chapter  4
11 Pages

Modernism, Africa and the myth of continents JON HEGGLUND

For Joseph Conrad and Pablo Picasso, two of the most influential early modernists, the path towards the modernist transformation of novelistic and pictorial space runs through Africa. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, Africa is quickly turned into a cipher for a philosophical ‘darkness’ within European culture, leaving no autonomy or agency to indigenous peoples or spaces. The motility of the word ‘darkness’ has allowed twentieth-century readers to substitute a humanist, psychologically based reading for a historicist understanding of the political and geographical circumstances of the ‘dark continent’ in the age of acquisitive imperialism. For Picasso, critics have debated the influence of ‘African’ masks to the mask-like visages of the famous Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). While criticism immediately in the wake of modernism was more generous to Picasso’s primitivism, recent scholarship has passed a more stringent judgement on the African influence in Picasso’s painting. As Colin Rhodes has argued in a survey of primitivism in modernist visual art, ‘[t]he women in the Demoiselles . . . operate not as signs for the “otherness” of the colonial “primitive”, but an “otherness” internal to Western culture’ (1994: 91). Simon Gikandi has maintained that, in fact, Picasso’s fleeting interest in African bodies as a pictorial subject was associated with mimetic sketches and drawings of the late 1890s rather than with the more radical spatial transformations of Cubism. After his brief fascination with the mimetic representation of ‘primitive’ bodies, ‘Picasso’s interest in things African, even during his so-called “Negro Period,” was limited solely to art objects which came to stand in for Africa itself’ (Gikandi 2003: 460). By 1907, any material interest in the details of African bodies and cultures had been relegated to the ephemeral realm of influence, showing up on the more abstract plane of form as a ‘mask’ rather than in any explicit content. In the work of both, the material existence of Africa and Africans falls away in this transformation, revealing an unquestionably Eurocentric modernism.1