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This text is by Wihad Al-Tawil in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

"Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Arrogant


Wihad Al-Tawil


When asked to provide an article about art and race for infinite mile, the topic seemed very natural. As an art historian from a multicultural background, I have always approached the study of history with a critical eye. The particular topic of Primitivism, which was a 19th-20th century artistic movement developed by prominent European artists: Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, to name a few, was marked by European artists breaking away from traditional western artistic conventions in favor of the curving, geometric, and/or flattened forms attributed to some African, Oceanic and Native cultures. As a graduate student, the topic fascinated me. Heavily focused on the study of the art and visual culture(s) of Africa and diaspora, my graduate experience centered on the deconstruction of traditional notions developed during periods marked by racism and colonialism. The Primitivism exhibit explored in this essay, for example, illustrates a contemporary manifestation of age-old perceptions of the African, afro-diasporic and indigenous domains.

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Picasso, Girl before a Mirror, 1932, and Kwakiutl half-mask

The importance of the 1984 Primitivism exhibit at the MOMA is in the understanding of its conception: by establishing the geo-political histories in which racist ideologies were bred, we can go a step further from dispelling derogatory terms like “primitive” and dig into the analysis the actual exhibition and displays as expressions of such ingrained ideologies. Understanding the Primitivism exhibit: the proclaimed innocence of the directors, the lack of regard for the context of of non-western objects, and the compliance by the museum itself to host such an exhibit teach us tremendous lessons about how we treat art and race in the west. One such notion, which often prevails historical narratives, is the focus on art as being western, and furthermore, that non-western visual culture is meant to facilitate the understanding of western art.

This deep-rooted Euro-centric notion of non-western visual culture as secondary to the art of the west is something I hope the reader gains awareness of through the critique of Primitivism. Looking critically at places like the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example, reveals a set of questions: where are the non-western collections placed in the museum? How are these galleries lit? Why are the European galleries centralized, brightly lit and the most easily accessible? What do these design decisions imply about the way we view the west in relationship to other cultures? At trusted institutions such as art museums, the treatment of non-western vs. western art must be carefully considered. I hope, if anything else, that the average museum-goer will think critically the next time they enter a gallery: why are they seeing what they see, by who and how such decisions were made, and most importantly: what implications the decisions made by the museum produce.

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“Primitivism”, Dallas exhibit

In 1984, William Rubin curated an exhibit entitled “’Primitivism’: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which later traveled to Dallas and Detroit. The exhibit aimed to juxtapose “primitive arts” from the African, Oceanic and Native American Indian cultures with the arts of Modern Western artists such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin in order to express the supposed affinities that the latter group of works had for the former. The seemingly and admittedly innocent installation amassed major criticism from the public and art history world alike for, among other things, its utter disregard of the problem with the term “primitive”. In a sort of pre-emptive strike, Rubin’s addressed potential critiques of the dated terminology in the introduction of the lengthy, two-volume catalog for the exhibit. The vibrant, elaborate catalog featured essays discussing the Western, Modern artists and their works with various images of African, Oceanic and Native American objects placed strategically in order to suggest resemblance or “affinities”. His argument regarding the use of the word “primitive” recognized the sensitivity to the issue, though Rubin’s fundamental defense was that the word simply referred to a stylistic, Western moment in art history which actually exalted the “tribal” rather than demeaned it (Rubin, 5). In fact, the curator’s vision was that the exhibit should do nothing more than display the splendor and beauties of both categories of art—both the Modern and the tribal (Rubin, 1-7). Rubin’s aim was to visually captivate the audience with striking “affinities”—by hanging the works of the Modern masterpieces alongside the works of the “primitive” objects, Rubin wished to illustrate a “common denominator” in the objects and paintings (Clifford, 193). By considering the artworks and catalog of the 1984 MOMA exhibit entitled “Primitivism” In the 20th Century: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, it remains clear that the exhibit failed as a substantiated lesson in art or history and instead effectively propagated an “us vs. them” mentality, which prevails art historical research. Through the use of carefully structured rhetoric juxtaposed with Western works of art, the exhibit produced an exoticized “other” in its tribal associations and, furthermore, extended a relationship of superiority between the “modern” West and elsewhere. The display of arbitrarily chosen “tribal” items against a backdrop of master Modern paintings proves that the idea of an exhibit as vague and oblivious as “Primitivism” had no intentions of educating and dispelling misconceptions of the Black and indigenous continents. In fact, the contrary occurred, in that the exhibit itself perpetuated outdated ideologies by reconstructing the imagined inferior world of “primitives” as a legitimate reality.

