In the aftermath of the colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions of the late 19th century, thousands of African artefacts began to arrive in Europe’s museums, attracting considerable interest from Pablo Picasso, Henri Mattisse and André Derain. The artists spent hours in the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology – the first museum in Paris dedicated to anthropology – peering at masks and sculptures from what seemed to be a distant and faraway land.
The encounters the artists had with the African art was fruitful. The attention paid had creative results. Picasso’s work changed radically, almost immediately, as evident in his 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. With its five naked women, some wearing African masks, with limbs that look like shards of glass, the work was a significant departure from the traditional composition and perspective in painting. Picasso then entered his African period. African art, arriving when it did, helped to revolutionise his painting and that of many other artists, giving shape to the movement Primitivism, which saw Paul Gauguin adapt Tahitian motifs, the abstract squares of Cubism, and modernism.
Throughout human history, different groups coming together, for whatever reason – even in war – and catching a glimpse of the other, have ended up influencing each other. Mostly it’s for the better; sometimes it’s for the worse. If we did not eye each other up, listening in and looking at what the other is doing, there would be no substantive change in art, or in society for that matter. It’s one of the ways that culture progresses. When another culture does something good, you try it out too, often adding something new. Without influences from elsewhere, things would remain the same. With no Jackie Wilson there would be Elvis Presley. Without black American music there would be no Rolling Stones.
Yet we are too often told, by a new kind of gatekeeper, one schooled in post-colonial studies, that it is wrong to be influenced by other cultures in this way. Those who complain are not worried, especially, about plagiarism, which can be a problem, but that one identity is influenced by another. Because this, they say, is a kind of racism. Instead of being open to different cultures,we are told, in shrill, self-righteous tones, that no-one has a right to borrow, appropriate, or be inspired by others who are not of their kind, that cultural influence should be stopped at the borders of nations and tribes. The cultural output of different identities should be kept separate, these critics and campaigners say.
In July, protesters were outraged at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for hosting Kimono Wednesdays, a promotional activity designed to advertise Monet’s painting La Japonaise, a portrait of the painter’s wife Camille, who is dressed in a kimono. Visitors were encouraged to try on kimonos in front of the painting and imitate Camille’s pose. Incensed, and armed with Palestinian American literary theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism, which argues that knowing the orient was part of the project of dominating it, protesters turned out to complain about the “exotification” of Asian people. One banner read: “Try on the kimono, learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist !!!today!!!”
Rather than reply, that trying on a kimono is a far cry from racism, that it was just intended as a bit of fun, that most of the great art work on display at the museum is a product of cultural exchange, of trying on another culture’s clothing, if you like, the museum went on the defensive. It announced it would change the programme, that the kimonos would no longer be available to wear, and that instead, visitors may “touch and engage with” them. Instead of pointing out the multiple influences on La Japonaise – it is likely that Monet was poking fun at the fashion for Japanese art and its impact on European art in the late 19th century, and that Japan was also a colonial power – the museum cravenly promised to schedule additional talks by its educational staff to provide context, “as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse”. A pathetic response, really. Wearing a kimono in front of a painting was a naff idea, certainly; but not a racist one.
Elsewhere, some argue that white people’s appropriation of hip-hop is wrong because of the culture’s roots in the black American experience. More recently, accusations of racism have focused on, would you believe, a hairstyle, when the US actress Amandla Stenberg lambasted the TV star Kylie Jenner for sporting cornrows, a style usually associated with black women, though those of a certain age may remember the actress Bo Derek giving them a go.
“When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter,” Stenberg wrote. Her response is a desperate displacement activity, one that misunderstands the nature and importance of cultural exchange, and avoids tackling serious discrimination and inequality.
Besides, cultural exchange can have a positive impact on how difference is understood. When the Benin Bronzes – brass plaques and reliefs made in the 16th century, in what is modern day Nigeria – arrived in Europe in the early 20th century, the reaction to them was confused. Scholars were amazed that the people of Benin, a race, in the words of British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read, “ so entirely barbarous” could have made such elegant and technically accomplished art works. The Benin Bronzes forced a moderate reassessment of the African people.
Culture – high, low, and the everyday – has always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid. It bears the imprint of other times and people, crosses history and geography, and contributes to the creation of something new. We should say no to self-imposed cultural immigration controls. Culture should know no borders.