Primitivism: Cultural Appropriation in the Art World


And the Contemporary Artists Combating It

By: Dhriti Gupta

In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Picasso depicts five nude women in a brothel with mask like features. [Credit]

You often hear phrases like “a modern day Picasso” in reference to an innovator or original thinker. However, a deeper look into art history warrants a more skeptical approach to this notion and the origins of mainstream art movements. 

The concept in question is Primitivism, an artistic trend pioneered by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse. It describes the trend of European infatuation with traditional racialized art as a way of artistic freedom.

With increasing industrialization on the horizon, Europeans of the time began to feel restricted within the confines of Western life. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau began to speak for a pure, primitive way of life that prioritized simplicity over sophistication. 

And thus began the artistic obsession with so-called “primitive art”, namely tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific, and Indonesia

“Primitive sculpture has never been surpassed.”

Pablo Picasso

It’s important to note that while this was a period of idealization of racialized art, European “admiration” was not synonymous with respectful appreciation. Instead, cultural inspirations were flattened to fit the rigid colonial lens. 

After discovering African tribal art in 1906, Picasso brought his interpretation of “primitivity” to the mainstream. He copied African artistic style into Cubism, which quickly came to be regarded as the most influential art movement of the 20th century.

Paul Gauguin went so far as to actually move from Paris to Tahiti in 1891 to fully experience the extent of the “uncivilized” lifestyle. While he was genuinely fascinated by Tahitian culture, his work from that period is oversimplified and eroticized, often depicting Polynesian women in the nude.  

Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892) by Paul Gauguin shows a naked Tahitian woman being watched over by an older lady. It is supposed to convey the Polynesian fear of the tupapaú, or spirit of the dead. [Credit]

Primitivism also acted as the basis for Expressionism, a movement popularized by German artist group, Die Brücke. Other artists did whatever they could to capture the nostalgia for a pre-industrial lifestyle, including “going native” on summer vacations. They would live in the nude with their models, engaging in loose sexual relations, in search of the unadultered freedom inherent in their idea of primitivity. 

The popularity of Primitivism was undeniable and influential to many major art movements. In fact, not so long ago in 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York even hosted a controversial exhibition viewing the trend in a favourable light. Art historian Thomas McEvilly voiced concern that the exhibit displayed “Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism.”

A chart by art historian Alfred H. Barr on the different cultural origins (in red) of major art movements (in black). [Credit]

Despite the colonial influences from the past in the art world, racialized artists of the present are creating work that challenges colonial appropriation and reclaims cultural techniques to centre the narrative around their own stories. 

The following list of Canadian artists along with many more are living proof that art doesn’t require a European stamp of approval. Hopefully their work will continue to inspire the art community to combat and shine light on colonial prejudices. 

Kent Monkman is a Cree artist whose artwork satirizes the colonial notion of the “Noble Savage”. The stereotype viewed the “primitive” native man as wise and pure, morally intact in his savageness. Monkman’s artwork plays on mystical and derogatory European depictions of indigenous people and instead places them in power.

Rajni Perera, a Toronto-based artist, places traditional and cultural imagery in futuristic universes. Her depictions of black and brown bodies as not only equal, but advanced and forward-thinking, counters oppressive colonial discourse. In collections like Africa Galaktika and The New Ethnography, she redefines what mythicality looks like in a racial context.

Maria Qamar, widely known as Hatecopy, turns cultural appropriation on its head by reinterpreting pop art to include the South Asian diaspora. Her work inserts people of colour in an art movement that was characteristically white, centering the humour around Desi discourse and inside jokes.

While nothing can be done to erase the harmful attitudes and actions of the past, it’s worth revisiting them to inspire further strides to reject colonialist systems. Not everyone can create art to do so, but everyone can support artists who are pushing for diversity and challenging norms. Whether that’s going to gallery events, being a patron, or just being educated on past wrongdoings, anyone has the power to spark change through art.  

Dhriti Gupta is a writer. She’s currently pursuing a bachelor of journalism at Ryerson University and learning all the magic tricks that are involved in telling a good story.