It was over a year ago, before the March 2020 lockdown, when the idea occurred for boosting the collaboration between two neighbouring museums. Following the “Picasso and Artists’ Jewellery” exhibition, and bearing in mind the wealth of the collection of jewellery from various cultures kept at the Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món, we embarked on a joint project, with the Museu Picasso, of the “Baule and Kafir Jewels. Dialogues with Picasso” display.
When Ainize González García and I got to work as co-curators of the display, and taking into consideration Picasso’s jewellery as a synthesis of his entire work, we thought of “primitivism”. And, in particular, of two connections with our collection: first, the fascination for so-called African art. The art of the Baule, on the Ivory Coast, was one of the most influential on avant-garde artists, above all sculpture and masks but also the formal treatment of certain faces on gold jewellery, jewellery collected together with other items by artists such as André Derain. Picasso found an “Other” in African art with a few formal resources for breaking with naturalist representation and revitalising modern art.
Baule pendant. MEB CF 4818. Folch Collection. Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món. Barcelona City Council
Second, we could find another influence for Picasso, also related to this break with naturalist representation, in Iberian art. This vernacular primitivism represents the second area of our display: Picasso’s jewellery has a link with the Mediterranean, especially ceramic jewellery and pebbles. Iberian sculpture had adopted the formal schematism of Greek archaism. Picasso recognised the concept of exotic in Iberian art, in an ancestrally characteristic way. We could evoke this orientalising, round-trip influence through a selection of Kafir-culture jewellery, from Afghanistan.
The 30 or so items on display belong to the Folch collection, a genuinely important collection for the history of the Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món. Most of the jewels in this collection are usually stored away, so we are excited we can show them to the public. In fact, both the Baule and the Kafir jewellery have their own independence and meanings, which are present in the exhibition, besides the dialogue we establish with Picasso.
Kafir torque. MEB CF 3065. Folch Collection. Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món. Barcelona City Council.
But this collaboration did not stop at the exhibition, instead it was extended with other activities such as “Mirades entrecreuades”, a programme that was broadcast on 17 June through the museums’ social media. This offered a conversation between Manon Lecaplain, co-curator of the “Picasso and Artists’ Jewellery” exhibition, and myself, and took questions from members of the audience.
The conversation focused on three other concepts, besides primitivism: intimacy, fetishes and amulets, as well as the materials. Establishing a dialogue between the jewellery of the Baule and Kafir cultures with Picasso’s jewellery meant not just establishing points of contact but also highlighting the contrasts and allowing each creation, with its own distinctive features, to speak for itself, in its own right.
Firstly, when Picasso created his terracotta medallions he gave them to the closest people in his circle, strengthening the intimate relationship they had. This link can also be seen in the Baule jewels from family treasures which, conceived as a sacred legacy, define the presence of ancestors, and even extend the sense of belonging to lineage.
Secondly, some of Picasso’s jewellery are works of art and ornaments, and also become pendants-amulets. Picasso found something magical in masks and African statues, also somehow present in the items made by Baule goldsmiths. The formal treatment of faces in Baule gold pendants is very close to those of this culture’s sculptures and masks. The jewels that make up family treasures are endowed with a certain power, establishing the presence of ancestors
Finally, with regard to the materials, we should point out the differences between Picasso’s jewellery and the Baule and Kafir jewels. If Picasso had a predilection for poor materials, objet trouvé (found art), and hardly ever used precious metals such as gold or silver, the same cannot be said for those two cultures. In the case of Baule culture, gold is a material that possesses its own force which is why the contributions to family treasures tend to be items made from this material, besides constituting a “reserve” that guarantees their safety.
And lastly, our aim with this collaboration was to get visitors to open their minds and link creations from the world’s other cultures to modern European art. This cross-cutting and joint reflection between the Museu Picasso and the Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món is the result of a commitment to the future that aims to build bridges between neighbouring institutions and thereby create a common cultural space that promotes reflection and dialogue between the world’s various cultures and the contemporary world.
Salvador García Arnillas