists with whom Wheoki deals were trained in University contexts in New Zealand and their marriage of Maori and western traditions may have been far more attuned to western theories of “art” than the artists dealt with by Sloggett and, again differently, Devine.

Daphne Odjig had no formal western art school training and so Devine is reluctant to call her ‘self-taught’ because Odjig was steeped in an art world inherited from her father and acquired from her father and acquired by copying artists in Canadian Museums. Yet the primary motivation for her work appears to have been an indigenous form of imaging, rock painting. Sloggett deals with Aboriginal painters whose work, however, is deeply embedded in indigenous iconography and in the materials used in local traditions, with links to Aboriginal rock art. These papers both raise the question of whether the official sanctioning of indigenous paintings as art in colonial contexts allowed for the makers to be acknowledged as modern artists and for their art works to enter the art world both anesthetically and commercially. This is significant because one of the things that these ‘other’ modernists had to deal with, and which all artist still have to consider, is that the art world and especially the art market and largely still has its centre in the west, and sets the standards of ‘authenticity’.

It was in this centre that rock art traditions from all over the world were recognized as the ‘first’ human tradition, and this seems to have always put them, in the minds of the colonists, in a time before the colonized land was inhabited by the indigenes with whom the colonists interacted. The use of so-called Bushman motifs traced by Gers in Vestman and Klopanocs’ work stands in a line of such usage in South African art, as does the use of Aboriginal and Maori motifs in the art of white settlers in Australasia according to Nicholas Thomas.

Bark painting, seen as a cultural and historical tradition, brings up the question of what Appadurai calls the “enclaving” of objects within particular hierarchical categories – Sloggett, Gers, Norstrand, and Dreyer all deal with object genres or types which have been denied ‘art’ status, generally being relegated to the craft category. It is interesting that in the case of ceramics discussed by both Gers and Nordstrand, the question of the forms of the vessels or other objects is not considered as something which could be discussed in relation to modernism. Gers dwells almost entirely on the styles and iconography of the decoration on the pots, and Nordstrand, concerned with the central indicator of modernism, innovation, concentrates on black on black glazed imagery used by the Martinez family. The question that needs perhaps to be asked here is whether the shapes of the vessels themselves have any baring on questions of modernity or whether they respond in any ways to modernist imperatives, recognizing of course that modernist imperatives in ceramics tended either to an absolute functionalist aesthetic or to a romantic, nostalgic or orientalist primitivism, of the kind that Gers criticizes in Bernard Leach, or that is present in common perceptions of the kinds of pueblo pottery that Nordstrand deals with. Yet Nordstrands understanding of the Martinez’s alteration of their tradition with innovations as an auto-ethnographic gesture implies an outside audience for its consumption, as all ethnography is created for the other- otherwise it is sociology. As Nordstrand points out, the response of the artists here is thus to some extent conditioned by market expectations within a modern cash economy, but is also an index of their situating themselves as active subjects within that context.

It is perhaps the development of a modernist, proactive subjectivity among artists who became modernists in so many colonial and post-colonial art contexts that forms the common thread across all these papers. Yet in almost every case proffered for examination here the Primitivist process lurks waiting for its inevitable rebuttal. Van Robbroecks’s paper in particular calls into question the colonial response to natives’ making of art, as she traces the ways in which South African black artists working in a modernist mode were seen to still be ‘primitive’ rather than ‘primitivist’. The difference is crucial, and has particular relevance for Wheoki’s implied rejection of essentialist nativism, because the ‘primitive’ artists is always portrayed as one who does things according to tradition, by instinct and emotion, rather than as an individual who establishes a particular subjectivity, style and oeuvre. Dacres, Bernal, Gers, Rankin and Nzew in that they deal with individual artists and their particular ways of engaging modernity and modernist forms, counter the ‘primitive’ stereotype. But all run up against the same problem of the ‘primitivist’ implications of a search for ‘roots’, in ways that the communal nature of the aboriginal art movement discussed by Sloggett do not. The problem here is that not only is modernism based on positivist scientific views of time and technology, and is often linked to nationalist culture building agendas, in some of its manifestations it also rejects the alienation attendant on techno-scientific, so-called advances, in favour of the emotional valence of the primitive and pre-rational. To the latter valence many modernist artists ascribed a kind of universal validity and in its name they went in search of roots, co-opting anything they saw as original or primal along the way. So for modernist artists in colonial countries such as Dacre’s Jamaican monument-maker Gonzales, to turn from overtly modernist abstract architectural forms, to African, so-called “tribal” roots was dangerous for the reasons that their turn could be seen from the outside as a return that was retrogressive. This was particularly the case, as I have pointed out above, where Afro-Caribbean artists’ connections to African historical art forms was tenuous in so far as it was informed by memory and living oral traditions which were pan-African in the sense of not being locally centered. One cannot identify in these works the specifics of a historical African source, but only an African of the imagination.

