Culture //

On primitivism, by a primitive

Madeline Ward has a lot to say about her art history major

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I’m currently taking a first year introductory course to modern art history. I approached the semester with a little trepidation – I had technically taken this course before and had vaguely bad memories of studying a light amount of primitivism in relation to other modernist art movements. But I figured that the semester was only 13 weeks long, so how bad could it possibly get?

I’d like to specify that I don’t entirely hold my lecturer or tutor accountable for what follows. Both are incredibly intelligent women, esteemed academics, and Good White People. They tend to avoid talking about primitivism with any kind of depth in our classes, rather using it as a way of understanding the works that we study. It’s easy to label this as unintentional racism, and perhaps it is, though the lack of intent behind the action doesn’t lessen the pain felt when my fellow students label entire cultures, including my own, as primitive.

A strong urge to reinvent my reputation as an Angry Brown Woman™ ¹ this semester led me to largely try and ignore the racist overtones of all the literature I was reading. This was working relatively well, as I tried to keep the political comments to a minimum and to think of things in terms of their ‘historical context’. It was raised in a tutorial that we should think of  Picasso and his ilk as products of their time, and I wholeheartedly took this advice.

This is, academically speaking, bullshit.

Take, for example, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. The faces of the two women in the right of the painting are taken from ritual masks stolen from African civilisations and are intended to represent savagery, evoking disgust in their viewer. These masks wound up in the art trade and the European consciousness after being thieved, and thus the painting forces the eyes of the viewer to rake across the bodies of the women, seeing them as savage sexual beings. How then can we study this painting, without considering the racist structures it is crafted on?

The real kicker in all of this is the lack of representation of these cultures’ art histories within the curriculum at the University of Sydney. The broader discipline is full to the brim with great academics that study many and varied kinds of art history, so it’s not as if this kind of racism is encouraged by the wider community. It is one thing to see your culture sexualised, dehumanised and exotified by a laughably limited Western understanding of it, but to see no representation of it on its own terms is heartbreaking. The many cultures from which modern artists drew their inspiration have their own rich art histories and traditions. It’s time we treated them with the same respect we award the white artists that exploited them.

Art History is my greatest love and I passionately believe that the department at the University of Sydney is full of good intentions and excellent academics. I also believe that my greatest love can be a racist piece of shit, and it’s up to the teaching staff and students to change this.

A very brief moment of self-doubt and internalised racism led me to believe that I would not achieve academic success or art history superstardom by constantly questioning racism. This was silly, and also made for a very boring first week of tutorials.

Madeline Ward is a proud Maori woman and 3rd year student that is still completing her first year of an arts degree. Her favourite artist is Paul Gaugin. She acknowledges the irony of this.