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Man Ray’s Artworks Blazing the Trail to Africa Essay

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Updated: Feb 3rd, 2021

Looking Straight into the Eye of a Tiger

The day before seeing the art of Man Ray, I would have never thought that I could like African art. But casting only a glance at the amazing black-and-white images was enough to understand the grace and beauty of the African continent and its incredible culture. Insightful and intriguing, the artist created the niche which could embrace the entire world, so strange and so unfamiliar to the dwellers of the other continents.

If you ask me what the first impression about the artworks was, I would tell that this was complete bliss, the top of aesthetic enjoyment. However, as the fascination of the view subsided and gave way to more constructive thinking it occurred to me that the artworks were somewhat polished, that the tint of the ingenuity, so precious and so important, was missing. It was only the aesthetics that was left. In a personal interview Wendy Grossman, the curator of the exhibit, marked that Man Ray was interested rather in the postmodernist interpretation of a piece of art rather than in its initial idea and meaning.

It seems to top me that the artworks created by Man Ray showed only a little piece of Africa; they did not unravel the mystery of the country, nor did they lift the curtain over the African history and culture. Worked into a weird postmodern pattern, these artworks create the feeling of surreal, and this feeling haunts you as you watch the intricate play of black and white. Due to the play of fancy, the artworks make an impression of the surreal brought into life.

The Room Full of Memories

Organized in such a way that every newcomer immediately feels the spirit of Africa, the exhibition has a very peculiar design. As it has been noted by the critics, Man Ray shows the way the light can affect the first impression and create an illusion so intriguing and truthful. Casting weird shadows, creating the atmosphere of the unreal, moving visitors right into the center of Africa with its hot sand and bright savannas, and deep and black nights full of fire, it suggests exquisite make-believe. The light has been designed in such a way so that the things which could have been passed unnoticed would immediately fall into the eye of the visitors.

Playing with the light and the shades, he created the illusion of white spots where they could not be. Thus, taking a closer look at one of the exhibits, I realized that what I thought to be a white band around the neck appeared to be a spot of light cast on the exhibit. It is a matter of taste, whether to take this elegant fantasy for granted or try fighting the growing feeling of the “plastic savanna” – artificial Africa in front of you. Leave the reality to the snubs. Enjoy the show.

What Is There Written between the Lines?

Stylized drawings representing animals and people’s silhouettes add to the impression of Africa in miniature. Even though the atmosphere seems a bit unnatural, “too African”, it still provides a great impression. As I walked through the exhibits, I was already expecting to hear the beating of the jungle drums. Yet it was bearing the tint of the “African Africa” which I mentioned before.

However, one cannot demand too much. As Steiner said, “The concept of “authenticity” is among the most problematic and most difficult issues in the study of African art” (100). Indeed, sometimes it is very hard to draw the thin line between the authentic and the mock-art. On the one hand, the text on the wall is the ultimate proof of the authenticity and the genuineness of the art; yet on the other it adds the shadow of a doubt, making the art “too real”. Perhaps, this is one of the compromises between post-modernism and the cultural concept of the exhibition. I would describe the text as authentic and creating additional settings for the exhibition.

Primitivism: There Is so much to Discover in the Others

Man Ray’s art is an exact example of Primitivism mixed with the idea of “Otherness”. Because of the sharp contrasts and the black-and-white theme, this becomes even more obvious to the audience. With help of the most simple outlines and shapes, Man Ray created a peculiar monument to Primitivism in its splendid simplicity.

Speaking of the difference between the people, the “racial and sexual otherness” which stands between the people and the nations of different cultures, he drew the world of his own where he planted the most vivid ideas of the country called The Black Continent, the country which is considered, unlike the others.

Through the Prism of Personal Ideas and What I Saw There

Since people always pass any piece of arty through the prism of their background and identity, it is impossible to consider artwork as it is, regardless of one’s personal experience. All the ideas which my considerations were built on came from my own identity and the feeling of belonging, which is why the postmodern was intertwined with the African in my vision in such a weird way.

It was amazing for me to touch on the culture which I could only hear of before. While Man Ray “took the opportunity to employ objects from this prestigious collection for his creative ends” (Gratton 48), I had a brilliant opportunity to make even more use of his exhibition, trying to see Africa with the eyes of a post-modernist. Well, it seems that we both have succeeded.

Works Cited

Gratton, Johnnie and Michael Sheringham. The Art of the Project: Project and Experiments in Modern French Culture. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005. Print.

Steiner, Christopher Burghard. African art in Transit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Man Ray's Artworks Blazing the Trail to Africa'. 3 February.

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