On primitivism and colonialism and settler colonialism (and on the transition from a denial of coevalness to ‘co-modernity’): Ruth B. Phillips, ‘Aesthetic Primitivism Revisited: The Global Diaspora of “Primitive Art” and the Rise of Indigenous Modernisms’, Journal of Art Historiography, 2015

12Jul15

Excerpt: During the early twentieth century, artists, critics, and scholars in Paris and other continental cities accomplished a radical revaluation of a wide array of non-Western objects, re-defining as ‘primitive art’ things which had largely been relegated to the lesser status of ethnographic specimens. Even as the taste for primitive art was growing and becoming an integral component of European modernist ‘taste cultures’ to use sociologist Herbert Gans’s useful concept artists from Africa, India, the Pacific and the Americas were producing modern arts of their own, some of which engaged directly with the modernisms of the European avant-gardes. Yet as Johannes Fabian has shown, the criteria by which the authenticity of primitive peoples and their arts were judged located both in a pre-modern time which was past or passing. Admiration for the construct Shelly Errington has described as ‘authentic primitive art’ thus dis-located and rendered anomalous the twentieth- century arts of the descendants of their makers. As the emerging literature on multiple modernisms makes clear, the development of modern art and its integral engagement with primitive art was a project shared by numerous artists and intellectuals from India, Egypt, Mexico and many other parts of the world who travelled back and forth between their homes and the European centres of modernism during the second and third decades of the century.

A second and, arguably, even more dynamic phase of the global dissemination of modernism occurred during the middle decades of the twentieth century, set in motion during the 1930s and 40s by the diaspora of artists, dealers, curators, collectors and intellectuals forced to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. As these men and women re-established themselves in settler societies and European colonies in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, they came to engage with new and distinctive matrices of art and politics. I argue in this essay that the engagements of Indigenous, settler and displaced European modernists forced into the open certain key contradictions embedded in European aesthetic primitivism, and ultimately led both to the recognition of the co-modernity of the world’s peoples and to the emergence of modernist Indigenous arts.



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