Eliza Browning (Class of 2022) examines a Bekom mask from Cameroon, and its appropriation by the German Dadaist Hannah Höch.
Eliza was selected to share this paper at the SUNY New Paltz Undergraduate Art History Symposium, April 2022. An earlier version was researched and written for Professor McBreen’s French Art and Its Others seminar, Spring 2021.
From an Ethnographic Museum (1924-1934) is a series of seventeen photomontages by the German Dadaist Hannah Höch (1889-1978) juxtaposing photographic images of actresses and models with objects then held in Western ethnographic collections. One of the series’ most iconic collages, Indian Dancer (1930), generates meanings via an intersection between German mass media and African art. In this hybrid association, Höch linked the contemporary European female body with an African Other [Fig. 1].
Scholarship on this series, most notably by the feminist critic Maud Lavin, suggests that Höche’s works draws parallels between the commodification of the New Women and the “exotic” body (1). However, this feminist reading glosses over how race was constructed in the context of ethnographic museums in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Postcolonial scholars have instead proposed that the artist purposely re-imagined non-Western objects to critique the exclusion of both the New Woman and the Black body from Weimar society (2). While both approaches illuminate the series’ complex social and political contexts, they often disregard Höch’s appropriation of African art and her problematic association of the social status of German women with the increasing oppression and ostracization of the Black body. Little has been written, too, on the original contexts for Höche’s appropriated African objects, ignoring how European modernists like her removed them even further from their makers and users, decontextualizing and transforming meanings to their own ends.
By paying attention to the original contexts of a wooden dance mask made by an unrecorded Bekom (or Kom) maker from Cameroon (a reproduction of which appears in Indian Dancer) and its subsequent life in a Dutch ethnographic museum before inclusion in Höch’s art, I will read the mask’s evocations of racial identity for its multiple viewers in Europe. I will also argue that by satirizing racial attitudes of the Weimar Republic, particularly the white supremacy underscoring Germany’s colonization of present-day Cameroon from 1884 to 1916, her collage both challenges and also perpetuates racist stereotypes.
When Höch began work on the series in 1924, the artist had just left the tight-knit group of Berlin Dadaists, formed in the wake of World War I. She still lived in Berlin, however, and remained active in the city’s political art community. As the sole female member of Berlin Dada, Höch’s key contributions were often reduced to her domestic labors, or what fellow artist Hans Richter described condescendingly as her abilities to conjure up “the sandwiches, beer, and coffee… despite the shortage of money” (3). During this interwar period, Germany struggled to rebuild after its devastating defeat and the subsequent conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, resulting in the loss of a colonial empire that had been key to a nationalistic agenda. Despite these political challenges, print culture—in the form of illustrated magazines and periodicals—boomed, avant-garde art and film flourished, and women gained new rights and freedoms. The “New Woman” in Germany voted, worked outside the home, maintained a degree of economic and sexual independence, and adopted a more daring, even androgynous appearance, including short skirts, bobbed hair and bold makeup. This social and political crucible precipitated a cultural clash between opposing ideologies about cultural difference. Prevailing colonialist and racist attitudes held African art to be aesthetically inferior, with ethnographic museums serving as monuments to brutal German conquest, and supporting national superiority as values that would lay the groundwork for the “racial purity” deadly propaganda espoused by Hitler and National Socialism. In response to the tide of authoritarianism, the Dadaists embraced irrationality, challenged widely-held beliefs about gender and race, and strategically aligned themselves with the ideological possibilities of freedom and innovation they projected onto African culture. Like many avant-garde artists, the Dadaists often imagined the colonial Other as a source of both modernity and mysticism, representing a future path for modern art (4).
