Out of Time, Out of Place: Primitivism and African Art





African Art, Art History, Demography, Primitivism.


This article debates the proposition that artistic production mirrors humanity’s maturation from primitive superstition to scientific rationality. This effort sits at the intersection of demography, political economy and aesthetics. According to traditional demographic theory, primitive peoples are caught in a poverty trap of high birth rates, a condition inimical to industrialization, well-planned urbanization, universal education, women’s emancipation and cultural production. The analysis focuses on three dynamics: the demographic effects of mass migration on creativity: the trajectories of declining populations and their places in cultural hierarchies; and slavery and colonialism’s reduction to penury of skilled artists in pre-industrial societies. The method interrogates self-reinforcing trends of the canons of demography, political economy and aesthetics and the resulting concurrence on the path of progress, which assumes that art is a reflection of liberal historical advancement. The overarching argument of the article is that by setting the criteria and suppressing alternative accounts of the history of African art, these canons narrow and misrepresent our global cultural legacy. Background: sub-Saharan African art is classified as “primitive” according to the canons of art history, demography and political economy. This label is problematic because it conveys faulty demographic assumptions about sub-Saharan Africa and reflects the ways in which theories of human progress reinforce analyses underlying the designation of primitive. The proposition advanced is that these canons narrow, suppress alternative accounts of the history of African art, and misrepresent our global cultural legacy.

Author Biography

Meredeth Turshen, Rutgers University

Professor E.J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy


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