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“Primitivism”, Dallas exhibit

The fundamental problem intrinsic to the Primitivism exhibit conducted by William Rubin was that it explicitly treated the arts of the “primitives” as mere facilitators in the realization of the therefore “true” Western art both symbolically and visually in its placements and discussions. This idea was constructed visually; the exhibit was divided into four distinct sections: Concepts, which aimed to establish the modern response to the influx of tribal objects through the use of examples. This section seemingly set the tone for the entire tour by introducing the viewers to the idea that Modern works contained “primitive” influence. Next was History, which honed in on the direct influence of tribal arts on Modern painters and sculptors. This section juxtaposed “works of modern art from the turn of the century to about 1950 with tribal objects” said to have influenced the works (Clifford, 212). The apparent aim of this display was to build on the Concepts section and further legitimize the claims by citing “direct” influence.  Furthermore, the Affinities section presented “a group of superb tribal objects notable for their appeal to modern taste”. These juxtapositions were chosen exclusively to illustrate to the viewer what Rubin referred to as “basic common denominators” of the works (Clifford, 193).  Again, the Affinities section seems to function as a sort of peak of the exhibit, where juxtapositions were even more precisely chosen for the purpose of driving the original claim home—that the Modern painters were absolutely influenced by tribal objects—and the proof of that can supposedly be seen in the visual displays of questionable resemblances (Clifford, 193). The fourth and final section of the exhibit was labeled Contemporary Explorations and featured Western art after 1970 which was said to have been inspired by the techniques and mentality of “primitive” cultures. The press release at MOMA theorized, “structures of myth and cosmology here combine with a primal sense of art-making activity to embody a strongly altered but still vital bond between modern and tribal creation”.  Remarkably, the entire exhibit held a total of 150 Modern works with over 200 tribal objects accompanying them—over half the exhibit composed of the “tribal” (MOMA, “New Exhibition”, 2). Although the tribal objects outnumbered the Western pieces exhibited, it is clear that the overall tone of the exhibit was set as being strictly Western by including but not examining the tribal objects which made up over half the installation. As the catalog stated, the objects included were viewed as an ''aspect of the history of Modern art, not of tribal art.'' This statement openly categorizes the objects as Western, with the understanding that to be considered as art they must first be qualified as modern (and therefore Western). Furthermore, the statement openly asserts that the exhibit is not purporting any claims on the history of tribal art—instead, the inclusion of the objects are meant to fortify explanations of the Western artworks. The danger in this tonality is an argument that relies on a modus operandi which inadvertently maintains the assumption that art is only Western—and therefore, the West solely determines what is to be categorized as art under this association. To elaborate, the mind frame of the exhibition functions from the perspective that, once the Modern artists deemed the tribal objects as their so-called muses, then and only then did the objects become “art”.   The objects’ apparent influence on Modern artists exalted them to the level of “art”—but only as they pertained to the modern works themselves—an even greater inadvertent proclamation of cultural superiority (Clifford, 195). Once a viewer reads between the lines, so to speak, at the seemingly innocent exhibit, these presumed to be outdated views expose themselves as operating alive and well in contemporary times, and furthermore, at such inherently trusted educational institutions as respected as the MOMA.

