Mohlokomedi wa Tora

Mohlokomedi wa Tora

Mohlokomedi wa Tora Installation 2

»Lebohang Kganye, SASOL New Signatures 2017 overall winner’s exhibition is up at the Pretoria Art Museum. Her 2017 winning work was groundbreaking in terms of the animation approach she used to make the video installation in telling her family’s journey to Johannesburg. The pop-up book animation effect was pervasive in twofold. While on the one hand it nuanced story telling by way of mimicking leafing through a book during reading it also recalled a stage play mode of representation. Now the results of her winnings which has to be translated into a solo project exhibitions are ready to be perused by all and sundry.


The Symphony of Line and Colour


Contemporary Outlook

|>>>/ There is something daring about art when it becomes a personal reflection; when it’s thematic considerations are meditations of its maker on themselves. This mode of working which is a tenant of contemporary art is a brave leap as the artist leads the viewer into a personal space both in imagery and a nuanced psychology of the self. If the body of work produced in this frame of mind sees the artist sharing personal anecdotes with the viewer through art making discourses then the viewer can be seen as accessing what can be akin to a memoir through a strewn body of a work that represents a ‘particular period’ in the artist’s life and career. The reader should note that I am saying that the memoir access that they will be subjected to with regard to the artist only represents a ‘particular period’ in the artist’s life because surely the artist focus, if they are constantly searching for new forms of artistic expressions, will shift in time and come to bare on something else \<<<|


The Quadrille of Torture, Pain, Steel and Paint

Ilandi Barkhuizen


The preoccupation with the surface area in art making is an integral part of art practice as much as the development of new media is. It is an area that we often don’t give attention to when we look at works of art, yet it is there. It is a pedestal unto which ideas are communicated to us. The ancient artists, the San Hunter Gatherers, understood this; for instance they would use the bulge of the inside of the cave’s surface to express the bump of an antelope in an attempt to mimic form


Speech: The Nature of an Artist’s journey

ON the 7 February 2015 at about ten in the morning I was about to read the prepared speech below at the opening of Tshwane University of Technology Department of Fine and Applied Arts BTech exhibition while I noticed, in the sea of the crowd nestle here and there serious looks including a couple of people who rolled their eyes upwards in the ‘here it comes’ attitude. This together with the occasional air blows from the nearby air con which ruffled my prepared speech papers in its duel against the onslaught of summer heat convinced me to ditch the speech and speak from an improvised angle. I doubt if anyone ate from my palms. Contrary to popular believe of the little circle I belong to, I am never comfortable speaking in public, even if it’s about what I feel passionate about, art. I find solace in the written text. Presently I hope that the speech below does justice to my improvised performance.



From a *bundle of joy’s perspective

A group of things or quantity of material tied or wrapped up together

 TWO commercials have pricked my interest lately. The Cadbury chocolate commercial, by Oglivy & Mother, wherein triplets in their mommy’s womb sing about joy and the Telkom’s commercial, by DDB South Africa, wherein three babies are listening to an account of a fourth baby’s experience in his mother’s womb. By the time of the development of the present article there was a proliferation of commercials featuring babies which expands the baby as a prominent element or device within the architecture of an advertisement to help establish a product’s communication with the consumer. It is noteworthy to observe, as far as the settings in these two commercials are concerned; that while the Cadbury’s bulk content is delivered within the womb that of Telkom is delivered outside of the womb. Whether Telkom’s commercial was a response to that of Cadbury’s is another textual outing wherein we will have to probe the deeper genesis of conception of these two works, a pursuit similar to that of the chicken and egg question as to which came first. A task that could lead us nowhere in the face of scarce resources to could enable us to fathom succinctly the genesis of the two works, or in the face of abundance of resources we might just end up writing a long drawn thesis which, though enticing, is not necessarily our intentions.


Neo Resistance Art and its Fallacy

/a mistaken reasoning which makes an argument invalid/

/the ability not to be affected by something/

*(first draft)

I was going to title the present article artwork. That title would not have encapsulated the issues that I would like to tackle presently. In a country that is divided economically as well as operating along racial lines when one looks at the so call liberal arts, even before we consider such art liberal, we must go to the beginning of the conception of an artwork which is in itself a problematic journey. Yet its locale is quite clear, the conception of an artwork takes place within the exercising of freedom to respond to stimuli either internally or externally to the artist.