The Ethnographic Museum series was likely inspired by a 1926 trip Höch and Til Brugman made to the Rijks Etnografische Museum in Leiden, one of the largest ethnographic museums in Europe (5). Ethnographic museums exploded in popularity around the turn of the twentieth century, first as sources for ethnologists and then as public spaces for visitors to interact with a range of seized and appropriated objects taken from various peoples living outside Europe (6). In The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonisation and Its Legacy, Susanne Zantop argues that ethnographic study emerged in the nineteenth century as scientific justification for racial dominance, a form of colonialism that did not require Germany to retain its colonial possessions but rather delineated the Other to inspire a unified sense of nationhood, a concept that would later give rise to Hitler’s Aryan ideals (7). Accordingly, many of the objects on display lacked any cultural context or organization and were instead intended to highlight the volume and vast array of colonial gains. As a sign of this conception of acquisitions as the hoarded spoils of colonialism, the African collection in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin grew from 7,000 to 55,000 objects from 1884 to 1904. More than 20,000 of these objects were exhibited within barely 470 square meters (8). It was in crowded, chaotic environments like these where a previous generation of avant-garde artists had “discovered” African sculpture. Picasso’s visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in 1907, for example, famously inspired Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) inaugurating an intense fascination with African sculpture, whose “mysticism” he sought to capture in his painting (9). In Leiden, Höch may have encountered objects such as a wooden dance mask by an unrecorded Bekom maker from northwestern Cameroon, similar to the one depicted in the photograph she used for Indian Dancer [Fig. 2].
According to curator William Fagg in the exhibition catalogue African Sculpture, this anthropomorphic mask was used in annual celebrations of the Manjong Society of Warriors of the Bekom community. The Fon, or king, could also request that the mask be used in performance at harvest festivals and funerals to honor the tribe’s ancestors (10). Known as Kam or Akam masks, the objects were made of hard, heavy wood dyed black and sometimes featured false hair or beards made from plant fibers. The leader of a group of Juju dancers wore the mask during a performance, peering through a net attached to the mask’s edge (11). But lacking this complex context and knowledge of its original performative use, the mask, once removed to Europe, was likely perceived as a more generalized marker of cultural and racial Otherness.
In addition to the Leiden visit, Höch also drew from her work at the Ullstein Verlag printing press from 1916 to 1926, which gave her access to a wide range of publications, off prints, and photographs to source her collages (12). The majority of the photomontages in From an Ethnographic Museum include images taken from Der Querschnitt, or The Cross-Section (1921-1936), published to accompany the art dealer Alfred Flechtheim’s exhibitions of international art (13). Rooted in the nationalistic climate of the Weimar Republic, Der Querschnitt featured cultural commentary alongside objects, and published ethnographic essays such as Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik (1915), one of Europe’s first and perhaps most influential analysis of African sculpture (14). Höch juxtaposed African masks from Der Querschnitt with images sourced from mass media publications, often glamour shots of models or actresses that aligned with the New Woman archetype. By combining the sexualized and commodified female body with the exoticized Other of ethnographic study, Höch critiqued thoughtless objectification, which when analyzed via its source material reveals a hegemonic display of power (15). Höch later recalled of the Ethnographic Museum series (using the dated vocabulary of her era) that she “wanted to shine a light on the unscrupulous and simplistic use of Negro sculpture from Africa that was flooding Europe at the time. In my view, it was assimilated too simply into the working processes of certain groups, and so I amalgamated Negro sculpture elements and our ‘demimonde cultural assets’ at the time” (16). Instead of a straightforward or celebratory appropriation of African sculpture, From an Ethnographic Museum questions the nature of that appropriation, while simultaneously co-opting the colonialist gaze to explore the intertwined Othering of gender and race.
Indian Dancer: From an Ethnographic Museum (1930) is assembled from collaged references to silent film, a Bekom sculpture, and the domestic sphere. Höch juxtaposes a publicity still of actress Maria Falconetti who appeared in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc with a cutout of a photograph of a wooden dance mask from the Bekom tribe of Cameroon, published in the February 1925 issue of Der Querschnitt [Fig. 3] (17). The crown of cutlery she added makes direct reference to a scene in the film when Joan of Arc fashions herself a tiara from braided straw [Fig. 4] (18). Falconetti’s androgynous appearance and masculine clothing is reminiscent of the New Woman archetype, and her character’s refusal to abandon her “indecent costume” leads her to be sentenced to death (19). Höch superimposes the cutout of the mask over Joan’s face and mouth, suggesting her inability to speak and be heard. The crown of kitchen utensils also recalls women’s subservient position in Weimar society, evoking Joan’s martyrdom as a way to suggest how contemporary women are martyred for their unpaid domestic labor. Höch crafted a commentary on the oppression German women encountered in a changing workforce and domestic sphere, positioning Joan as “a tragic symbol of Everywoman, whose voice is silenced by overdetermined gender roles” (20). This representation of modern femininity relies on the inclusion of Cameroon sculpture and its association with a cultural Other to evoke the sexism faced by modern German women. By superimposing the mask over Falconetti’s face, Höch creates a provocative juxtaposition that subverts the dynamics of a male gaze over a presumably passive, sexualized female body. Falconetti’s androgynous appearance, expression of pain, combined with the gender neutrality of the mask resist the conventional means by which women were eroticized in mass media. In juxtaposing a female martyr from the media with the marginalized African body, Höch critiques the exclusion and oppression of both. To this end, Indian Dancer is often interpreted as a feminist reposte to the objectification of the female body in a male-dominated world.
