Not cool, Pablo!

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Mulwalwa Helmet Mask, Bushoong and Kete peoples


My art history teacher asked an interesting question today. We were looking at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the 1907 portrait of a group of prostitutes in a whorehouse that the artist frequented. As in many of his paintings, the faces are inspired by West African masks. Here’s an interesting pic of one of the ethnographic museums Picasso would visit to inspire his art. Clearly individual cultures weren’t exactly respected.

My teacher pointed out that most of the art on campus is housed in the Jordan Schnitzer MOA, but not all of it.

“Why do we have African art in the Museum of Natural History, as if the Africans only belong to nature?” she said.

She went on to point out that the name of our natural history museum has been changed to the Museum of Natural & Cultural History, but the question is still valid. Why is Picasso’s painting considered “real” art while the masks that inspired it end up not far from dinosaur bones?

I went to the the UO Museum of Natural & Cultural History today and found a display of African masks. This one is a Gnesh mask from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was probably worn by an elder during initiations of boys. They would put these masks on and run around scaring women and children. This one had the body of a dead frog in its beard.

Though it’s not from West Africa, the mask’s extruding eyes and severe features display similar spatial innovations to those that were popularized by Picasso and Braque. Take that, western art!

To read Museum of Natural & Cultural History Executive Director Jon Erlandson’s response to my teacher’s question, take a peek at the “Talk Back” page.

BONUS PIC:

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In the hallway on the way out, I discovered a display of masks by UO students. I especially liked this one, titled Fox, by Ajay Ryerson. Pretty good for a biology major!

To read about Ajay’s creation of the mask, check out the new “Talk Back” page.

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