Hierarchical specifications in Fish Eagle advertisement (revised edit)

The recent Fish Eagle advert deserves to be dissected into its respective constituencies in order to appreciate how it naturalizes the product it is about. From its quite opening right up to the moment when the eagle swoop down to take its prey, the advertisement is a well orchestrated campaign for selling brandy through connoting the brandy with supremacy as far as status is concerned. That status is hierarchically specified such that we have an effect mirroring the food chain pyramid.

At its opening the advert shows a lotus¹ flower opening after a dew drop falls within its bud, propelling the petals to open slowly, we may assume, at the encouragement of the nourishing dew. At the background soft key notes from a piano can be discerned amidst the quite and serene mood of the environment within which this drama of survival of the fittest unfolds.


A Planet of the Six Legged Horses

Indirect metaphor

 James Cameron’s Avatar (2009 )can be considered as a part of a chain reaction response to the detrimental situation our planet faces due to carbon emissions. Its release follows hotly COP 15 (the United Nation Climate Change Conference 2009) a conference where the super-powerful countries, the developing powers as well as underdeveloped countries met to discuss and find solutions to the challenges brought on by climate change due to CO2 emissions.  The conference did not reach the satisfactory results on a global level in that the drafted Copenhagen Accord document was ‘taken note of’ and ‘not adopted’ by the participating countries. Not even legally binding countries to comply with it, the Copenhagen Accord document pledged that countries should keep temperature rising to below 2 Degrees Celsius. The closure of the conference saw a division between the leaders of industrialized countries, who were happy with the accord, and leaders of other countries and non government organizations who were opposed to it.         

 It remains to be seen whether the Copenhagen Accord will be adhered to in the not so distant future. The fact in this maze of power-play is that poorer countries will be the one’s to suffer from the results of carbon emissions, with Africa being at high risk

As a motion picture Cameron’s Avatar follows on the heels of works such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) as well as The Day After tomorrow (2004) and to a somewhat metaphorical sense the documentary An inconvenient Truth (2006) by Al Gore.

 Avatar (2009) takes the phenomena of invasion and colonization to another level, which may be termed inter planetary intrusion with intent to dominate and retrieve by any means necessary what belongs to the indigenous inhabitants. In the film we see human beings invade a foreign planet with the intention to mine its precious mineral – unobtanium. If the invasion was motivated by acquiring a new and distant planet to live in due to the earth’s inhabitable condition (in the future) then their invasion could be justified, doubly so if it is done with the intention to coexists peacefully with of the original inhabitants of Pandora. However with the hostility of Planet Pandora’s air to the humans, their invasion is geared towards acquiring the precious mineral located deep within the forest of the Na’vi People – the indigenous inhabitants of Planet Pandora.  The Na’vi native occupation of the forest represents an obstacle for the acquisition of the precious minerals, to which the Na’vi seems oblivious or ignorant.

 I See You

In order to infiltrate the social infrastructure of the Na’vi people in planet Pandora Avatars have been developed to stand in for the humans. They are infiltrating humanoids that look like the Pandorians except for the noticeable five figures whereas the Pandorians have four. The Avatars have been genetically engineered to withstand the un-breathable air of Pandora which is harmful to human beings. When Jake Sully’s twin brother dies in the line of duty his brother is brought into the campaign to acquire the mineral of Pandora by operating one of the Avatars. Having being paralyses in battle, the commander who is heading this invasion mission offers him a surgery that will restore his walking ability.

After a haphazard preparation for Jake Sully to acclimatize to the control of his avatar a team is assembled to go deep within the forest of the Na’vi to do research and negotiate with the Na’vi – the Pandorians. Accidentally separated from the team in the thicket forest while attempting contact, Jake Soley undergoes an epic transformation, enculturation, acquire empathy and affinity for the Na’vi people through Neytiri, A Na’vi maiden who rescues him from being torn part by ravenous beast in the thicket forest. This leads him, through his Avatar to take sides with the Na’vi in order to stop the capitalist Neo-planetary looting that is launched.

