TOUGH AS STEEL
When Gauguin celebrated so-called "primitive" sculpture as a welcome relief from "refined" Western art, he not only announced a new esthetic but a new ideology, both somewhat utopian and therapeutic. Its "savagery" and "barbarism" were an elixir of personal as well as artistic "rejuvenation" (his words). From the moment when Western society industrialized, sensitive, touchy types rebelled against it. Gauguin was one, underneath his tough-guy veneer, and so were the many artists who followed in his wake, sharing his belief in the "redemptive" power of the primitive, be it the "primitivism" of abstraction, expressionism, or surrealism, all of which depend on a "primitive" look ultimately inspired by the "primitive" unconscious.
Vlaminck, apparently the first painter to be inspired by African sculpture (1905), found salvation in its "wildness," as though it was made by "animals." Animals, or Africans who were supposedly closer to them than Europeans, were supposedly more instinctive than over-civilized Europeans, who had lost contact with nature, including their own inner nature and animal bodies.
(The perverse climax of the adulation of Africans as wild animals occurred when Hitler, at the 1936 Olympics, called the African-American runner Jesse Owens a black panther, suggesting he won his races because of his "animal nature" rather than because of his discipline and training. Hitler dismissed Owens’s great victories: they were not a "triumph of the will" but the expression of a "force of nature." Reducing Owens to an instinctive force of nature Hitler dehumanized him and devalued his remarkable achievement.
(I suggest that Hitler unconsciously realized that the dark-skinned "inferior" Owens outclassed the well-disciplined, well-trained, white-skinned, "superior" Aryan soldier, making Owens a challenge to him and with that a threat to Nazi authority and power. It’s worth recalling that Hitler was a failed artist; were his conquests of "degenerate" peoples his revenge for his failure, and the feeling of inferiority it brought with it, just as his attempt to impose his artistic will on Germany was?)
Africans lived in communal villages not anonymous cities, and farmed rather than worked in factories, and thus were more at home in nature and with their bodies than modern Europeans, who began to think of their bodies as extensions of machines and finally as machines in their own right. Vlaminck’s Fauvism was meant to remind them of all that they had lost -- the secure homeland paradise of animality they forfeited when they left the small farm for the big indifferent city, in which they never quite felt at home, and thus never felt safe. (Vlaminck never seemed to have heard of Marx’s description of rural life as idiocy.)
One might say Fauvism was a provincial reaction to the industrial cosmopolitanism of which Paris was one of the centers, and its emphasis on "nature" -- its seemingly instinctive return to nature, artistically transformed and idolized (think of Matisse’s numerous landscapes, and the idealizing "naturalization" of London by Derain, a reclamation of the city for nature by artistically apotheosizing both) -- was a sort of anti-social response to modern industrial society, just as its aggressive color can be understood as a wild-eyed response to the seemingly colorless modern city.
Provocative Fauvist "savagery" can even be regarded as the outspoken beginning of the breaking of the social contract which art is, as though modern society failed it rather than that it was not equal to modern society, presumably "problematic," as though nature was problem-free.
The retreat from the city that began with the Fontainebleau painters and continued with Impressionism was perhaps the beginning of "modern" art’s anti-sociality. Their work implied that the city was not fit to paint, rejecting its values -- the modernity it stood for -- in favor of those of nature, supposedly more human, because nature put one in touch with one’s own primitive nature, its changing moods resembling the changing seasons, nature’s spontaneously changing weather acknowledging one’s own emotional weather.
Or at least it did not have a dehumanizing, "leveling," emotionally deadening effect, evident in the flattened, oddly inert figures in Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte (1884-86), a bit of nature in a largely de-natured city. (The peculiarly "flat affect," as psychoanalysts call it, not to say unresponsiveness, of Seurat’s figures, suggests they are souvenirs cut out of a scrapbook. The hyped-up "sensational" surface of the painting is optical compensation for the lack of depth in the figures, even as the "superficiality" of the modernized surface bespeaks their modern superficiality. Seurat’s deep perspective entombs the shallow figures, even as it suggests they are sleepwalking zombies risen from its grave.)
Over-civilization was a sign of decadence, and with industrialism -- modern reliance on "unnatural" mechanical processes to make products, rather the "natural" organic processes largely used traditionally (including the organic process of using one’s hands to paint) -- European society had perfected decadence. To be instinctive was to be authentic, healthy, "visceral," and to make instinctive art -- art without rules, as Breton said, art that was as "convulsive" as the unconscious, as he also said, (even though he knew that the unconscious had its own rules, as Freud taught him) -- was to make art that embodied instinct, that was as aggressively and sexually driven as the instincts, that was as inherently organic as the instincts.
Instinct was the answer to decadence, as Nietzsche argued, and many artists, expressionist and otherwise -- Dix made a sculpture of his head (now destroyed) -- heeded his call to make instinctive art, as though it was a way out of the dead-end of civilized art (epitomized as academicized classicism) rather than a peculiar dead-end in itself, however enlivening it initially seemed.
The African sculpture that Vlaminck saw was made of wood -- an organic material. Kirchner’s quasi-primitive sculptures were also made of wood. Karel Appel’s Cobra and post-Cobra sculptures are made of wood and sometimes other materials. The "primitive" figures that Appel carved of the roots of trees are perhaps the most important "organic" expressionistic sculpture of the 20th century. His model, like that of most expressionistic sculptors, was African wooden sculptures, which he seriously collected.
What makes Sokari Douglas Camp’s African sculpture distinctive is that it is made out of steel and fabricated rather than carved -- manufactured rather than handmade. However "instinctively" expressive, her figures are constructed. They have a certain affinity with the Benin sculptures of her native Nigeria, which are also made of metal, but less than she thinks, because they are not welded together into a seamless whole, like the Benin sculptures -- many of royalty (like several of Camp’s figures) -- but often made of fragments tenuously held together by small welds, suggesting they can fall apart at a moment, or are Humpty Dumptys that have been put together, and toughened by being made of steel rather than eggshell.
Camp has in effect modernized African figural sculpture by industrializing it while sometimes seeming to "waste" it. She has de-tribalized it, as it were, however tribal her figures remain. She has modernized them, however "primitive" they seem. They are tainted by whiteness -- white society -- however dark they are. Camp’s figures are self-contradictory -- torn between the "natural" society in which they once lived and the technological society in which they now live. It is a society that threatens to make it extinct, or at least to lose its soul.
Birds Extinct Birds (2010) makes their self-contradictory character explicit. The twin pelicans are symbols of the soul of the tribal woman standing in front of them. She is half-naked, as though in a partial state of nature. She has the authority of a shaman -- the terrifying masked figure, mechanically stamping his feet, in Atali Aru Festival Boat, 1986, is explicitly one (inwardly he’s a machine, outwardly he’s tribal; the boat is a slave ship, suggesting he is both evoking and exorcizing the ghosts or spirits of the dead slaves, human beings deadened by slavery, like Seurat’s wage slaves) -- but her authority is compromised by the white paint on her face and hands. It contrasts vividly with her dark skin; it is not your usual colorful face and body paint (the colorful face and body paint that attracted Vlaminck): it marks her as soiled by whiteness -- the whiteness of the white society that has colonized Nigeria with its money, technology, and culture. She is a sacred figure, but she seems to have been profaned by some alien power.
Again and again Camp sets up a contrast between the old tribal culture, with its colorful ornamental clothing and the new modern culture, with its nondescript colorless clothing: between the richly adorned figures in Accessories Worn in the Delta (2006) and the Burgess Three (New Generation) (2010). Like the Plantation Man and Caribbean Domestic Woman (both 2009), the latter seem spiritless and lifeless. They represent the Old Generation of servant slaves, while the Burgess Three represent the New Generation of wage slaves.
In contrast, the bright red color of the head gear and clothing, ornamented with leaf-like motifs -- which recur in many works, usually made of green plastic -- of the Son and Mum (2010) drawn on steel, is full of spirit and life. It is the difference between life as a depressed slave, whether in rural or urban society, and a care-free spirit that transcends its society with its joie de vivre.
