- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

PRETORIA, South Africa — The first significant exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work in South Africa has provoked a furious row after a senior government official accused him of stealing the work of African artists to boost his “flagging talent.”

The Picasso and Africa exhibition, which has been drawing capacity crowds at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery, contains 84 original works by Picasso along with 29 African sculptures similar to those in the artist’s own collection, and is described as an “innovative dialogue between Picasso’s work and his African inspiration.”

In an extraordinary intervention, however, a spokesman for the South African Department of Arts and Culture has accused the organizers of deliberately downplaying the debt Picasso owed to African artists.

In a letter to a local newspaper, Sandile Memela, the department’s head of communications, wrote: “Today the truth is on display that Picasso would not have been the renowned creative genius he was if he did not steal and re-adapt the work of anonymous [African] artists.”

“There seems to be some clandestine agenda … that projects Picasso as someone … who loved African art so much that he went out of his way to reveal it the world. … But all this is a whitewash. … He is but one of the many products of African inspiration and creativity who lacked the courage to admit its influence on his consciousness and creativity.”

His letter has prompted a furious response, with one correspondent comparing his attitude to the “black fascists who were critical of Paul Simon when he collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.”

Mr. Simon worked with the group on his “Graceland” album in 1986 and was accused of exploiting them for commercial ends.

Although Mr. Memela made it clear he was writing in a personal capacity, opposition politicians said they thought he must have had clearance from arts and culture Minister Pallo Jordan.

Dianne Kohler Barnard, of the opposition Democratic Alliance, described the comments as “facile, party-line sentiments,” adding: “I do not believe a spokesman for a ministry would say a thing like that without the tacit approval of the minister.”

John Richardson, Picasso’s friend and biographer, said the artist would have been upset by the remarks “because he honored the sculptures and took them very seriously.”

“There were four artists — Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Derain — who put tribal art on the map. It was regarded as of no cultural importance, but then they started buying it at junk shops and they elevated it to the same importance as Renaissance art.”

Though Picasso never visited Africa, his interest in its art is well documented, from his discovery of African masks at the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris in June 1907. Thereafter he became an avid collector of “art negre,” as it was known.

However, Picasso himself remained ambiguous on the subject, once famously declaring “L’art negre? Connais pas” — “African art? Never heard of it.”

Marilyn Martin, co-curator of the exhibition, dismissed Mr. Memela’s claim that the issue was downplayed in the exhibition. “From our perspective we are actually celebrating African art … by showing the important role it played.”

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