A battle between human firepower, driven by greed, and aborigines of Pandora driven by self love and acknowledgement of nature as Mother God ensues. The Na’vi unites different tribes, defends the forests and destroy the enemy. As a reward the protagonist’s soul is transferred permanently to that of his Avatar thus reborn  as a full Pandorian.  

 There is no distance in the Universe

 There is a safety valve in place to cushion Avatar from becoming another cliché film dealing with apartheid ideology on a global level. This element is that the planet is inhabitable to human beings – without the use of oxygen  masks they cannot survive in Pandora; henceforth the use of Avatars. Avatar reminds us that in the universe all is connected to the ‘Mother Earth’ and we are all siblings and are connected to her. By hurting the earth we are simply inflicting pain to our selves in the long run.

 This, what the film teaches us, is the philosophy of self consciousness and that of our precious environment. It is with this message that one can begin to look around with a heightened consciousness, a third eye, an intense appreciation. Such appreciation will make us aware at all times that whatever we do to our environment affects all in all, this way our actions are bound to haunt us in the not so distance future.

 Avatar is a metaphor that sets the tone for the new age struggle, the fight to keep the earth habitable. This is the new age struggle; we ought to find it in us as humanity to coexist with our natural environment, to be conscious that our actions will always haunt tomorrow, a fact that resonates across cultures and continental boundaries. This is the bar that Cameron’s Avatar erects before us.

 21 January

 © Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2010


Films referred to 

  1. Al Gore, A.A. An Inconvinient Truth 2006. Paramount Classics.
  2. Cameron, J. Avatar 2009. Lightstorm entertainment, Dune Enternainment and Indigenous Film Partners.
  3. Mostow, J. Surrogates 2009. Touch Stone Pictures 
  4. Dune Enternainment and Indigenous Film Partners.
  5. Derrickson, S (Dir). The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008. 20th Century Fox and Alliance Films  
  6. Emmerich, R.  The Day After tomorrow 2004. 20th Century Fox  





Cyberspace, the nervous system of machines?

In 1999 when the dust had settled after the Matrix (1999) had made its mark, it had set the tone for follow-up science fiction films; it had raised the bar through its rich and intricate narrative as well as through the special effects it incorporated. Today we have inherited films such as Equilibrium and Minority Report which deal with human uprising against the machine, a theme explored in the Matrix (in essence the entire saga deals with this phenomena) and which is very central to the its message. Does Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogate (2009) represent a theme to be explored in detail by other motion pictures in the coming decade – in the twenty teens? Opening up a path towards the discourse of how humanity will one day fight to dislodge itself from its machine dependency. In the Matrix the machine had taken over and enslaved the human race and in order to fight back humans have to be plugged into the machines; the internet to duel. War takes place in the nervous system of the machines, in cyberspace. In Surrogates the narrative occurs in the grey area of that humanity’s enslavement by the machines. The climax of the narrative is the destruction of machine dependency, of surrogacy itself.

Suppression of feelings is an answer to peace?

In Equilibrium we were introduced to a world where feelings have been outlawed. Feelings are seen as stumbling blocs to the achievement of peace. In an attempt to reach a peaceful existence a drug ‘prosium’ is introduced into the soceity to be taken at various intervals of the day to suppress feelings. The protagonist (Preston) is part of a new order that curb out sense offenders and eliminate them by processing (execution). In the development of the narrative he will steer off the path by mistake and get a glimpse of what ‘feeling’ is, from then onwards never to use Prozium looking back so to speak (or in the context of the motion picture never be on the drug); he then tears apart, the system he had sought to uphold and protect, from the inside – freeing humanity for good.

