Essay on The Art of Benin

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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
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(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 expression of basic emotions. By the 30’s Primitivism had become a major, mainstream movement that included Cubism and Abstract Art and merited major exhibitions such as New York in1936. The definition of the movement in 1938 by Robert Goldwater stated: ‘the assumption that the further one goes back – historically, psychologically or aesthetically – the

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