Face to Face: African Views of Europeans in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Installed March 2017 in the Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center. 

Exhibits of African art encourage us to gaze at African artists’ works and judge them through our eyes. Rarely are we asked to consider how African artists viewed Europeans, their appearances, customs and beliefs. Did these artists intend for their works to be critical, satirical or simply observational?

  In this display, Brown students draw from the Haffenreffer Museum’s collections to explore the ways in which artists from what are now Nigeria, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique documented Europeans.

Africa’s many indigenous cultures have their own distinct creative traditions, but were never isolated. For millennia, trade brought southern and northern Africans together and into contact with others. Along Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, communities traded with Arabic merchants from at least the 6th century. When Portuguese ships reached West Africa in the 15th century, new cycles of trade, slavery and cultural destabilization emerged. European colonization of the continent followed, beginning in the late 19th century and lasting well into the 20th.

  Encounters between Africans and Europeans in this modern and dynamic contact zone were complex, and African observers may first have seen itinerant European traders as “exotic characters.” However, the Ghanaian art historian Nii O. Quarcoopome suggests that as permanent settlement provided opportunities to observe the newcomers more closely, Africans’ perceptions of Europeans shifted as their interactions “exposed Europeans as humans.” In what ways did the artists, whose work is featured here, choose to represent Europeans?