Höch’s problematic borrowing of the Bekom mask, however, deserves a more nuanced reading, to place it in the larger context of modernist colonialist appropriations from African art. Höch’s use of the mask to startle and disturb rests on stereotypes of African art as shocking, simply for its refusal to align with white, European standards of naturalism and beauty. By the various forced removals of the mask from its African contexts, in the ethnographic display of the Rijks Etnografisch Museum, in the Der Querschnitt publication, and then in the disjointed medium of her photomontage, Höch strips the mask of its cultural identity, to make her own Eurocentric statement about the oppression of German women. While, as a series, From an Ethnographic Museum would appear to be a powerful critical response to the interwar fetishization of the exotic, the project also endorses racial stereotypes that continue a long-standing colonialist rhetoric of Othering African sculpture (21). Lavin has argued that Höch’s images perpetuate a romanticized vision of what was then referred to as negrophilia, or a craze for black culture (22). She cites another work, a 1929 photomontage Negerplastik [Fig. 5], which collages together images of a carved ivory pendant mask from the court of Benin over an infant’s body (23). The mask’s large size, tilted position, and expression of wonder is condescendingly associated with the softness of the infant body. This juxtaposition equates infancy with so-called African “primitivism,” reiterating racist stereotypes about non-Western culture as a vestige of an earlier stage of human history. Höch’s inclusion of a glamorous feminine eye aligns the female figure with the African object, suggesting the infantilization of both women and the sculpture (24). While Höch suggests that the bodies of both European women and African people face similar forms of oppression, her sexualization and objectification of the mask is a product of her own white imperialist gaze.
Despite Höch’s highly problematic universalizing—the equation of oppressions that were clearly not the same—her critique of the appropriation of ethnographic objects was, for the 1930s, a relatively nuanced attitude. Höch’s work can also be read as a response to Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik, which also served as the title of her 1929 photomontage. In 1915, Einstein published his work in Der Querschnitt, where his essay was accompanied by 120 reproductions of objects from across Africa (25). In Negerplastik Einstein argued against the then widely-held misconception that African sculpture was “primitive;” rather these traditions represented a highly developed form of making that deserved the same level of nuanced visual analysis as Western art (26). He proposed that African art should not be subject to European anthropological terminology or the arbitrary standards of the Western art historical canon, but should instead be interpreted via its own powerfully expressive terms. African “idols” do not symbolize or represent gods, Einstein proposed, but in fact are gods, and masks grant the wearer the power of transformation to become the incarnation of the represented being (27). Höch’s exposure to Einstein’s ideas suggests that she was aware, in a general sense, of potential functions. By layering the Bekom mask over the face of Maria Falconetti, Höch evokes a cultural metamorphosis, suggesting that Falconetti masquerades in an effort to borrow the powers of an African deity, creating a hybrid with the potential to challenge the essentialization of identity. Höch also emphasizes the origins of her images from mass media, underscoring their fictive constructions though the collage process itself, which uproots the materials from their original didactic contexts to definitively illustrate difference. It represents what Maria Makela describes as a “sophisticated” understanding of the intertwined nature of modernism and primitivism (28).
