Theses Doctoral

Masks and the Modern: African/European Encounters in 20th-Century Art

Cohen, Joshua Irwin

Taking Paris as its geographical nexus, this dissertation tracks European and African modernist appropriations of African sculpture across a three-tiered historical trajectory spanning from 1905 to 1980. Part I charts engagements with West and Central African masks and statues by the Fauves and Pablo Picasso; Part II assesses the work of pioneering black South African artists Ernest Mancoba and Gerard Sekoto; and Part III chronicles the nationalization of modern art in Senegal under President Léopold Sédar Senghor. Through examinations of the cross-cultural, formal, and politicized dynamics of African sculpture--or so-called art nègre--in modern art discourse and practice on two continents, the dissertation argues that European and African artists shared certain form-based approaches to African objects, coupled with tactical understandings of those objects' cultural origins. The artists diverged--both individually and by movement--insofar as they appropriated African art to different ends reflective of historical period, social context, and personal approach. More broadly, the dissertation argues that the early-20th-century European avant-garde "discovery" of African sculpture became globally significant through its eventual catalytic role for modern art movements in Africa. It argues that some of the most important modernist appropriators of African sculptural forms were African painters who both studied and subverted their European precursors in that practice.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-08-03.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Strother, Zoë
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014