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“Primitivism” exhibit, MOMA

The most prominent issue raised by the Primitivism exhibit was the lack of contextualization of the objects, speaking further to the idea of their function in the exhibit as facilitators in the realization of the magnificence of the Western works (Harney, 1). Leaving information such as the definitions and functionalities of the tribal objects out of the contextualization of the exhibit leaves them to act as a sort of wallpaper in the show. Rather than include specific essays or even abbreviated label descriptions in order to provide a framework for basic cultural, historical and/or aesthetic understanding of the objects, Rubin decided the objects’ history an unnecessary aspect of an otherwise solely Modern show. This brings us to the next point of contention in the exhibit: the thoughtless decontextualization of the tribal objects through purposeful omission of discourse on their meanings and uses; instead strictly categorizing them as “art”, but as stated before, only when relevant to the Modern works (Kramer, 2).  This point is clearly underscored by Rubin’s own admission; he states in the catalog that the exhibit’s goal is to ''understand the Primitive sculptures in terms of the Western context in which modern artists 'discovered' them’” (Rubin, 1-4). The syntax of this single phrase alone reveals many problems concerning objective, historical research: aside from making no effort to deconstruct the derogatory term “primitive”, Rubin openly states the goal of the exhibit was to examine Western works within a Western context under the supercilious assumption that the West ‘discovered’ the indigenous worlds (Clifford, 196). Whether it refers to art, culture, objects or societies, the rhetoric clearly reflects that of an outdated ideology—one which extends a relationship of power over the indigenous peoples in its misguided desire to construct a primitive muse for the Modern artists. This idea of a homogenized, inferior people exhibiting mystical, romanticized cultural stereotypes to be used as a Westerner’s muse was not a new idea—first made popular by the Orientalists, this mode of expression enchanted Westerners with imagined landscapes of the Arabian peninsula or sensual renderings of dark haired, hour-glass figured harem women. Images such as those served as entertainment in that they fed curious European minds with fantastic amalgamated images of another world. The problem, however, was that the images were essentially stereotypes—though positive in some regards, as in the obviousness of their focus on beauty—still were stereotypical and lacked explanation or substance. Without explanation, these images of the Arab world would continue to dominate media stereotypes for hundreds of years, though to the West they functioned and continue to function as entertainment. These unsubstantiated images of “other” cultures seem to intentionally silence them so they may serve their fantastic, romantic purpose. This notion is not lost at the Primitivism exhibition—woodcarvings and masks echo the existence of a non-existent primitive world (Clifford, 200-201). With no explanation, they become the perfect mood-setting ambiance for the Western world—evoking but not exploring in detail—safe from the realities of the indigenous worlds yet free to take pleasure in them (Kramer, 2). The idea that the “other” worlds are not the problem of the west unless they pose some sort of benefit—whether it be aesthetic or economic—roots itself in colonial attitudes of cultural superiority (Harney, 1). The idea that the indigenous did not exist before the west considered them relevant resonates this imperial attitude which subsequently prevails the entire catalog for Primitivism. Though seemingly innocent in his endeavors, Rubin explicitly perpetuates a Euro-centric, culturally insensitive and exclusive mentality that the field of art history has yet to completely overcome. The fact that Rubin seems to operate from a place of good intentions but an outright disinterest in information or the relaying of it further befits the colonial narrative from which the exhibition was conceived.

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Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse (detail), 1913 and a Gabon Mask placed side by side, “Primitivism” Catalog

To illustrate this point, one may investigate the use of the Dan masks, which apparently were a favorite of the works displayed throughout the Primitivism exhibit. According to Robert Ferris Thomson’s Flash of the Spirit: African  Afro-American Art & Philosophy (Vintage, 1983), these tribal masks exist in several African sects such as the Dan, Yoruba and other masquerading cultures of Western Africa. The masks are primarily used in dance as a means to physically embody the spirit of the Ashe—a term used to refer to the divine spirit—the mask holds great sacred power and is not meant to be seen outside of the masquerade. The masquerade itself is a wholly spiritual event, taken very seriously by the community and only danced by highly trained, initiated members of society. The rituals involved in the deliverance of the embodied spirit are highly organized and intricate, as to not offend or disappoint the Ashe. Though they are entertaining events, nonetheless, these religious practices are prepared for time in advance and contain strict rules of conduct and adherence. During the masquerade, an initiated dancer becomes transformed or “possessed” by the Ashe, embodying the characteristics of the spirit through movement (Picton, 191). The dancer is then understood to be the mask and no longer a human— the vessel delivering the spiritual world to the viewers with the mask acting as the physical presence of the spirit (Thompson, 3). Without the masquerade and the transformation, the mask is rendered useless, lifeless and meaningless by society. The important distinction to be made is that the mask is not understood as art by its people—meaning, it is not created by the craftsmen for pure aesthetic value (Picton, 191). Instead, it is created with the intent that it would act as the embodiment of the spirit by both representing the divine as well as separating the spiritual and human worlds—by literally masking the eyes of the human so as to not cause interaction or intimate crowd engagement (Picton, 187-8). The mask is therefore a sacred object holding intrinsic force according to masquerading cultures such as the Dan and Yoruba (Thomson, 3). Furthermore, to the masquerading cultures, the mask should not be viewed outside of the masquerade as it is sometimes viewed as a crime against the spiritual world. This hugely disrespectful act may render as a punishable offense amongst societies in Africa—important cultural information and notions that are ironically if not blatantly lost in museum exhibits such as Primitivism. Descriptive cultural context such as that regarding Dan masks are completely undermined and disregarded throughout the exhibit in an explicit desire to adhere to pure aesthetic weight in regards to the objects—a notion that does not extend itself across cultures, which further substantiates Primitivism as a culturally exclusive experience.