What is it that deflects the flow of the narrative away from the monotonous rhythm of balance set out by the first few minutes of the film? The in-cry for human liberation from absolute control by the ‘other’, freedom from an established order that has come to dictate how life should be lived and experienced. We first witness it when Preston, confronting a haunting memory of the loss of his wife for the first time with un-suppressed feelings, realizes that the whole setup of outlawing feeling is rather limiting and that it is falsehood to life experience. In Minority Report another utopian idealized world is represented, a world where crime can actually be stopped before it happens, thanks to the psychic powers of unique so called ‘three miracles’ which consists of a set of twins and a girl who were discovered by the state to possess the powers of precognition and a new crime fighting division – Precrime – was established around them to help fight crime by stopping it before it happens. When the three miracles predict that the protagonist (John) will commit murder; he seeks to prove his innocence thus running in direct collision course with the future murder event, simultaneously proving that the system that he has been led to believe in and uphold as a custodian is faulty. One can consider the ultimate blow as the one where the viewer discovers that the man who runs Precrime had set John up so that he can solely run the new crime fighting industry solehandedly. The foe, at the closure of the motion picture having realized that his selfish motives have been unearthed kills himself instead of killing John. This reinforces the fact that the system has a glitch. In the final analysis we learn that our future actions no matter how cruel or well intended they may be, they are govern by choice. And choice, we may agree, is a forever evolving entity as move towards what we want. As humans we are bound to change our actions, no matter how devious the primary plan may be, we may choose not to go ahead with it or to do it. In Equilibrium freedom is gained when Prozium, once revered to have liberated humanity, is no longer used, for not to feel robs away one of humankind’s unique gift in his symbiotic relationship with his family, community and the world at large – sensitivity.

In Minority Report Precrime gets shut down. This gives humanity the choice to choose how the future turns out. For by being arrested before you commit a crime removes the essential part which is in opposition to the acting on the criminal act, choice, walking away without harming anyone or stealing or killing your self. One can always change one’s mind which is a human right to be upheld at all times by our civilization. In Surrogate we are introduced into a world where humanity has retreated into the dark corners in search of safety – their homes and their experience of the world is through humanlike machines. Well the procedure is remarkably simple. Apparently in the not so distant future we sit cropped on chairs which look like those of the dentists and through what look like an evolved head phone stereo we plug our ears and eyes into a computer generated gizmo-gadget that ensures that our fingers manipulate our machine counter part in the outer world. Moving out of our bedroom and going to work on our behalf. These machines can be stored in our bedroom or simply tucked away somewhere in a street corner not far from the train station or bus stop from whence we can plug in and be turned on and navigated to work. Through this Neo-Cyber machines human mortality has been curbed by 100 percent – ensuring longevity to the operators of the puppets for no harm can come to them. Harm starts and ends with our Cyber-puppet counterpart; our machine self. And there is also an added benefit; one can choose their Surrogates to be young, old or identical to themselves or to be a woman, why not?

Against the Virtual

Having a Facebook or Myspace or Twitter account and other social networking utilities available today has partly laid the foundation for the possibility of an ‘accident free existence’, as much as it has had positive results to business ventures and the idea of getting in touch with the world at a global level; it has also thrown the idea of privacy into stark relief. Both ¹Slavoj Žižek (1996) and ²Paul Virilio (1997 & 2000) caution us and comment on the acceleration of the computer generated world and forecast its tricky and sometimes fatal consequences.

The film Surrogates shows you such a world gone concrete.

While the two philosophers takes on the virtual space and its consequences, the film Surrogates takes a radical stance and visualize that ‘accident free world experience’ through the machines. When ‘the machine experience’ invades real space, the societal space – we cannot speak terms of ‘real society’ when we speak of ‘interaction’ for interaction itself would’ve been rendered artificial by the bowing in of the machine interaction vehicle into the real social space. The world of being here or there without being here or there would be erected before our very own eyes. This then will connote a fact that social interaction in the universe of causality without leaving your home will move from cyberspace (in the sense of our contemporary period where social networking utilities in cyberspace dominates the interaction space) into causal space (the near future period where the machine becomes a vehicle utilized to carry our interaction on a humanoid level) – this can occur in the upcoming historical space.

This upcoming historical space is an ‘accident free world’ where nothing can ever happen to you except through your concretized virtual self – ‘your machine stand in’. This brings to mind the sentinel Smith’s words in the Matrix when he said to Morphious, during an interrogation as to the location of Zion (the last retreat of humanity), that the history of humanity belongs to the machines since the machines started to do human jobs for the humans at a certain point in life; that the moment that occurrence took hold humanity lost its claim to history. In the future world of Surrogacy (machine vehicles), when causality inevitable does take place, the world will be experienced via your cyber-puppet. Your experience will start and it will end there, with your cyber-puppet leaving you entirely cushioned from harm of the real event. Physically that is; the film does not have the same rhetoric as that super text the Matrix where it is asserted that the mind never forgets. However it presents into the plot a malicious virus that has the capability of destroying the Surrogate and killing the operator. Thus this causes the expulsion of the accident free utopia that our future counter parts seemed to have come to cherished.

