Of Modern Art, Appropriation, and Victor Ehikhamenor’s Call for Biographers

In August 2017, an exhibition of the works of Henri Matisse at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, presented, along with his paintings, sculptures and drawings, 35 objects the French artist had collected—most of these were African artifacts. The exhibition, Matisse in Studio, revealed, like never before, the influence of this collection of African artifacts on Matisse’s art. For me, it confirmed the suspicion that we are yet to discover the full impact of African art on the growth of Modern art. And until we start telling our art stories ourselves, we won’t.

Portrait de Madame Matisse, Henry Matisse, 1913/Masque Shira Punu
Credit: @AfricanHomage

This sentiment reminds me of the one thing the uproar that followed Victor Ehikhamenor’s protest of Damien Hirst’s appropriation of the Ife Bronze Heads at the Venice Biennale in May 2017 did not address: the need for more biographers.

View this post on Instagram

The British are back for more from 1897 to 2017. The Oni of Ife must hear this. "Golden heads (Female)" by Damien Hirst currently part of his Venice show "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable" at Palazzo Grassi. For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won't think Ife, they won't think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst's. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic "Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst's Golden Head". We need more biographers for our forgotten. #ifesculptures #classicnigerianart #workbynigerianartist #ifenigeria #lestweforget #nigeria #abiographyoftheforgotten

A post shared by Victor Ehikhamenor (@victorsozaboy) on

Mindful of the adage that we should chase away the hawk before chastising the hen for exposing its young, I support the public outcry against Hirst. He should not have “borrowed” our art, he should have given proper credit, the caption referencing Ife should have been bigger—much bigger, and he had the gall to bring up Leo Frobenius and his Atlantis theory! But then, when the Ife sculptures were exhibited at the British Museum in 2010, it was reported that not much is known about the origins of the artifacts, and they had little or no accompanying information attached to them. Have we done anything about this? It is also instructive that Damien Hirst’s exhibition included a bust of Pharaoh, and no one requires captions to identify its true origin. 

In a second Instagram post, Victor Ehikhamenor’s words “Once again the hunter has glorified his tale in the absence of the lion.” takes me back to Modern art, but this time to Pablo Picasso and his widely reported statement, “L’art nègre? Connais pas” (African art? Never heard of it). In 1907, the year he completed his revolutionary piece, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso is reported to have visited the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro, Paris, where there was an African Exhibition. Later, in 1920, he denied he’d seen the exhibition before he painted the piece. But what is undeniable is that, in completing Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, he “borrowed” from some of the African masks at the Trocadero. The point is, the correct version of this story will not be celebrated unless Africans tell it.

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907 (Credit: www.PabloPicasso.org)
Mbuya Mask, Congo (Credit: antiqueafricanart.com)

Tellingly, in 2006, at the Picasso and Africa exhibition, at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery, South Africa, which showed 84 original works by Picasso along with 29 African sculptures similar to those in his collection, a spokesperson for the South African Department of Arts and Culture reproached the exhibition organizers for downplaying the debt Picasso owed to African artists. According to the spokesperson,

There seems to be some clandestine agenda… that projects Picasso as someone who loved African art so much that he went out of his way to reveal it to the world… But all this is a whitewash… he is but one of the many products of African inspiration and creativity who lacked the courage to admit its influence on his consciousness and creativity.

Head of a Woman, Pablo Picasso (Credit: www.pablo-ruiz-picasso.net) & Dan Mask from West Africa (Credit: @tribalbeauty)

The good news is that more people are becoming aware of the need to record our narratives ourselves. On a visit to the Black Cultural Archives, Brixton in March 2017, the Ooni of Ife, confronted with the dearth of information on our various artifacts, told the curators, “We will tell our story ourselves.” I hope this starts without delay. Otherwise, as Ehikhamenor fears, Hirst’s Golden Heads and its narrative—one of the treasures from the wreck of a ship that sank about 2000 years ago—will become mainstream. And, in a few years, Damien Hirst will be able to say, “Ife Heads? Never heard of them.”   


Adekemi is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the arts, particularly African art history. She is dedicated to discovering and documenting the most excellent artworks of our time. Follow her on Twitter at adekemitweets.


  1. Artstrings
    18th February 2018

    Thanks for the encouragement, Tayoa.

  2. Tayoa
    17th February 2018

    As always, thank you for an enlightening, well written piece.

  3. Artstrings
    16th February 2018

    Thank you very much, sir. Please subscribe to the blog to receive our weekly updates.

  4. Dr. Kunle Adeyemi
    16th February 2018

    Whaooo! This is awesome. I like what i read and saw here about our Arts. Good one.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to top