What Does This Iconic Photo Of A Sleeping Woman And An African Mask Mean?
April 2, 2018|Ariel Rodriguez
The Surrealist image that still sparks debate decades after its creation.
This seemingly simple photograph depicts a white woman holding an African mask. Her face rests flat on the neutral grey surface as she holds the artistic object in her hand. Her eyes are closed, her lips painted with dark lipstick, and the light is reflected on her dark hair and the mask’s front, while casting a shadow to their left. The photograph's name is Noire et Blanche, French for "black and white," implying a contrast between color, shape and other factors. It was taken in 1926, and the artist behind it was Man Ray, an American painter, filmmaker, and photographer. In order for us to understand this photograph's meaning, we must take a look at the Surrealist movement that inspired it and the fact that the artist was fascinated by African art at the time.
At first glance, the image is aesthetically pleasing and interesting to look at. This first photograph of a series of 20 was first published by Vogue, but it didn’t garner much attention until the 1980s, when it was criticized for its post-modernism and colonialism. So, what is the controversy behind the photo? During this era, African tribal art served as inspiration for many European artists, but the African artists who created the artifacts didn’t receive any payment and weren't consulted before their work was used. Their art was stolen by Western artists. For instance, the "Man Ray African Art, and the Modernist Lens" exhibition at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., includes more than 100 photographs by Ray and other contributors that show “over 20 masks, carved figures, and utilitarian objects, the majority from diverse West African cultures.” This takes us to our next question: did Ray appropriate African art by creating Noir et Blanche?
Cultural appropriation has been a controversial topic discussed in recent years. It means stealing other cultures’ art and not paying or recognizing the artists for it – taking something just because you can. It prompts the issue of colonialism and white privilege oppressing other races and cultures. And even though it's been happening for centuries, the more recent examples of this are particularly interesting. For instance, in 2017, British contemporary artist Damien Hirst was accused of appropriating a Nigerian sculpture head to create his own version called "Golden Head," exhibited at "Treasures from Wreck of the Unbelievable." The matter of whether this counted as cultural appropriation led to a heated debate on social media.
Man Ray, in turn, belonged to the Surrealist movement, in which art expressed illogical interpretations of reality where the conscious and unconscious were divided to transmit a hidden message. Was Ray trying to denounce a social conflict in Noir et Blanche? Personally, I believe that he overlooked those values and focused instead on the objects' contrast to European art. The photograph itself is a juxtaposition of many things: male and female, Europe and Africa, black and white. Unfortunately, Ray passed away in the late 1970s, too soon for us to ask what his true intention was.
Ray was an American Jewish artist who moved to Paris to explore Dadaist and Surrealist art. The model who became the muse for his photograph is Kiki of Montparnasse, who was also said to be his lover. The photograph is an undeniable work of art. It shows how photography can transmit many ideas and prompt debates on race, culture, and gender with just one image.
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