Like in Minority Report the protagonist in Surrogates has lost a child and is estranged to his wife. They live in the same home but they hardly ever see each other, in the real meaning of the term ‘see’. At least we can infer that their surrogates may bump into each other now and then, and I mean that word in its double connotation. On a serious note what we recognize as far as Tom and his estranged wife are concerned is that she upholds this cyber-puppet experience of reality whereas he seeks the full experience of human interaction. The protagonist like the one in Minority Report is part of the System that enforces the law, he is the lawman of the future. When he loses his machine counterpart in a crook chase and having realized that what the crooks have in their hands could prove fatal to the surrogacy world view his disillusionment in the cyber-puppet world interaction is further reinforced and he enters the world as himself not as an operator. By so doing a chain reaction is set in motion in which he will tear the system from inside due to the now existence of a fatal glitch.

I shall go no further than the steps I have taken in terms of showing how this ‘film’ continues the path laid bare by the Matrix a decade ago after Equilibrium as well as Minority Report, least I give away everything and ruin the viewer’s experience when the time comes to experience the text.

What I actually wanted to make clear was that if ten years ago the Matrix introduced a new type of war (between man and machine) that looms somewhere in the not so distant future; Surrogates takes another step further in the shadows of other Sci-Fi films dealing with human insurrection against machines; and that in order for us to find parallels in our contemporary period we need not look any further than the internet puppets of our selves which we have erected through various social media utilities. The point is if we forget that our digital selves are not real; this will be the beginning of a process of our digital selves which may one day find expression in a concretized form – which might be machines – our Surrogates.

One thing for certain that texts which deal with this dilemma of human experience captivity or liberation by machine experience are trying to surfaces to us is that our human nature should not be eclipsed by this new found ways of living. We are the one’s who are in charge not our virtual selves.

January 10

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2010


1. Žižek, S. 1996. The Indivisible Reminder: On Schelling and Related Matters. Verso. The reader may find chapter 3: Quantum Physics with Lacan, of interet to the content dealt with here in the present essay.

2. Virilio, P. 1997. Open Sky. Verso and Virilio, P. 2000. The Information Bomb. Verso. In the two texts respectively Virilio continues to investigate and meditate on our contemporary society’s proliferation of the ‘Information Highway’.

Films referred to

Mostow, J. Surrogates (2009). Touch Stone Pictures.

Spielberg, S. Minority Report (2002). 20th Century Fox.

The Wachowski Brothers. The Matrix (1999). Village Roadshow Pictures.


At the closure of 2009, an interesting decade, I personally have start to witness a phenomena that is not surprising if one has been following sci-fi films. After Gamer, Surrogates and the epic Avatar one can’t miss out on the fact that more and more the artistic consciousness is starting to discourse new coming technologies and those available against human nature. A question seems to loom. What is precious in a forever environmentally depreciating world?

Primitivism and Modernism

In the present essay I am going to discuss and show how modernism as an artistic visual language, in order to reach its goal of renewal, shared a colonialist path of exploiting primitivism to renew itself. This renewal was none the less a search for a new artistic visual language.

I have selected three artists of which I shall discuss three artworks of in order to illustrate that that modernism shared a path in colonialist discourse by exploiting the primitive through the incorporation of primitive/African/the ‘other’s’ artistic features in the oeuvre of artworks produced towards and after the twentieth century.

The inclusion of short biographical details of the artists are meant to give the backdrop or context within which the artists practiced. This approach renders the backdrop within which the work was produced explicit for our understanding of the conditions that nourished the development of modern art.


What is modernism? As a preparation for arguments raised below we must start with this question. Charles Harrison (1982: 55) exclaims that before the sixties the term modernism was generally used in a vague way to refer to what it was that made works of art seem ‘contemporary’. Harrison points out that the rise or the beginning of Modernism saw:

A taste for the so called ‘primitive’ people and art of the ancient cultures gained at the expense of enthusiasm for the more ‘sophisticated’ art of classical periods  of the Renaissance and much of the period after (1982: 56).