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Objects and paintings, Dallas exhibit

Finally, and probably most obviously, the museum blundered by insolently utilizing dated, culturally insensitive rhetoric in the catalog, title and texts of the exhibit as well as displaying cultural materials acquired through questionable practices (Clifford, 189). The only indication of the desire to dispel misconceptions of the indigenous world is found in the quotation marks encasing the word primitivism in the title of the exhibition. These quotations at first seem to elicit questioning of the term and offer the visitors an indication of further investigation to follow—however, the suggestive nature of the quotations are despondently where the interrogation of the insensitive expression ends (Kramer, 1). This lack of discourse moves from being passed off as mere omission of information to being understood as utter self-indulgent ignorance once Rubin’s essays regarding the use of the term are relayed. Throughout the catalog, Rubin propagates the imagined inferiority of the tribal world—using demeaning characterizations such as “naïve”, “child-like” and “simple” to describe both the cultures of the tribal and the works they produced (Rubin, 2). These terms are arguably more offensive than the defense of the word primitive in that it openly adhered to a perspective of the African continent as being less-than and innocently underdeveloped as civilizations relative to how the west viewed itself. The uses of said terms in the catalog beg the question: how was it that in the mid-1980s, terms like “naïve” and “simple” would pass as adjectives to describe historically subjugated peoples in a catalog for a major show in one of the cultural hubs of the world?  Rubin defended his argument by asserting his perspective of the cultures and their works strictly as admiring and esteeming, though his catalog rhetoric clearly reflected a psychological position grounded in Western cultural superiority. Rubin attempted to outline the fascination of the Modern artists with the African, Oceanic and Native American cultures using the characterizations of simple, naïve, and child-like and in turn effectively portrayed the West as the requisite antithesis of these worlds—for the naïve, the West is wise; for the child-like, the West is experienced; and for the simple, the West is complex. These unspoken proclamations resonated within the exhibit—a danger when the primary constituencies of the exhibit were Westerners themselves. When trusted institutions such as museums pose conjectures, they are deemed to be truth by the general public and therefore hold greater responsibility in providing all facets of a story as best it can. Once the MOMA chose to exhibit Primitivism the way Rubin envisioned, it thereby propagated the outdated ideologies and cultural insensitivities as truth, effectively projecting erroneous ideologies onto yet another generation of museum visitors.  Rubin’s patronizing attitude was further reinforced by his insistence that the exhibit was celebrating the “primitive” rather than deriding or marginalizing the cultures of the indigenous. However, this point is proven null by the mere acquisition history of the objects at hand—it was no mystery that the bulk of the objects in the exhibit were acquired from said cultures during periods of colonization of the continent (Kramer, 6). Many of the original objects obtained from the tribal worlds and used in the exhibition were acquired during a time of forced “European political, economic and evangelical dominion” over the African world (Clifford, 196-7). However, this complex aspect is clearly left out of the Primitivism show; though their belonging to prominent collections both private and public tend to speak to a culture of domination where an inadvertent influx of cultural objects from Africa became readily available to the West. These questionable origins and practices further rescind Rubin’s Primitivism as an innocent look at beauty and art.
Primitivism traveled to the Detroit Institute of Arts the following year (1985), where it was received with mixed reviews. David W. Penney who served as the Assistant Director of African and Oceanic, and New World Cultures at the Detroit Institute of Arts summarized the central issue of Rubin’s exhibit in a concise and eloquent manner:

The Western notion of "primitive" peoples is a longstanding myth that views alien, exotic cultural forms as living relics of an ancestral past. The MOMA catalogue presents tribal art purely through the eyes of twentieth-century culture. This viewpoint defines "primitive" art as a category. The exhibition and catalogue themselves are important in the ways they re-shape our evolving concept of "primitive" man--now seen as a nameless, faceless Picasso of the bush. (Penney, 91).

Penney’s sentiments accurately outline the problems of the exhibit while expanding upon the concept itself—not only does Rubin re-introduce the concept of “primitivism” to the public, but continues to develop the Western public’s perception of it. In this way, Rubin pushed the old ideologies forward by giving them new life and assigning to them new associations and characteristics through the visuals of the catalog and exhibit.

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Dan Masks, “Primitivism” Catalog

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“Primitivism”, Dallas exhibit

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Tribal objects, Dallas exhibit

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Paintings and tribal objects, Dallas exhibit

With all of the criticism of the Primitivism show in mind, the question now begs: what would be an appropriate display featuring the objects and artworks of the indigenous worlds? Exhibitions such as those conceived by Rubin undoubtedly come under fierce critique due to an ever-changing and ever-expanding globalized voice in all fields of academia. As stated, it is not the title of the show that offends but the decision to not explore and debunk the term paired with the deliberate disregard of the actual objects in the show that sparked controversy. Rubin is technically correct in stating that the term “primitivism” refers to a moment in Western art history—this statement is all that is needed to understand the decision for the title. However, had he brought in African art history scholars to contribute to the shows essay catalog in significant ways, what would that have done for the merit of the show? For one, it would have broadened the discussion and included a voice and explanation for an entire continent of objects which in this context are misunderstood. Furthermore, it would in the very least have rendered Rubin and/or the MOMA as interested in the pursuit of broad cultural discourse rather than the complacent show it produced. Had they attempted to critically re-examine the past rather than re-introduce old ideologies, Rubin and MOMA would have been critiqued quite differently—based on their attempts and effectiveness of opening discussions rather than the lack of cultural sensitivity. Together these factors contribute and point to a museum installation conceived under an outdated, arrogant school of thought which artlessly operated from a mentality of cultural dominance of the West, and furthermore, defended itself under the guise of mere aesthetic admiration and beauty. William Rubin’s declaration that the objects were to be viewed only as “beautiful art” inspiring the art of the West not only asserts a position of dominance over indigenous cultures, but also relinquished his intellectual responsibility to the non-Western objects in his exhibition. This was specifically achieved by claiming that the objects were meant only to be viewed and not thought about. To display these objects without regard for their meaning, obtained under the questionable circumstances of colonization, explained only in terms of the Western art they helped produce, and furthermore described as belonging to such derogatory realities as those who are “primitive” can only be interpreted as a blatant disrespect and disregard of entire cultures of people; further ‘othering’ and perpetuating stereotypes of the indigenous worlds. It is for these reasons that Primitivism in the 20th century: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern fell short in operating as an objective, cross-cultural dialogue meant to bridge civilizations and their arts in an effort to foster a rich understanding of the world and its complex histories.




Works Cited


Clifford, James. "Histories of the Tribal and the Modern." The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. 1st Ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988: pp. 189-215. Print.

Harney, Elizabeth. “In Search of Africa in New York and London”. Black Renaissance. New York: Institute of African American Affairs, 1997. Print.

Kramer, Hilton. “The Primitivism Conundrum”. The New Criterion. Vol. 3, 1984. Print.

“New Exhibition Opening September 27 at Museum of Modern Art Examines ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art”. The Museum of Modern Art, 1984. Press release.

Penney, David W. Rev. of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern, by William Rubin. African Arts. August 1985: p. 91. Print.

Picton, John. “What’s In a Mask”? African Languages and Cultures. Vol. 3, 1990: page 181-202. Print.

Rubin, William. Ed."’Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984. Print.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983. Print.

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