Accepted paper:

On photographic presence — imaging Kuba king figures and other culture objects from colonial Africa 1910 - 1935


Heike M. Neumeister

Paper short abstract:

The idea of the African culture object as ‘art’ is not due to the avant-garde but to ethnology and photography. By way of E. Torday, C. Einstein and photographs by W. Evans the paper argues for the ‘auratic presence’ of the ethnographic object as ‘art’ that by denoting aesthetic faculty recovers myth.

Paper long abstract:

In the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture objects from small-scale societies in the African territories under colonial control tended to be archived under the rubric of 'science' and installed in purpose-built ethnological institutions intent on spreading knowledge of alien and exotic societies. Whether seen as scientific specimen or artistic innovation, western responses to this material oscillated between exaltation and condemnation, from 'the most important work of art which primitive Africa has yet produced' (T. A. Joyce 1910) to 'that generally quite evil Negro sculpture that got stuck somewhere in the jungle' (E. Waldmann 1914).

Art history has often overlooked that the idea of the African culture object as 'art' is not due to the French and German artistic avant-garde and the phenomenon of 'primitivism', but to intellectual frameworks developed by anthropologists and museums. Building on the ethnology of Emile Torday, the Africanist work of art historian Carl Einstein and photographs by Walker Evans, the paper examines a small number of African culture objects and their encounter with anthropology, photography and the modernist discourse on art. The paper argues that emerging culture historical thinking and new approaches to photography is evident in the imaging of African sculpture objects in certain catalogues, books and journals. This created what could be termed the 'auratic presence' of the African object as an object of 'art', while at the same time the photograph as art object came of age, denoting an aesthetic faculty that recovered an appreciation of myth in modern western society.

panel P27
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