This means that although Modernism was recent, it characterized the stylistic principles of both the primitive arts and the ancient cultures. Here the word we need to take into account and define is the word Primitive.


Compared to Modernism, which is said to be dynamic, as both an Ideology and artistic approach bound or subjected to change, Primitivism is define as [sic] at an early stage of civilization; crude; simple1. Through Colonialism of the other continents (countries), the West (Europe) gained access to the artifacts of the colonized cultures.

This is true of Africa, the Americas, the East and Oceania which were charted and colonized by Europe. Thus the word Primitive means any cultural groups whose culture, measured against European culture standard, is seen as not civilized. The added ideal of colonizing these parts outside of Europe was to expand European territory beyond its shore, imperialism.

The Visual Arts, the Western Arts

When is the deployment and the incorporation of the primitive art influences become evident throughout the years within the history of western art? Fleming draws up Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) as the first major artists to employ the exotic patterns and motifs in his woodcuts and painting.

We will come back to Gauguin, for the moment we need to find our footing. Lynton points out that at the turn of the twentieth century who ever saw and made his fellow artist see the power of these strange, remote and in a sense timeless arts (primitive art) opened up a rich rain in the world’s gold mine of creative art (1980: 29).

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) first saw African sculptures in Andre Derain’s (1880 – 1954) studio. Derain had bought the sculptures from Maurice de Vlammick (1876 – 1958) Whereas Vlammick started having interest in primitive artifacts after he had been to the Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology Gallery – Musee de L’ Homme (Lynton: 1980: 29).

From the above paragraph it is clear that the exchange of ideas and interests brought and spread the knowledge of primitive artifacts which have been taken form their original context to the attention of Modern artists.

What interested the Modern artist about these artifacts was that the primitive artists was uninitiated by the material values, the false and fragile glamour of western society. There was no need to borrow characteristic from ‘material orientated object’. What mattered was that one should seek to be as unworldly and as unliterary as the primitive artist and to use the expressive means of art directly and fully (See Lynton 1980: 48).

Here I must stress that Modern artists, while seeking a new artistic visual language or renewal, rejected the classical idea of what art should be or was expected to be by the society at large. This attitude can be seen as a catalyst that propelled western artists to look beyond their shores in pushing tradition out of the expected bounds through new innovation2.  The western artist saw an opportunity in incorporating primitivism or non European art in his work, it can be supposed that the western artist was tired of the established ideals in terms of what was permissible in the visual arts, thus he looked elsewhere for new technical approaches, inspiration and self expression – he looked beyond the shores of his own world.

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)

Paul Gauguin grew up in a family environment that was dominated by writers. His father was a journalist and his maternal grand mother had been a feminist lecture and writer (See Chipp 1968: 51).

Lynton points out that Gauguin [sic] was the most openly primitivists of the post impressionists. He had given up a career as the stock exchanger to become a painter and then [he gave up] his wife and family when he could no longer support them, he had gone to Brittany because life was cheaper there but also because there he could re-orientate himself with the simple life and ancient superstitions of the peasants. He later moved on to the South Seas to live among the natives, using them and their setting in his art as well as exotic material gathered elsewhere (Lynton 1980: 22)  

Please see figure 1. Paul Gauguin. Faa Iheihe (Pastorale) 1898. Oil on canvas, 21¼ X 66¾.

figure 1

In this artwork the natives (the Tahitian) are represented without decorum or dignity. The middle figure is half naked as her left hand snake within her loins. Her right hand is elegantly half raise reminding us of some of the Virgin Mary depictions of the Renaissance period. These gestures of her two hands contradict each other.

Presently while engaged in this visual analysis we need to be aware of a triad nature of the gaze of the artist, Gauguin, his depiction of the Tahitian is from a male point of view firstly, secondly from a patriarchal point of view as well as from a Western perspective of who the Tahitians are.

The woman’s head bow towards three figures and a dog. The figures, one of them a man, seem to be on a fruit and flower foraging expedition. Towards the left of the central figure a naked woman turns her back to the viewer. This woman seem to be gazing at a distant light with a naked man on horseback riding into the picture plane, hunched and seeming to be whispering into the ears of the dark horse, completes the composition.

