Renegotiating Identity; "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art as Family Narrative

Article excerpt

The prevailing viewpoint is made all too clear in one of the "affinities" featured on the catalogue covers, a juxtaposition of Picasso's Girl before a Mirror ... with a Kwakiutl half-mask, a type quite rare among Northwest coast creations. Its task here is simply to produce an effect of resemblance (an effect actually created by the camera angle). In this exhibition a universal message, "Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," is produced by careful selection and maintenance of a specific angle of vision. (1)

James Clifford

A 100-year-old legacy of curatorial colonialism has produced profound disorganizations of unique knowledge systems. ... The subjugation of indigenous peoples under colonialism results in innumerable forms of oppression from which the arts are not immune. A focus on institutions and patrons of the arts (academics being defined as one type of patron or consumer of native arts) cannot significantly enhance a reading of indigenous aesthetic or worldviews. By shifting the locus of the analysis from the psychology of the oppressor to the experiences of the oppressed, a discursive space is made available in which new paradigms of knowledge may become accessible. (2)

Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache)

Your questions have brought back memories of the time. I definitely recall the book about my family, The Totem Carvers, and that show ["Primitivism" in 20th Century Art] and its catalogue being major catalysts in my need to return to BC [British Columbia] and take up the art. The catalogue for that show has a Kwagiutl mask on the cover, along with a painting by Picasso, my favorite painter even then. There was a Charlie James piece in the show too. Those were pivotal in my beginning to comprehend the influence my artistic heritage was to play in my life. (3)

David Neel (Kwagiutl) (4)


During the summer of 1985, a twenty-five-year-old professional photographer, David Neel, walked through the doors of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art and into the traveling exhibition, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. (5) Initiated by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art made visual a historical narrative of European and Euro-American interest in "non-Western art" by juxtaposing the art of Euro-American modernists with cultural objects from around the world. (6) Two months after the exhibition's New York debut in September 1984, a now famous debate erupted over the exhibition's Eurocentric underpinnings. In April 1985, just one month before the exhibition opened in Dallas, Art in America published anthropologist and critic James Clifford's essay "Histories of the Tribal and Modern." Clifford charges the exhibition's curators, William Rubin and Kirk Varnendoe, with creating a "modernist family of art," "decontextualizing cultural objects," and "reproducing colonial" assumptions. (7) Clifford connects his critique to the discourses of identity politics and difference that raged during the 1980s, and as he predicts, the exhibition has become important within the discourses of modern art history because of the debates about formalism that ensued. (8)

In his exhibition review, Clifford also calls explicit attention to a pair of photographs that appear on the cover of the accompanying exhibition catalogue. One photograph depicts what Clifford refers to as a "Kwakiutl half mask." The other is a close-up shot of a carefully selected section of Pablo Picasso's oil-on-canvas painting, Girl before a Mirror (1932). As Clifford points out, the juxtaposition is problematic because it highlights what he says is a superficial set of "affinities" predicated on the objects' visual properties alone. Clifford uses the comparison to showcase the shortcomings of formalism, specifically its tendency to physically and theoretically abstract objects from their cultural contexts: it is a curatorial practice, he argues, that is in itself a perpetuation of colonialism--a strategy of oppression. …