Modernist Primitivism

Sarah M. Estrela


Figure 1. Aaron Douglas. Sahdji (Tribal Women. 1925. Ink and graphite on wove paper. 30.6 cm x 22.9 cm. Howard University Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

Modernist primitivism was a practice within the modernist movement intended to celebrate the artistic traditions and cultures of peoples deemed ‘primitive.’ Western artists appropriated what they imagined to be these (primarily non-Western) cultures’ “simplicity and authenticity” in order to transform Western art in a multitude of ways: by broadening its spatial complexity, by engaging more directly with issues of form and design, and by exploring abstract stylistic motifs.1 Although primitivism was expressed artistically, it had broad political ramifications. William Antliff and Patricia Leighten describe primitivism as “the product of the historical experience of the West and more specifically as an ideological construct of colonial conquest and exploitation.”2 Primitivism, in other words, developed alongside European colonialism as its artistic and cultural corollary. It is not, however, as simple as non-Western cultures being visually exploited. At its core, however, primitivism perpetuates the projections and fantasies of the Western white male who views its Other (whether they are non-Western, darker skinned, female-identifying, etc.) as more instinctual, timeless and perpetually backwards.

The ways by which primitivism has been incorporated within the larger narratives of modernism have generated much discussion and controversy. The 1984 MoMA exhibition entitled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, is a case in point. The exhibition brought together African, Oceanic and Western modernist works in order to exhibit the visual “affinities” between them. One critic of the exhibition, the anthropologist James Clifford, points out the problematic nature of treating primitivism as an origin in a narrative of heroic discovery and progression within the history of European modernism, divorced not only from racial politics but also from modernism on a global scale (specifically, modernism in the “Third World”).3 Clifford’s work, now a discursive cornerstone in critical art historical discussions of modernist primitivism, was one of the catalysts for postmodern critical assessment of the topic.

Rather than thinking of the term ‘primitivist’ as a predetermined style perpetuated only by white artists, one should think of it as a framework of an artist’s understanding within his or her historical context. For example, Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), a Black artist who led the way for visual arts during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s–30s, practiced modernist primitivism throughout his career. One of his earliest works, Sahdji (Tribal Woman) (1925) [Figure 1], which was illustrated for author Richard Bruce Nugent’s eponymous short story in The New Negro, exemplifies this practice. The scarification across Sahdji’s exposed cheek makes use of an invented, stylized design influenced by the African masks Douglas saw in publications like Survey Graphic and Opportunity, which featured sculpture from cultures like the Dan and Lagoons peoples from Côte d’Ivoire. Sahdji’s face (depicted in three-quarter profile) is flattened even further through this process.

The three women behind Sahdji mimicking hieroglyphs are a clear reference to ancient Egyptian art. Douglas employed this trope fondly and frequently throughout his oeuvre as a way to fulfill W.E.B. DuBois’s urge for him to use Egyptian art as a “common vocabulary” to catalyze Black audiences into learning about their ‘common heritage.’4 This trope is typical within modernist primitivism, as the concept itself results in a collapsing of historical and cultural difference.  Although the women have the same striped skirt “uniform” and strike the same pose, their individual facial features vary slightly.  Their lips are different sizes, their eyes are various shapes, and their hairstyles fluctuate in both size and shape. Douglas effectively utilized the widely accepted symbols of Black bodies––“tribal” markings, solid black shading, exaggerated facial features––but these signifiers were mainly informed by and adopted from the black bodies depicted by his mentor Winold Reiss (1886–1953), a German-born modern artist based in New York.  Douglas borrowed these signifiers to enter into a larger modernist primitivist conversation before he could hone his own visual indicators of racial identity (which, in the end, still perpetuated modernist primitivism).

While Douglas’s Sahdji perpetuates selected tropes of modernist primitivism, they are still powerful ones––the viewer sees the Black body as “timeless” and non-progressive, with a particular view of Black female bodies as being especially so. No matter how heavily or lightly employed, modernist primitivism perpetuates the myriad projections and fantasies of an “authentic” Other, and its assumptions should be critically assessed and explored whenever possible.




  1. William Antliff and Patricia Leighten, “Primitive,” in Critical Terms for Art History, Second Edition, ed. Robert Nelson and Richard Schiff. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 170–184.
  2. Ibid, 170.
  3. James Clifford, “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern,” in Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History, ed. Jack Flam and Miriam Deutch. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 351–368.
  4. Amy Helene Kirschke. Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance. (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1995), 76–77.