What Would a Truly Critical Picasso Exhibition Look Like?

No one can fault the Brooklyn Museum’s It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby for attempting to showcase a narrative of Picasso’s legacy that centers feminist artists, but the exhibition has rightly drawn criticism for its lack of critical engagement with the aesthetic contributions of the women artists it brandishes and their tenuous links with Pablo Picasso’s corpus. The show, albeit lazy in its framing, raises important questions, especially those pertaining to the roles of public museums and their (de)construction of art historical canons. Instead of foregrounding Picasso, the show might have more effectively achieved its goal by focusing on the specific contributions of feminist artists like Betye Saar, Mickalene Thomas, and Marisol Escobar, among other pioneers in modern and contemporary art, on their own terms. Upon viewing the exhibition it became clear that an aesthetic association with Picasso does not bind these artists. What would an exhibition that critically engaged Picasso’s Modernist forms and those of his global interlocutors look like? If, as Edward Said suggested in the ’90s, one must read “contrapuntally” to revise the Western canon’s repressed foundations of colonialism — in other words, be attuned to these intertwined perspectives — what formal innovations might we encounter? What perspectives on Modernism’s relationship to race and gender might we gain from situating Picasso within a global legacy of Cubism? 

Picasso, like other modernists, unequivocally borrowed from the art and people of nonwestern countries and cultures, whether it be African masks or orientalized depictions of Algerian women, among other anonymous female subjects. These lineages remain undervalued in Cubism’s genealogy. Critical consensus too often credits Picasso’s singular genius, rather than the nonwestern art forms that colonial collections and fairs brought to Europe. 

Probing this legacy, alongside the significance of Picasso’s work for artists of non-western nations and their diasporas might have offered a more conducive frame to broaden the artist’s legacy, while pointing to Picasso’s inheritance of colonial histories, and perpetuation of orientalist imagery. While generally, Picasso’s use of classical Iberian, African, and Egyptian art is referenced as a source of inspiration, Modernism’s ethnographic and “primitivist” impulse remains a minor part of the widely accepted narrative of Cubism’s aesthetic formation — and of the exhibition. Picasso’s use of African masks in painting carries a double effect: It transforms the verisimilitude of European painting into abstract forms, and unveils the intrinsic entanglement between Modernism’s shattering of traditional forms and its fascination with the elemental, the other, and the unknown. 

Raghava KK, “Guernica for the Siri-ocene” (2021), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy Volte Art Projects)

Though Picasso often denied an interest in nonwestern art, he was in many ways formed by a European art historical legacy rooted in an unacknowledged colonial dynamic, including his orientalist predecessors Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and in particular his contemporary Henri Matisse. Created at the onset of the Algerian Revolution, Picasso’s famous series Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers, 1954–55) was a response to Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834). The timing of Picasso’s series may reflect his own closure to the realist mode — with all of its exotic and romantic imagery — that had up to this point dominated European art forms. 

While Europe’s colonial involvement remained a repressed element in Picasso’s art, colonialism’s encounter with other cultures also opened up discussions of otherness, violence, and the entanglement of cultural forms that have been addressed by artists outside of the White, Euro-American canon. “Guernica” (1937), for instance, has been cited and transformed by artists across global cultural contexts, such as Bahman Mohasses, Faith Ringgold, and Raghava KK, among many others who would create striking works that enlist the political and aesthetic power of the painting while embedding it with other visual and political contexts that reference state violence across the globe. Picasso was part of a legacy of anti-fascist artists who used Cubism’s subversion of signs and symbols as a means of destroying traditional forms in art, disorienting the viewer, and resisting conventional modes of representation. They instead emphasized the way abstracted figures could produce psychic energies and feelings that were not restricted to a place or figure, but could introduce images and ways of perceiving that superseded historical events and could create meaning across cultural contexts. 

A 21st-century institution cannot center Picasso’s legacy without also foregrounding the global forms, artists, and practices that remain omitted from the Euro-American canon of Cubist and Abstract art. To do so is simply irresponsible. Using It’s Pablo-Matic as a point of departure, the following is a non-comprehensive list of artists whose works are directly linked to Picasso and offer perspectives that are marginalized in the Euro-American art historical canon:

Baya Mahieddine (1931–1998)

Baya Mahieddine
Baya, “Femme et enfant en bleu” (Woman and Child in Blue) (1947), gouache on board, 23 x 18 inches (image courtesy Estate of the Artist)

Nestled in Baya’s paintings are symbols of Algerian folk tales: Birds that transform into snakes and princesses that blur into river streams. Her gouache paintings of Algerian women, some portraying individuals, others pairs, are formed by curvilinear lines and bright colors that draw the viewer in. The Algerian artist (who often went by her first name) inspired the works of André Breton, Henri Matisse, and Picasso, and yet her work has rarely been shown alongside these major figures. 

