Picasso’s African Art

Today Africa is known and considered by many to be the origin of life or the cradle of civilization. Just as it is believed that humankind originated from Africa, the expression of emotions through art also began there. Since the Neolithic era, history has shown us that depictions of ancient art such as cave paintings, clay pottery, and clay based sculptures were the first forms of art found in Africa. Though these ancient works of art were not originally created for visual appreciation, we can still recognize the aesthetics of the primitive characteristics they held and the importance of their basic but practical uses. As civilizations started to grow, African tribes all over the continent began to use other natural resources such as wood, stone, and metal to create items that they used in their daily lives. However, most of the carved artifacts, which consisted of masks and sculptures, were made primarily for religion and for the masquerades they performed in tribal ceremonies to portray their beliefs (Johnson). Not until recently, within the last century, did we discover these masterpieces that were lost in time. In the early 19th century, with the European colonization of Africa, contemporary art giants such as Pablo Picasso gained access to viewing artifacts that were brought back from Africa as they were displayed in museums (Murrell). The distinctive features of these tribal masks and sculptures taken from tribes such as the Songye tribe of Congo and the Dan tribe of the Ivory Coast, inspired Picasso to create the well-known masterpiece “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”. This piece alone pioneered the development of the Cubism movement, which was characterized by portraying the subject or object from many different angles as opposed to one point of view, the generic style before cubism (Rewald). The traditions, rituals, and ceremonies behind the masks and sculptures were also a great factor to the impact it had on Picasso’s expressions and meanings behind his paintings. However, Picasso seemed to mainly focus on the distorted depictions of the human features. We can see a direct link between Picasso’s art piece, “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, and the numerous African tribal artifacts; when they are placed juxtaposed to each other and compared, we know and can clearly notice that African art drastically influenced modern art.


During the French colonization in Congo, the connection between Africa and France began increasing drastically. The French colonists were traveling back and forth, between Africa and France, taking back a plethora of varieties in masks and sculptures that were displayed in museums all over Europe. As the new artifacts arrived in Europe, the media began churning over exaggerated stories about cannibalism and the savagery of the people of Congo. As the African art stirred up media in Europe, Picasso discovered the beauty of the raw and primitive forms of art that held so much emotion and expression. Soon, Picasso had his own collection of various pieces of African art and was therefore able to combine several different characteristics from several African tribes to reach the pinnacle of modern art. As Picasso’s artwork was inspired by many different art pieces from numerous tribes all over Africa, it is difficult to speculate that one tribe influenced his art. However, we can see a very clear resemblance with Picasso’s style in the Songye tribe sculptures and masks, and the Dan tribe masks. In order to understand how African art influenced Picasso, we must first learn of the tribes’ culture with respect to the masks and the role they played in society.


The Songye is a tribe found in central Democratic Republic of Congo. This tribe is well known for their masks andsculptures, also known as powers or fetishes. The sculptures were mostly carved in a sort of distorted human figure from wood with the addition of a shaman, also referred to as a fetishist, concocting a magic paste that was applied onto the wood (Ament). These Songye masks and heads of the fetishes have distinctive characteristics that are immediately noticeable such as the protruding lips, the swollen oval eyes, and the rectangular noses. In the fetishes, the body is usually carved to a straight and vertical posture, while the hands rest on the sides of the rounded abdomen. The shoulders are squared and the neck is sometimes decorated with metal rings. The knees are usually slightly bent and feet are mostly carved flat. Materials such as animal skins or copper bracelets are normally added to increase the magical powers of the sculptures. Finally, nails are sometimes hammered into the face and all over the body, which represents small pox, a common disease they believed to be caused by evil. In practical terms, fetishes were principally made for protection from evil spirits and forces, but also served other minor purposes such as for good health, success in fertility, and wealth. During the rituals, the masks or in the Songye language, “Kifwebe”, represented spirits and the tribesmen wore them for ceremonies such as the ritual for the initiation of becoming a man (Ament). The overall depth, culture and traditions behind what we see only as art and the unique look of the pieces makes it seem disproportional and surreal. These are the main aspects from the Songye tribe that lured Picasso into the world of contemporary art.


