Eye to Eye: “African Art” | Contemporary Art and…

They look at each other through the Great Caesura that was modernity. Teresa and José Mário ask: what if we left modern colonialism behind and placed the pre-modern and the post-modern looking at each other, in pairs, face to face, in a kind of artistic Saint Anthony’s Wedding: sweet couples in procession, men on one side, women on the other? Each couple on their own, hand in hand, eye to eye, passing in procession through modernity, as if it were a mirror – all in line, onwards. Everybody can well see the superficial similarities between the members of each pair. However, like in weddings, they would never be enough to justify the amorous plot. What universal link is there that binds these gazes, as symmetrical as they are different?


On one side, the works are identified by ethnic names (Baga, Kyoko, Dan, etc.), as if the artists didn’t possess personal identity and were reduced to the collective; on the other side, they are identified by personal names (Ana Marchand, Victor Pomar, Rui Sanches, etc.), as if each one of the post-modern were not, as well, constitutionally part of collectives, as much as the pre-modern.


The colonial violence of modernity is, in this way, suspended – as if it were a deviant mother whose absence the whole family pretends not to see.  Suspended, but not absent, as reminded by the large negro cloth that flies through the entire exhibition. Colonialism is gone, but its shadow remains inside, working with us, like that mother that ran away to Argentina with the chauffeur. The non-gests of this family dinner affirm themselves through their silence.


Because the thing works in another direction. What have we learned with these sculptures about the deep nature of personhood? Can we, today, look inside ourselves, into the inside of the eyes of each one of us, without referring to the human past made up by these masks and magical robes? Can we possibly forget the impact they had on Freud, on Jung, on Mauss, on Malraux? Were they not, finally, the obstetricians of the personhood that nowadays emanates in each one of us – that personhood that the psychotherapists try to cure, that mindfulness wants us to enjoy, that we each avidly cultivate?

In 1907, when Picasso visited the Trocadero Museum recommended by Derain, this is what he saw (and wrote in a letter to Malraux):


“When I went to the Trocadero, it was disgusting: a flea market, the smells… I was alone and felt only like leaving. But I didn’t leave: I stayed and stayed. I understood that that was too important: something was happening to me, or what? // The masks were not sculptures like the others. Not at all. They were magical things. And why not like the works of the Egyptians or the Chaldeans? The thing is we hadn’t yet realized it: those were primitive, but not magical. The negroes, on the contrary, were intercessors. Only then did I learn this name in French. Against everything; against the unknown and threatening spirits. I understood: I am also against everything. I also think that everything is unknown, everything enemy. I understood what their sculpture was for. Why sculpt like this and not differently? They were cubists, in fact, even if cubism did not yet exist! There were certainly some guys who had invented the models and others that immediately imitated them: that’s tradition, isn’t it? But all these “fetiches” had a purpose. They were weapons that helped people not to obey to the spirits, in becoming independent. The spirits, the unconscious (at the time this was not frequently mentioned), the emotion – it is all the same. I understood why I was a painter. // I found myself alone, in that horrible museum, with masks, painted dolls… I’m certain Les Demoiselles d’Avignon appeared before me on that day, but it had nothing to do with forms: because, finally, it was my first exorcism canvas, yes!” (Malraux 1976 [1907], free translation)


To sum it up, those masks, those decorated weapons, those healer apparels were the midwives of our contemporary egos. Who can think of oneself without the hand of Freud, of Jung, of Sartre, of Malraux? It wasn’t only Picasso who, in those exhilarating years before the 1st World War, discovered in masks the greater universality of the person. The careers of the great anthropologists of the 20th century (Boas and Mauss are explicit about it) began in front of glass cabinets with African masks. In those masks, they sensed that collective effervescence that was the origin of everything and from which, within the river of modernity, they felt like orphans.


In this exhibition, Teresa and José Mário rehearse the suspension of the veil made up by the Great Caesura of modernity (and the colonial violence it required). In this confrontation, the echoes of each work not only change mutually the others, as they offer a glimpse of what Picasso saw: that we are all “against”. We intercede: our humanity is built against possibility and the imminence of death. We confront ourselves with that same “negativity” of life that Hegel and, more recently, Derrida elected as the utmost condition of being.


We know well that nothing is made between humans without violence, oppression, silencing – the words we utter exist only by virtue of the silences that separate them! Otherwise, what would be the meaning of the enormous negro cloth? To come to Graça Brandão Gallery, we come up from Poço dos Negros [Negroes Well] (the first African slave modern market) at Bairro Alto, without even noticing what history is telling us. Just like here, we look through the glass of suffering into the inside of the eyes of who is on the other side. The Great Caesura was not only a cosmological caesura (in the way we see the world and, therefore, in the way we see ourselves); it was also a huge hole of violence were we all entered – white, black, red, yellow… it was a cauldron of that wide range of human skin colour which, today, in the works of post-modern artists we wish to see turned into a rainbow flag – in an appeal to universal ecumenism. This is a discourse where we all have inevitably to take part.



     João Pina Cabral

    May 2023


19.05.2023 - 09.10.2023


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