The enigmatic journey of Picasso in Senoufo territory

« When he came, he spent a week here the first time, it was in 1968», says Soro Navaghi. « He did this », he adds, pointing to a painted canvas spread over the open hut he shares with other painters in the village of Fakaha. This old craftsman is said to have been Pablo Picasso's personal assistant during his stay in Sénoufo land. The Spanish genius came to discover the pictorial style characteristic of the Korogho paintings. « He is the one who taught us to use sponges and toothbrushes to go faster and be more precise. Before him, we did not make frames, he advised us to draw frames », says Silue Naganki, also an artisan.

T-shirt ethnic Korogho
Mileg T-shirts pay homage to the paintings of Korogho

"Nigger art? Don't know!"

« Nigger art? Don't know! »  once declared the author of Guernica. This quote, which is often taken out of context, in no way means that Picasso denied his interest in African art. In 1920, when the journalist and art writer Florent Fels asked Picasso for his opinion on "Negro art" in order to publish an article for his magazine Action, Picasso sent him a message in which he declared "Negro art? Do not know. What he meant by this sentence is that he was not interested in "Negro art" for its ethnological dimension or its history, but only for the aesthetic force and the symbolism of these objects. And he had a whole collection of African art objects! It all began in 1907 with a visit to the ethnographic museum of Trocadero in Paris, where he discovered the collections of "primitive arts". This encounter with African art was a revelation. He later told André Malraux about this visit: « I understood why I was a painter all alone in this awful museum, with masks, redskin dolls, dusty mannequins. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon must have happened that day, but not at all because of the shapes: because it was my first exorcism painting, yes! ».

In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which was completed that same year, the face of one of the women is represented by an African mask. Picasso pays tribute to African art in this painting, which will become one of his most famous. Shortly after visiting the Trocadero, he bought a tiki from the Marquesas Islands. This small Oceanic statuette was the first piece in his collection of non-Western art, a collection that he continued to add to with new acquisitions until his death. In 1944, he even exchanged one of his paintings for a bronze "Oba Head" from Nigeria. Picasso was so fascinated by the work of African artists that he wrote to his friend Apolinaire: "My greatest artistic emotions, I felt them when suddenly appeared to me the sublime beauty of the sculptures executed by the anonymous artists of Africa. These works of a religious, passionate and rigorously logical, are what the human imagination has produced of more powerful and more beautiful. I hasten to add that however, I hate exoticism. ". Simplification of forms, aesthetics of bodies, cubism, the influence of African art on the work of Picasso is therefore certain and the resemblance with the paintings of Korhogo undeniable. But did he make this trip to Fakaha?

Korhogo canvas
Painter presenting a canvas from Korhogo

African art and cubism

Located next to the city of Korhogo, in the north of the Ivory Coast, the village of Fakaha is famous for its hand-spun cotton cloth canvases painted by artisans of the Senufo ethnic group. There are two different versions of Picasso's trip to Côte d'Ivoire. The first one indicates that it was around 1930, without giving any other details. The second version, the one that can be heard in Korhogo, tells us that Picasso came in 1968. Soro Navaghi explains that the car that was taking him to Fakaha broke down and that he walked the last fifteen kilometers, arriving in the village bare-chested and without shoes. In 1968, Picasso was 86 or 87 years old. It is therefore difficult to imagine the extremely popular octogenarian painter making a trip in these conditions and in all discretion. Whether Picasso traveled to Africa in 1930 or 1968, what is certain is that he invented cubism with Georges Braque in 1907. This does not call into question the contribution of African art to Cubism, but Picasso did not need to change continents to be inspired by other cultures. Even if the stories of the people of Fakaha seem fanciful, Picasso's biographers do not rule out that he may have made a trip to Africa. After all, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, did visit the small town of Krindjabo in southeastern Côte d'Ivoire while searching for his roots. Is this not proof that the African continent is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists of all kinds?

Masque africain dans le tableau Les demoiselles d'Avignon
Close-up on one of the characters of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and a mask from Congo

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Comments (2)

    • Jenn
    • 2021-01-15 12:20:22
    L'Afrique est une grande source d'inspiration pour beaucoup d'artistes. Picasso s'en est inspiré, comme beaucoup d'autres. Est-ce qu'il est allé en Afrique ? Je pense qu'il n'y a pas de fumée sans feu ! Même si les Ivoiriens enjolivent l'histoire, il y a surement une part de vérité là-dedans !
    • Dotooko
    • 2021-10-01 14:18:11
    Autant je suis persuadé que Picasso s'est inspiré de l'art africain, autant je ne crois pas du tout à ce voyage en Cote d'Ivoire. Mais bon, c'est bénéfique pour le tourisme ! Un peu comme le monstre du Loch Ness en Ecosse !

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