Similarly, the Dan tribe, found in the western province of Ivory Coast, had significant resemblances in shape and form in their ritualistic masks with the Songye masks and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”. The unique features that are commonly found in the Dan mask include a round forehead, a pointy chin, pouting lips, and smooth and flat cheekbones carved out of wood. Occasionally, the masks include a beard usually made from some form of fiber such as straw. Masks held the most importance in the Dan tribe. Other sculptures were merely different representations of the same values that the masks symbolized (Rand). Although the mask was of highest value in the tribe, it is incomplete without the rest of the attire. In addition to wearing the masks, the tribesmen wore outfits that were made from animal skin or fur, feathers, or raffia (species of a palm tree found commonly in Africa). The masks alone were considered to have the ability to hold a tremendous amount of powerful spirits and the tribesmen used them for ceremonies and rituals that emphasized the importance and significance of the mask. They also valued this specific artifact because they believed that the mask would bring peace and structure to the villages. The spirits that possess the masks are called “Gle” (Rand). The Gle are said to be spirits that roam the dark forests waiting to enter the village and into the masks. The Dan tribe believe that the only way that the spirit can enter the village is if the “dreamer” of the village dreams of the full masquerade outfit, mask and clothing. This is because the spirits were only visible in dreams and the mask in the dream portrayed the spirit’s character. The dreamer of the village is not just any commoner of the tribe but has to be a man that has been inducted into the men’s society, a very common African tradition. Once the dreamer tells the council of elders of the village, the elders decide whether they should make the masquerade and also whether the dreamer should wear it and perform in the rituals (Rand). This surrealistic tribe’s depictions of spirits, dreams, and dark sense of the mask may be paralleled to the abstract form found in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselle D’Avignon.” However, the most obvious and noticeable similarities with “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” are found in the carvings and the design of the masks. With the knowledge of the two culturally diverse tribes and the purposes, we can now understand the minute details that Picasso was attracted to that revolutionized modern art.


Picasso seems to have had several influences and phases in his career but one of the most important was his Black Period, also known as époqueNegre or Negro Period (Richardson).  This period of time was around the year 1906.  Picasso was always an aesthetic but he searched for a catalyst for his work that would lead to innovation. He found this in African Art and used its primitive powers to depart from classical ways and lead him in a new direction.  Picasso’s first interests in African art came from a trip to the Trocadero Museum in Paris, which he had said changed him forever. The art show included African masks and totem art that he would soon use in his own practices. The power of these African art pieces was in their sheer ability to capture and express raw human emotion and intensity.  Another reason Picasso is said to have had a fleeting obsession with African art is because of his in treats with death. Many of the totem pieces that he saw were used to exorcize evil spirits.  Picasso’s work has a strong attraction to death and his fears and expression of death is evident.  Also another factor of his obsession with death could be the death of his little sister at the age of four. A friend and poet Alice Toklas successfully summarizes one of the Picasso’s pieces during his black period by describing the piece as being “painful and beautiful… and oppressive but imprisoned” (Richardson).  The Black Period was a time in which Picasso could go against the mainstream classical art of the time and pave his own way.  Picasso had a serious issue with the shallowness of impressionism and in a sense looked to the Black Period to receive what he saw as his artistic integrity (Richardson).


Even though Picasso declined the influence of African art on his work, there are obvious similarities and parallels. It is easy to merely speculate as to the role African art had in Picasso’s work but it can truly be seen if you analyze certain examples.  If we look again at “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” we can see the similarities with the features of the fetish and sculptures mentioned above. This piece was a portrait of five prostitutes that began what can be described as Picasso’s exorcism painting and the work to first show signs of African Art (“Drawing Attention…”). First and foremost, two of the women have what seem to be African masks on their faces, similar to a combination of the Songye figures and the Dan tribe mask. Before this time period Picasso had began experimenting with different dimensions and bodily disfiguration but nothing as extreme as his “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” In Picasso’s mind, African Art also represented certain masculinity.These paintings represented extremes in sexuality and aesthetics.Representing both masculinity and femininity as well as masterful painting and crudeness (Richardson). The hatched straight lines create an atmosphere of savage directness. The angular geometry of facial features is confrontational. You can see this more so in the noses of the figures where a sense of aggressiveness is created. This all points back to African art (Ball). Picasso, like many other Europeans of the time and other artists, viewed Africa as an icon of savagery.  Picasso, however, saw this savagery as a source of vitality and a certain renewal that he thought to be invaluable for his work and the general direction of painting as an art form.  In this piece, Picasso uses African art as a way to express savagery in both his use of masks and his hacking brush strokes that are violent and impulsive (Richardson).


The reason “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” was so powerful is because of its radical nature.  The piece still stirs up controversy today even after a hundred years. It is powerful and one of a kind because of its transitional painting style that took primitive and futuristic ideas to create a masterpiece. Picasso inspired new ways of thinking and expression with this piece as it paved the way for radical contemporary art (Ball). This piece exemplifies the deeply profound influence African art had on the development of Picasso’s Cubism movement, which later spawned all the diverse genres of art found in the present day.


In conclusion, with a better and detailed understanding of the culture of the two tribes and Picasso’s greatest work of art, “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, we can see that African art had major influences on Picasso’s career. Even though the tribal art and Picasso’s art serve completely different purposes, paying attention to details in each can help us discern the immense similarities between the two forms of art. Not only can we see the major physical resemblance but also knowing the background of the African masks and culture gives us better understanding of Picasso’s expressed emotions in “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” African art was a pivotal point in art history and this was the source of Picasso’s legacy.



*Essay written by David Chan Key – student of African Art History

Ament, Robert J.Sahara Gallery Art.Sahara Gallery, Inc. 2008. Web. 2011.

Ball, Laura.The Saatchi Gallery. London Contemporary Art Gallery. 2003-2011. Web.

“Drawing attention to Africa’s art.” Irish Times 18 Apr. 2006:  Web. 9 Dec. 2011. Newspaper Source.

Gore, Charles.Masks and Modernities. African Arts. 2008: Vol. 41 Issue 4, page 1-7, 5. Magazine Article.

Johnson, Judy A.Ancient Africa: Overview of Art & Architecture in Ancient Africa.Overview of Art & Architecture in Ancient Africa. 2011: page 1. Print.

Murrell, Denise.African Influences in Modern Art.Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2008. Web.

Rewald, Sabine.Cubism.Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Web.

Richardson, John.A Life of Picasso, Volume II: 1907-1917 – The Painter of Modern Life. Random House, November 5, 1996. Book.


3 Responses to “Picasso’s African Art”

  1. Wim Bongers September 11, 2012 7:56 am

    As to the bibliography I may ask your attention for the great standard work “Primitivism in 20th century art” in 2 volumes. In vol. 1 Page 241-343 Wiliam Rubin deals with Picasso in a very sound way.
    These books are a must for collectors and dealers of Etnoggraphic art.

    Published in 1984 in conjunction with an exhibition in the MOMA New-York with the same title.

    • admin September 11, 2012 3:07 pm

      Much appreciate your recommendations.

      Ethnographic art is roots to human culture and has universal aesthetics.

  2. Byron October 16, 2012 11:58 pm

    We have acquired by happen chance a lovely little bone carved art implement probably from the European or American Victorian era that has in worn fashion the inscription “P Picasso”. Was it a gift from a lady friend or other or was it specifically made for Picasso as a tool for either painting or sculpture. Any inquiry is invited. 904-616-1126