As a narrative this work informs the viewer of the Tahitians as a carefree and of a simple social organization when pitted against the culture of Western civilization. Gauguin once wrote to J.F. Willumsen before leaving France for the Island of Tahiti that Europe is under the grip of material preoccupation with devastating effects on the psyche of Europeans whereas, where he was headed, the Tahitian were the inhabitants of an unknown paradise in Oceania3.

How does Faa Iheihe (Pastorale) 1898 illustrate or demonstrate Gauguin’s participation in the colonialist’s path to exploit the art of the ‘other’ or even culture? From a documentary perspective the artwork construct a narrative perspective document of the Tahitian lifestyle. Viewed from the documentary context we can conclude that this work is a visual recording of the Tahitians and their indigenous environment. Whether this representation is accurate it is a different matter that begs an exclusive study.

With the regard to the year of its execution and also from a visual art context Faa Iheihe is an excellent example of the result of an artist exploring a new theme. However it explores this new theme at the expense of the Tahitian. The Tahitian as the subject matter of this artwork and by being the represented Gauguin speaks on their behalf through situating them in an exotic setting. Gauguin is their voice, he is in a powerful position in that he chooses what his audience will see back home or to be specific what the West/Europe expects to see of non Europeans or the ‘other’. It should be bared in mind that Gauguin, as an artist, had an art market in mind when he executed the work4.

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

In 1878 and 1879 oars, arrows and harpoons of Polynesian craftsmanship were collected and shown in Paris expositions the viewers were struck by the approach of the ‘non western’ craftsmanship in working with both wood and stone, a new approach to visual art practice was heralded by these artifacts5.

See figure 2. Henri Matisse Bathers by the river 1916 – 17. Oil on canvas, 103 X 154.

figure 2

In this work the forms of the figures reminds us of the sharpness of African sculptures. Please compare the roundness of the heads of figures with that of the mask in figure 3.

figure 3

Earlier on I have pointed out that André Derain had several African sculptures in his studio and that Henri Matisse together with Pablo Picasso saw African art there.

In Bathers by the River Henri Matisse abandons altogether form as it has been accorded the human figure by simplifying the bathers into sculptural forms reminiscent of African sculpture. The composition is simple in comparison to Faa Ihaihe by Gauguin, however it is not innocent to the European Modernist notion of renewal, by breaking down with tradition, through borrowing from ‘primitivism’, the art of the ‘other’ – in this instance from African art. Knowledge of African sculpture helped Matisse, the modern artist, to simplify the depiction of his subject matter, especially the human figure, Bathers by the river illustrates this point.

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

Picasso was a Spaniard, born in Malaga in 1881. He had established himself among the younger generation of artists at Barcelona between 1895 – 1904 before migrating to France in 1904.

See figure 4. Pablo Picasso.Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907. Oil on canvas, 96 X 92.

figure 4

Prior to painting Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907, Picasso turned to Iberian sculptures, El Greco and sculptures of Paul Gauguin (Fry 1966: 13).

Habasque points out that Picasso denied the influence of African Art to in his work6. However Chipp claims that Picasso had a passion for art of the Negro (African) which he ranked far above that of the Egyptians (Chipp 1968: 200). Here we have contradictory statements opposing one another as to the culture that influenced Picasso’s art practice. What one can infer, with colonialism in mind and the western thought assertion of itself, in terms of civilization, as being above that of the colonised worlds, is that at some point Picasso might not have properly attributed influences in his work based on biases of the ‘other’.

Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon sharply displays influences of African Art. Please refer to the illustration. The faces of the two right hand positioned women recalls African masks; even the features of the faces of the women distinctly mimics the features of African Art Sculptures.

The sculptures he had seen at André Derain’s studio years ago and also at the Ethonological Museum Trucadero while looking for a new visual art language. Like the Matisse Bathers by the River, discussed above, Picasso’s figures all in all recall African Art Sculpture with regard to form.

