While the influence of African art on modern painting and sculpture has been explored, Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens examines a parallel history, the role of photography in shaping international understanding of African objects as art, in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition reveals photography's complex engagement with African art by exploring African art in the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, surrealism, and the worlds of high fashion and popular culture, at the same time as it investigates issues of race, gender, and colonialism during the modernist era.
Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitsky, 1890–1976) was an artist in many mediums, but he is best known as an avant-garde photographer. His Noire et blanche (1926), showing a white model with a black mask, is an icon of modern photography. Born in Philadelphia, Man Ray lived in ultramodern circles in Paris, from 1921 until the German occupation of the city in 1939. There he produced experimental photographs, fashion photographs, and celebrity portraits. He also produced a large body of photographs featuring African artifacts. In the wake of French colonial exploits, objects of a kind that he had previously encountered in museum or gallery settings in New York were widely accessible to him in Paris, appearing in flea markets, curio shops, as well as in private collections.
The photographs in Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens include well-known photographs by Man Ray, as well as recently discovered documentary images by him, and the work of other photographers. Over 100 photographs, more than half of them by Man Ray, the rest by his contemporaries, including James L. Allen, Cecil Beaton, Walker Evans, and Alfred Stieglitz, are presented alongside many of the objects they depict. Among these are over 20 masks, carved figures, and utilitarian objects, the majority from diverse West African cultures. The photographs themselves give no indication of the purposes the objects served in their original contexts, and by presenting images and objects together Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens offers a rare opportunity to understand exactly how lighting, camera angle, and cropping manipulated the objects to serve Western ideas of beauty and art. The exhibition also documents the histories of the objects and explains their uses.
Organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.
The exhibition is funded in part by the Terra Foundation for American Art, in part by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the American Masterpieces program and by the Dedalus Foundation, Inc.
Partial support for the exhibition at The Phillips Collection is provided by Lisa Manley and Christina Mitchell.