Birds Extinct Birds is ostensibly ecologically minded -- it is a memorial to the birds, more broadly animal species, that industrialization has rendered extinct and obsolete, and more particularly to the birds soiled and killed by oil spills -- but subliminally it is about the problem of being a dark-skinned African woman in a country that is rapidly becoming "white."
In oil-rich and oil-polluted Nigeria, oil spills are bigger, more commonplace, and rarely cleaned up, in contrast to those in developed countries -- the countries that profitably develop Nigeria’s oil fields. Capitalist exploitation continues, under the banner of development rather than enlightened imperialism -- bringing the Christian and Western light to the dark continent, with its devilish animistic religions: liberating the natives from their barbaric ignorance while forcing them to aspire to a state of grace rather than live in a state of nature.
Camp is a social activist and protest artist, and her shamanistic figures act and protest against Western and Christian power, whatever the environmental cause they officially serve.
The cost to nature is high, Camp’s work suggests -- and also humanly high. Are the hands of Camp’s dark-skinned woman bloodied by white man’s blood, her face "wildly" smeared with it in self-destructive triumph? (One of her drawings shows a woman attempting suicide.) She has clearly been marked -- scarred -- by whiteness. Yet she remains tough as the steel she is made of, holding her own despite the loss symbolized by the birds. She may become a righteous Underskirt Protestor (2010) --bare-chested and wearing a head-dress of red and green leaves, suggesting she is a force of nature as well as a moral force -- but the point is that she always remains upright and sturdy. But however proud she is of her tribal heritage and however high she holds her head, as in Light Blue Plastic Bag and Blue/Pink Plastic Bag (both 2009), she has been modernized, as the plastic bag she wears as a crown strongly suggests. It is a mockery of traditional ornamental headgear, all the more so because it is monochromatic -- as though a crumpled monochromatic planar abstraction -- rather than multicolored, like traditional tribal headgear.
Nature has been plasticized and flattened, as the thin flat plastic leaves suggest. Like Seurat’s paper dolls, Camp’s plastic leaves are lifeless. Nonetheless, unlike Seurat’s disembodied urban figures, her tribal figures seem alive, not because they are three-dimensional, but because they are full-bodied. But African sculpture has always ingeniously incorporated "alien" modern/industrial elements as power-symbolizing ornaments; think of the wooden tribal figures with metal nails in them. Studded with nails, they are all the more intimidating, and the nails driven into them seem to express their own drivenness, however wounding they are. Like these perversely modernized tribal figures, Camp’s figures suggest just how torn between tribal and industrial ideas of art modern African sculpture is, even as it daringly synthesizes them.
Camp lives in London, and Londoner (2010) is probably a self-portrait of her in African clothing, even as the handbag the figure carries shows how modern she is. But of course she is made of a modern material, steel, and has assimilated its toughness to her natural, not to say "primitive" toughness. She has a thick skin, and the steel suggests it is impenetrable, implying her invulnerability. With a body and skin of steel, she is also well-shielded from the unconscious self-doubt that unavoidably comes with her hybrid identity. Anglo-African, she has an indecisive, conflicted identity; however decisively she seems to integrate the opposing poles of her identity in her sculptures the result seems inconclusive -- which makes the sculptures uncanny. Even as they suggest she prefers her tribal self -- she identifies with the shaman, reminding us of the old idea of the artist as shaman -- she realizes that she is indelibly marked by modernity: the white paint cannot be washed off.
All her female figures are also implicitly self-portraits, however other than her the figures look -- but Camp is an exotic "other" in London, a multicultural novelty accorded success by a guilty bygone empire (she’s a CBE). All the tribal figures have her steely determination and steely mindedness, and even the downtrodden figures are made of steel, suggesting they are survivors, however victimized by being labeled "primitive."
Sokari Douglas Camp, "Relative Pelican: An Installation of Steel Sculptures," Oct. 28, 2010-Dec. 18, 2010, at Stux, 530 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.