Steinberg suggests that in their original composition the women were intended to be in a brothel (see Steinberg, L 1978: 115 – 133). The women’s nakedness and their rather cavernous background echo the literary meaning of the word primitive. I venture to say that Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon whether experimental in intention, as it has been suggested in art history, or not – as a visual artwork it contains influences of African Art in its formal language.

As a Modern artist Picasso apropos Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon played a role in the colonialist path of exploiting, primitivism; the art of the other to renew his art making process thus removing it from earlier conventions adhered to by European artists.


This essay showed how Modern artisst played a role in the Colonialist path through exploitation of non European art, the primitive or the ‘other’ in order to renew their approach to their art production.

The artworks discussed shed light to the influence as well of the context within which primitive art was deployed to renew western art. Modern art’s renewal through the influence of the art of the ‘other’ is then a sharp rejection of established tradition in setting out a new way of rendering the immediate world by responding to borrowed foreign forms; with this factor in mind we may perhaps agree with Lynton when he states that [sic] a work of art is an answer to another work of art (1980: 343 – 344)

Western art, in order to reach its renewal at the dawn of the modern period, had to look beyond its shores for new approaches to art making. By deploying the art of the ‘other’, the primitive – the colonised – Modernism played a role in the colonialist path of exploiting primitivism in order to reach its goal of renewal.



1. See The little Oxford Dictionary (1995) for the definition of Primitivism.

2. Chipp points out that the years 1885 – 1900 marks the years in which artists participating in the subjectivist movements can be grouped together. He maintains that these artists rejected the realist conceptions of art that had prevailed for the preceding generation. The movement was a result of new freedoms made possible by throwing the obligation to ‘represent’ the tangible world, and of new stimuli gained from an exploration of the subjective world. The new freedom and stimuli also allowed the range of ideas on what constituted proper subject matter for painting to be greatly expanded  (Chipp, HB 1968: 48).

3. As for me, my mind is made up. I am going soon to the Tahiti…there the material necessities of life can be had without money…a terrible epoch is brewing in Europe for the coming generation: the kingdom of gold. When in Europe men and women survive only after unceasing labour during which they struggle in convulsions of cold and hunger, a prey to misery, the Tahitians on the contrary, happy inhabitant of unknown paradise of Oceania, know only sweetness of life (an excerpt from a letter to J.F. Willunsen, Pont-Even, autumn, 1890 (Chipp 1968: 79).

4. Lynton informs us that while in the islands of Tahiti, having left France in 1891, Gauguin send his work through Daniel de Monfreid his best friend in France (Lynton 1980: 20).

5. Fleming confirms that Primitive arts complete negation of the notion of progress, seemed to be a promise of a new beginning. What was especially appealing was the animistic attitude of the primitive (non western) carvers who divined the spirit of wood and stone and expressed it in the grains, textures and shapes of the materials (Fleming 1974: 365)

6. Habasque differs on account that Picasso had on several occasions denied that he learnt anything from African carvings, pointing out that if any influence was to be found in his work, it was that of Medivial Spanish Art (Habasque, G 1959: 16)

List of Illustrations

1. Paul Gauguin. Faa Iheihe (Pastoral) 1898. Oil on canvas, 21 ¼ X 66 ¾ in London, Tate Gallery (see Lynton, N 1980:20).

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2. Henri Matisse. Bathers by the river. 1916 – 17. Oil on canvas, 103 X 154 in Art Institute of Chicago (see Lynton, N 1980:73).

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3. Unknown Artists. Fang Mask, not dated. Wood carve in France, Collection of Geneviere Taillade. Formerly owned by Andre Derain (see Lynton, N 1980: 29, another example).

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4. Pablo Picasso.Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907. Oil on canvas, 96 X 92 in New York, Museum of Modern Art. Lille P. Bliss bequest (see Lynton, N 1980: 53).

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Chipp, HB 1968 (Comp). 1968. Theories of Modern Art: a sourcebook by artists and critics. Los Angels: UC Press.

Fleming, W 1974. Art and Ideology. New York: Capital City Press.

Fry, EJ 1966. Cubis. Paris: Oxford Press

Harris, G 1959. Cubism. Paris: Oxford Press

Harrison, C 1982. Introduction: Modernism, problems and methods. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Lynton, N 1980. The Story of Modern Art. Great Britain Phaidon Press Limited.

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009