Zubeida Agha (1922–1997)

Zubeida Agha
Zubeida Agha, “Untitled” (1964), oil on canvas, 26 x 30 inches (image courtesy Dezarts)

A pioneering artist in Pakistani Modernism, Agha’s explorations in abstraction prioritize rhythm and mood over content. Taking inspiration from Cubism’s attention to shape and color, along with artists like Amrita Sher-Gil, known for her striking portraits of women, Agha’s paintings offer an alternative to realist representations of the post-partition landscape, instead reflecting on these newfound barriers and boundaries through the expression of color and line in her work.  

Bahman Mohasses (1931–2010)

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Bahman Mohasses, “The Minotaur Scares the Good People” (1966), oil on canvas (image courtesy the Estate of Bahman Mohasses)

Mohasses was an Iranian modernist whose corpus could not be easily assimilated into national movements of Modernism anchored in local Iranian traditions like the contemporary Saqqakhaneh Movement or canonical “schools” of modern art. His works in painting, sculpture, and collage incorporated minotaurs, faceless heads, and androgynous figures. Picasso’s oeuvre allowed Mohasses to conceive of destruction not simply as repeated violence throughout history but as a medium through which art could be created. 

Faith Ringgold (1930–)

Ringgold Picassos Studio LARGE
Faith Ringgold, “Picasso’s Studio: The French Collection Part I, #7” (1991) (© 2023 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image courtesy ACA Galleries, New York; Worcester Art Museum; Charlotte E. W. Buffington Fund.)

Ringgold’s stunning quilted work, which confronts Picasso’s appropriation of African masks head on, is strangely missing from the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition. In “Picasso’s Studio,” Ringgold exposes Modernism’s debt to African arts, centering the character Willia Marie Simone as both model and artist, surrounded by Picasso and the masks that were integral to Cubism’s development. Text at the quilt’s border gives Willia a voice as an active creator in the story of Modernism’s origins.   

Ahmed Morsi (1930–)

Ahmed Morsi Iraqi Weeping Women II 2011
Ahmed Morsi, “Iraq’s Weeping Women II” (2011), acrylic on canvas, 60 1/4 x 90 1/4 inches (image courtesy the Artist and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art Collection, India)

As a major figure of Arab Modernism, Morsi is a poet, painter, and critic from Alexandria, Egypt. After moving to New York in 1974, his signature portraits of stylized figures began to incorporate references to the sea, along with other recurrent symbols: fish out of water, mythical horses, and abstracted figures with almond-shaped eyes. “Weeping Women II” exchanges Picasso’s weeping woman for the collective faces of Iraqi women weeping for the loss of Arab lives and families at the hands of US-instigated wars. Morsi authored the first monograph in Arabic on Picasso. 

Yinka Shonibare (1962–)

Yinka Shonibare 2
Yinka Shonibare, “CBE RAModern Magic (Studies of African Art from Picasso’s Collection) IV” (2020–21) (image courtesy the artist)

Using objects from European antiquity and African arts, the British-Nigerian artist creates sculptures, quilts, and African masks that question the direction of appropriation and the dynamics of cultural “authenticity” (positioning non-Western artists as producing culture removed from global contexts or cultural transformations). Shonibare subverts the colonial dynamic in which Euro-American modernists appropriated non-European works by making hybrid pieces that disrupt these power dynamics in culture and display. 

Farah Atassi (1981–)

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Farah Atassi, “Woman with Green Head Scarf” (2022) (image courtesy Almine Rech Gallery)

Women are at the center of Atassi’s bold paintings, which are filled with striking geometric shapes and lines that define space and depth. Updating Cubism for the present day, Atassi invigorates the subject of the female model, a staple of male-dominated Cubism, by endowing her models with a sense of subjectivity in the contemporary world. 

At the fore of Picasso’s legacy and his role in the broader narrative of Euro-American abstraction is a preoccupation with the 20th’s century’s reconsideration of traditional modes of representation. The above artists are part of this lineage and bring new dimensions to a global narrative of abstraction and formal innovation in a world where continuous violence shatters the relationship between image and meaning, as well as modes of perception. These artists not only disrupted the conventions of image-making in their own national traditions but they also present anti-colonial, anti-racist, and feminist perspectives often omitted from Euro-American Modernism. The power of such a comparative framework lies in what these artists can, with their own forms and perspectives, teach us about the world.

Editor’s Note, 7/14/2023, 6:10pm EDT: An earlier version of this article misstated the year that Ahmed Morsi moved to New York. This has been corrected.

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