With social and racial disparities being highlighted in across all platforms of the news and social media, talking about representation of BAME communities is becoming more and more responsive. When we talk about cultural representation our main focus gets drawn into mediums that primarily hold our attention; TV, Film, adverts and printed media – just to name a few. Growing up as a person of colour the lack of representation or even the type of representation became only too noticeable.
The types of characters that were being cast were never the ‘heroic protagonist’ sorts, but rather the comedic, scapegoat and butt-of-the-joke type. The face of the ethnic minority is often an elaborated caricaturisation based on stereotypes. This can be seen from the Jim Crow era ‘Gollywog’ to Apu in the Simpsons. These representations haven’t come from out of the blue, controversial representations of African and Asian diaspora in European and western media can be linked today with concepts of ‘primitivism’ and ‘otherness’.
During the late 19th century, an influx of tribal and native art and objects came in from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. This can mostly be accounted for by colonial exploitations in these regions by European factions. This allowed for the appropriation of the forms and aesthetics of ‘primitive’ cultures. These objects offered artists a counter-narrative to the Industrial Revolution’s mass-production globalisation. This new form of visual vocabulary offered the use of simpler shapes and crude techniques by artists such as Picasso and Matisse to modernise traditional European painting and sculpture. The concept of ‘otherness’ is for the most part, is used in tandem with ‘primitivism’. We’re referring to European territories and cultures that were considered ‘uncivilised’, ‘savage’ and lack for a better word – non-white. This is made in comparison to the ‘modern, sophisticated and civilised’ Europe and America.
An example that illustrates the appropriation of ‘primitivism’ and ‘otherness’ is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), one of Pablo Picasso’s most recognisable works. The painting depicts five nude females and four of which look out toward the viewer. Their bodies possess an angular and abstract form and the faces are constructed as mask-like. This mask like features can be directly correlated to Iberian and African sculpture. Picasso crudely appropriates delicately crafted objects as a statement to reject capitalist society. This use of primitivism to reject civilisation can be seen as African art as uncivilised itself. As Robert Hughes refers in The Shock of the New ‘ They [Picasso] didn’t care about their [Tribal Masks] ritual uses, they knew nothing about their original tribal meanings, or about the societies from which the masks came. […] The African Carvings were an exploitable resource, like copper or palm-oil, and Picasso’s use of them was a kind of cultural plunder.’ Picasso failed to acknowledge the cultural and anthropological connotations of African art and used them as ‘emblems of savagery, of violence transferred into the sphere of culture.’
In relation to the representation of people of colour in the 21st century media, this encourages us to examine how we’re being represented. The use of primitivism in early 20th century art can be seen to solidify negative connotations of the ‘other’ and does that that account for the oppression and misrepresentation in our society today? Are the executives that produce the mass media that we consume fully aware of the culture that they represent?
By Gauranga Varia