Western attitudes to African people and culture have always affected how their art was appreciated and this has also coloured the response to the art from Benin.
Over time concepts of ‘Race’, defined as a distinct group with a common linage, and ‘Primitive’ which pertains to the beginning or origin, , have been inextricably linked with the perception of Africa. The confusion of the two in the minds of people at the end of the 19th centaury, and some of the 20th, caused a sense of superiority amongst the ‘White Races’ that affected every aspect of their interaction with ‘the Black’. The ‘Civilisation’ of Africa by conquest and force was justified by these views.
The definition of ‘Negro’ in the Encyclopaedia Britannia just 100 years ago, calls them mentally and intellectually inferior as well as childish and lazy. Any ‘sophisticated’ skills they had must have been taught to them by Westerners. Other sources are even more damning, for instance the forced conversion to Christianity was justified by attitudes such as Georgr Crabb in his Mythology of all Nations (1847) ‘It must be borne in mind that the fictions of mythology were not invented in the ignorance of divine truths, but with a wilful intention to pervert it.’ Based on this any artefacts acquired, mostly by force, could only be of inferior quality and artistic value compared to the sophisticated and civilised West and, if associated with African religion, morally tainted. They were mostly seen as having a purely anthropological value.
However, the artefacts brought to England from Benin in 1897 were an anomaly. The craftsmanship and sophistication were such that some were reminiscent of the beautiful figures in the Hofkiche, Innsbruck 1502-1563 (plate 3.1.12. Visited 2008). The attention to detail is easily comparable. The Times reported that they must have been made by Gnostics, (The Times, 1897, in Danson Brown, 2008, p.80) while Frobenius, a German traveller, decided they were made by an Etruscan artist from Atlantis. (Duerden, 1974, p83). In the same way the ruins called Great Zimbabwe, discovered in 1871, were attributed to the Queen of Sheba. The pieces were consigned to such anthropological museums as The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford where objects were often placed in crowded cases and displayed as an indication of how African art could be ‘improved’ by contact with the West.
At the turn of the centaury African art was discovered by Western artists hungry for inspiration to react against the status quo. Much as Cezanne had attempted to replace the representational landscape and still life with a more expressionist style so Picasso and other avant-garde painters tried to illustrate ‘basic artistic truths in their work by utilising what they considered to be the very origins of art portrayed in the ‘primitive’ pieces from Africa. Not concerned with the aesthetic or cultural value of what they found, artists were far more interested in what appeared to them to be the fundamental...