Modern Primitive: Why Look Back? – Part 1: To see their eyes…

Inspired by the photographs of Hans Silvester of the new styles of face art from the peoples of the Omo River area of Africa

by Christopher Agostino

While doing research yesterday for a new bodypainting project I read a passage that struck a chord, giving me a sharper insight into a theme that runs through my work. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art is a “comprehensive scholarly treatment” published in 1984 to accompany an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art which broke new ground by exhibiting Modern Art masterpieces side-by-side with the tribal art from Africa and Oceania that was a significant source of inspiration for those early modern artists, presenting the art objects of both the “primitive” and the “modern” on equal footing. At the culmination of his opening essay in the book, exhibit director William Rubin makes this statement of his most profound, or personal, goal for the exhibit:

“In the realm of my hopes, however, there is something less explicit, more difficult to verbalize. It is that the particular confrontation involved in our exhibition [between tribal objects and modern masterpieces] will not only help us better to understand our art, but in a very unique way, our humanity — if that is not saying the same thing. The vestiges of a discredited evolutionary myth still live in the recesses of our psyches. The vanguard modernists told us decades ago that the tribal peoples produced an art that often distilled great complexity into seemingly simple solutions. We should not therefore be surprised that anthropology has revealed a comparable complexity in their cultures. I hope our effort will demonstrate that at least insofar as it pertains to works of the human spirit, the evolutionary prejudice is clearly absurd.”

My visual and performing arts have become increasingly connected to cultures distant in time, space and tradition. This research into other cultures is fascinating to me, rich in ideas and images for the artist sponge in me to absorb, but that isn’t what drives this process.

When I tell an audience a 2,000 year old tale from China of a heroic young girl as I did this afternoon, modern white guy that I am I still feel a resonance of the common humanity at the heart of the story. I feel it… and will judge my performance in large part on my perception of how well I have been able to let my audience feel it. I’ve come to see how it is the qualities in a story that touch upon the universal question of what it means to be human that make some stories survive.

The juxtaposition of the very tribal Papua New Guinea design with the New York street scene and a bag of potato chips makes this a favorite foto of mine.

When I paint a New Yorker’s face in a design from some exotic culture, that also makes a connection to our common humanity. As I have grown more aware of this, with kids I’ll talk about a more concrete, though metaphoric, connection to their unusual new face — for example, that the Kabuki Samurai design they’re wearing is like becoming a superhero; or that the wildly colorful face from Papua New Guinea is like being painted for a birthday party, it just happens to be a party on the other side of the world. This is an understanding of the effect of my work that has grown gradually, and not a political or “new age” sensibility that led me to my explorations of the primitive. I started “looking backward” to the tribal and the ancient to become a better facepainter, as a way to understand the possibilities for painting a face that had already been discovered by cultures that have done it for generations.

Now, it seems that the lesson of a couple hundred thousand painted faces over 30 years is unavoidable, for whatever culturally alien or bizarre design I paint on someone, once I am finished I always see a pair of human eyes looking back at me from within the mask. This is my visceral understanding of the common humanity we share.

Writing as he was about famous artists and art objects with a power to change perception far beyond anything I could approach, William Rubin’s statement is a stronger, more militant sentiment about the necessity and potential of this joining of the primitive and the modern to open our world view, but I can’t be the first facepainter to wonder what effect it would have on cultural/racial prejudices if we all wore painted faces, and all we could see was each other’s eyes?

Picasso's revolutionary sculpture, Guitar 1912, and a Grebo mask (Ivory Coast, Africa) that he owned. Picasso stated that in creating this sculpture he studied the mask for its use of projections for eyes, nose and mouth from a flat plane, for how those projections implied another invisible plane ( a device he used for creating the sound hole of the guitar via a cylinder) and especially the quality in such tribal art that it is not illustrating a face but "re-presenting" it — a concept that concurs with a pivotal change between the art of the 19th century and the new art of the early modernists, i.e. their use of symbols and imagery to represent subject matter and thereby add greater conceptual depth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *