Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens/De L'imaginaire Au Musée: Les Arts d'Afrique À Paris et À New York (1931-2006)/picasso's Collection of African and Oceanic Art

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WENDY A. GROSSMAN Man Ray, African Art, ana the Modernist Lens Washington, D.C.: International Art and Artists, 2009. 184 pp.; 23 color ills., 259 b/w. $39.95

MAUREEN MURPHY De l'imaginaire au musée: Les arts d'Afrique à Paris et à New York (19312006) Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2009. 400 pp.; 54 b/w ills. euro 26.00

PETER STEPAN Picasso's Collection of African and Oceanic Art Translated from the German by Paul Aston and Karin Skawran Munich: Prestel, 2007. 152 pp.; 42 color ills., 226 b/w. $85.00

On March 7, 2006, a letter in die Star newspaper of Cape Town, South Africa, set off a heated debate by leveling accusations of diievery at Pablo Picasso, the doyen of modernist primitivism. The vitriolic letter, entitled "Exhibition Proves Picasso Stole Inspirar tion," was written by Sandile Memela, a representative of die Department of Arts and Culture, in response to die much anticipated exhibition Picasso and Africa. This exhibition, organized by die South African National Gallery and the Musée Picasso, Paris, marked the first time that Picasso's works were seen in South Africa and only the second time they appeared on the African continent.1 Memela claimed that had Picasso not stolen formal ideas from "anonymous" African artists, he never would have achieved such greatness. While hyperbole, in essence his complaint echoed long-standing concerns of practitioners and scholars of African arts who have lamented the continuing imbalance between assessments of European modernist genius and dismissals of die African creativity that made possible the profound cultural interactions diat characterized die early modernist moment. Particularly vexing was the oft-quoted denial by the artist himself of influence or interest in African arts, "L'art nègre, connais pas!" - this despite public knowledge of his collecting activities and visits to ethnographic collections and in opposition to formal evidence of his courtship of African masks and sculptures.

Memela 's criticism was a reminder diat these wounds remain raw, reflecting the sensitivity at die heart of still unresolved debates on die relation between African art and Western modernism.2 These debates focus on the nature of artistic influence, the contours of cultural appropriation, and die critical agency involved in die telling of modernist art histories, reminding us that narratives are not color-blind. Historically, modern African (and other non-Westem) artists have not been afforded die same license for appropria tive practices as dieir European modernist counterparts without risking charges of inauthenticiry or mimicry.

The South African debate, set against die uneasy Utopian blueprint for a "Rainbow Nation," recalled the furor that erupted in connection with the exhibition Primitivism in Modern Art held at die Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1984. The controversies engendered by diat watershed exhibition were discussed so dioroughly and passionately at the time, in writings by dieorists like Thomas McEvilley, Hal Foster, and James Clifford, diat they were often referred to in comprehensive (canonical) terms diat elided die subtleties of the original arguments and all but silenced further public debate. The force with which these controversies over race, representation, and art historical narrative resurfaced in 2006 surprised and frustrated many in the South African art establishment who had assumed that die "primitivism problem" had been laid to rest and who saw it as a distraction from the task of crafting a successful, multiracial contemporary art world.

The long shadow cast by die Museum of Modern Art exhibition served as an important catalyst for many critical exhibition projects, leading them to question Eurocentric notions of universalisai, to measure die tenor of parallel modernisms, or to encourage and celebrate the cosmopolitan nature of the contemporary art world. The weight of these postmodernist interventions seemed to move the art world beyond the uncomfortable Orudis of primitivism. …