Iconic Forms in African Art 3
When European and American artists use African forms and designs as their inspiration, the credit is very rarely returned where it is deserved. Henri Matisse, for example, is renowned for the dynamic, abstracted figures in motion which appear in several of his works. Abstracted figures with similarly fluid lines are also a traditional pattern on the appliqued textiles of the Kuba people. This could be dismissed as coincidence except for photographic evidence—a picture of Matisse in his bedroom, surrounded by Kuba textiles. I’m not aware of Matisse trying to conceal his influences, but at the same time he is internationally famous while Kuba textiles are still largely unknown outside the circle of African art collectors.
There is another interesting case of possible imitation which connects “Pygmy stools” from Cameroon with Stephen Spielberg’s classic “E.T.” movie. These hard wood figures are said to depict the Pygmy people who were the earliest inhabitants of the region. Each one is short and squat, almost as wide as it is tall, with huge bulging eyes which extend, fish-like, around the side of the head. Each one appears to be patting its swollen stomach as if it is digesting a hearty meal. The combined effect resembles nothing so much as the alien from Spielberg’s movie. I’ve never heard that Spielberg cited these figures as an influence, and it’s possible, probable actually, that he never laid eyes on one before or during the filming of “E.T.” At the same time, it seems unfair that Spielberg’s alien is recognized around the world and the endearingly odd Pygmy figures remain a secret known only to a small group of enthusiasts. At least now you can count yourself among that group.
- Jacob Liechty