The idea that artists in the West have long drawn on African art for inspiration is nothing new; Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is probably the most commonly cited example, but there are many more. What is perhaps less well-known is the ways that artists in Africa were (and are) similarly influenced by their encounters and exchanges with European cultures. Needless to say, shifting relationships of trade, patronage and colonial exploitation between Africa and the West have led to rather varying circumstances framing these interactions at different times. The resulting art works often reflect these differences, as well as the creative and politically-aware responses of artists engaging with processes of cultural and social change.
The British Museum’s new display, Sowei Mask, is a great opportunity for exploring these issues further; the Sowei mask is carved to express ‘local ideals of feminine beauty, health and serenity’ in the Sande Society of Sierra Leone, but the one featured here, which was collected in 1886, is unusual in that it incorporates a top hat (!) into its design.
To find out more about the wider context for these kinds of art works and their significance, you might like to check out the documentation for the 2010 Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Through African Eyes.
Show: until 28th April
Opening hours: daily, 10.00 – 17.30, open late Fridays until 20.30
British Museum, Room 3
Great Russell Street, London