These questions are all raised in Bernal’s paper which considers two artists Hippolyte and the well-known Wifredo Lam. Bernal places the question of identity as it is reflected in the writing of Ortiz and in the work of these two artists. The question of identity here seems to be more intense and contested, perhaps because diaspora communities have to create their own rootedness. Lam’s use of African foems has therefore to be differentiated from Picasso’s, and from Sidney Kumalo’s, because Liam’s identity was invented out of a set of colonial encounters in which centre and periphery were clearly marked and the interstices more ambiguously inhabited. Bernal’s paper follows the routes through which Liam’s identity as a modern artist is framed. That Liam’s forms were indebted to Africa, and his surrealism to Cuban spiritual traditions demonstrates the ways that modernism is altered and other views are projected, and from that we can perhaps conclude that modernism was always turned, wherever it landed, from the essentialist universalizing abstractions of Europe, to the, often figurative, subjectivities offered by artists in the rest of the world.

There is, finally, an irony in the adoption of modernism by artist subjects of the larger world in colonial and immediate post-colonial contexts. Colonialism had tainted the indigenous traditions, not only through western modernist artists drawing on them for inspiration, but also by their categorizing these traditions as primitive and unsophisticated, and often as craft not art. When the descendants of the creators of those historical forms turned to modernism, they were thus faced with a doubled damnation. This is a recurrent theme in all the papers presented in this triple panel. It raises the further question of why contemporary post colonial artists cannot now re-visit those historical traditions, even though they were certainly not exhausted by western modernism. In some cases there has been a turn to indigenous traditions that were not invalidated by interpellation into the colonizer’s art vocabulary, but these turns have often involved other forms of appropriation, which have either enforced or broken down gendered barriers. They point to a persistence or return of the modernist project in the production of the universal aesthetic object, or to a particularly identity-led product whose relevance is not just commercial but also a political statement in the world of globalised inequality. As Caroline Jones points out:

The modern world view (which constructs itself as “competing” with unmodern Others) carries with it Enlightenment convictions of advancement, subtended by evolutionary metaphors of ascendancy and fitness.

It is surely our mission as art historians speaking from other spaces to take a resolutely Other turn in viewing these histories, to subvert the Enlightenment values without dismissing the rigors of research that subtend the discipline.


Anitra Nettleton 20 01 2011

Anitra Nettleton is professor of History of Art in the Wits School of Arts at the University of Witwaterstrand


[i] “Other Views” was convened by the South African Visual arts Historians under the aegis of the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA),
[ii] The full list of presentations are listed below.

Part 1: “Work shopping Modernism: Case Studies in South African Art” – Elizabeth Rankin, University of Auckland, Aotearoa-New Zealand; “Changing the rules of Engagement, Art, Politics and the role of Bark paintings in Building Australian Identities” – Robyn Sloggett, University of Melbourne, Australia; “ Cultural Travel Agent: James Houston, sosaku Hanga, and the Inuit Print tradition” – Ming Tiampo, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada; “Maori Modernism and Modernist ‘Primitivism’: or, was Picasso the founder of Modernist Maori Art?” –
Jonathan Mane Wheoki, University of Auckland, Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Part 2: “Mobility and Invention: Design innovation as Autoethnographic Expression” – Polly Nordstrand, Cornell University, Ithaca NY, USA; “Daphne Odjig: Indigenous Modernist or European Primitive?” – Bonnie Devine, Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, Canada; “Chargers, Crockery and Souvenirs: An Analyst of Modernism within Sothern African Pottery (1950-1975)” –
Wendy Gers, University of the Arts, London; “Functionality and Social Modernism in the work of untrained South African Artists” – Elfriede Dreyer, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Part 3:“Modernising Memories: The Case of National Heroes Park, Jamaica” – Petrina Dacres, Edna Manley, College of the visual and Performing Arts, Kingston, Jamaica; “From South to South” – Maria Clara Bernal, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia; “White South African Discourse and the Invention of the Modern African Primitive” – Lize van Robbroeck, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa; “Modernist Primitivism and Modern Art in Early Post-Independence Senegal” – Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Emory University, USA

[iii] ”The end of Temporality” Critical Inquiry 29 (Summer 2003)

[iv] “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity” Critical Inquiry 32 (Summer 2006)

[v] “The Modernist Paradigm: The Art world and Thomas Kuhn” Critical Inquiry 26 (Spring 2000)

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