Both Einstein’s argument for the sophistication of African sculpture and Höch’s association of the modern German woman with Africa would become increasingly subversive positions to take in the later years of the Weimar Republic, when any identification with non-Western art was perceived as a direct challenge to the white supremacy of Nazi ideology. Under Hitler’s ascent to power, nonwhite Germans were threatened by the deadly agenda of a united white-only Germany. In 1923, Germany defaulted on its postwar reparation payments and the Rhineland was occupied by Black French troops, prompting a flood of racist articles and newsreels about the “Black Horror on the Rhine,” where hordes of “savages” allegedly pillaged the countryside and raped German women, resulting in Mischlingskinder (children of mixed race). Hoch’s photomontage Mischling (1924) directly engages with the white supremacist fear of racial mixing, suggesting it silences and oppresses the voices of people of color [Fig. 6] (29). We may now see her critique of racism as foreshadowing the horrors of the Holocaust. In the 1920s, it pitted Höch and her follow Dadaists in direct political opposition with the Nazis. In 1936, Hitler famously refused to shake the hand of the African American athlete Jesse Owens at the Olympics, proclaiming that “The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes… I myself would never shake hands with one of them” (30). The following year, the Nazis organized Entartete Kunst, an exhibition of “degenerate” art in Munich, intended to showcase the dangerous “contamination” of German society by modern art. The exhibition prominently featured Dadaists, despised by the Nazis for their intentional irrationality (31). It condemned any German artists who had been influenced by non-Western ideas for promotion of “race-mixing” and the degradation of “racial purity” (32). Although not included in Entartete Kunst, likely due to her marginality as a female artist, Höch’s work was also deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis for its promotion of androgyny and incorporation of African sculpture, and an upcoming exhibition of her work at the Bauhaus in 1932 was canceled (33). Der Querschnitt was eventually shuttered by the Nazis in 1936, two years after Höch completed her series. In this increasingly poisonous climate, From an Ethnographic Museum can be read as a subversive protest against white supremacy nationalism.
And yet the complex political potentials of Indian Dancer leave us with questions about Höch’s full intentions in representing metonyms of Africa. By removing and decontextualizing the Bekom mask from its original purpose, Höch perpetuates the Eurocentric plundering of Africa at the core of both modernist primitivism and European colonialism. Her decision to use a Bekom mask as a political statement about Western femininity problematically conflates African art, endorsing the kind of Eurocentric exoticism in the ethnographic museum she sought to counter. However, Höch’s condemnation of colonialist attitudes makes her work an ideological exception in the overall canon of 20th-century modernist primitivism. Indian Dancer is a subversive protest against the unpaid domestic labor of women, the Othering of the black body, and white nationalism. For her, those oppressions stemmed from the same poisonous root of hate. She maintained the perhaps unexamined white privilege to strategically align her work with a cultural Other to subvert the male gaze. Her complex and nuanced response encapsulates changing attitudes toward gender and race in the Weimar Republic; it both rehearses dated racial ideologies while holding out potential tools to deconstruct and decolonize them.
(1) Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).
(2) Ralf Burmeister et al., Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other, (Berlin: Berlinische Galerie, 2016), 185-187.
(3) Meghan Maloney, “Hannah Hoch and the Dada Montage,” In the In-Between (In the In-Between: Journal of New and New Media Photography, April 13, 2013), https://www.inthein-between.com/hannah-hoch/.
(4) Abigail Aschwege Kosberg, “Cut from an Ethnographic Museum: Collaging the Other from Weimar Mass Media,” Master’s diss., (University of Georgia, 2018), 3.
(5) Mathew Biro, The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 226.
(6) Nanina Guyer, “Inspiring Chaos: Africa in Ethnological Museums in the Early Twentieth Century” in Dada Africa (Berlin, Berlinische Gallerie, 2016), 104.
(7) Susanne Zantop, The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 20.
(8) Nanina Guyer, “Inspiring Chaos: Africa in Ethnological Museums in the Early Twentieth Century” in Dada Africa (Berlin, Berlinische Gallerie, 2016), 105.
(9) Anna Chave, “New Encounters with ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’,” in Race-ing Art History (London: Psychology Press, 2002).
(10) “Masker Kameroen,” Museum Volkenkunde, accessed May 4, 2021, https://collectie.wereldculturen.nl/#/query/71531049-3cdc-49b0-84e9-2ad240400517.
(11) “Cameroon Grassfields, Kom (or Bekom): A ‘Kam mask’ worn by the leader of a dance group,” Dorotheum, March 24, 2014, https://www.dorotheum.com/en/l/3984430/
(12) Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).
(13) Maria Makela, Peter Boswell and Kristen Makholm, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996).
(14) Nicola Creightom and Andreas Kramer, Carl Einstein and the European Avant-Garde (Boston: Hubert & Co., 2012).
(15) Hannah Höch, Hannah, Eine Lebenscollage Volumes 1, 2, and 3 (Berlin: Berlinische Galerie, 2001), 281.
(17) Alfred Flechtheim, Der Querschnitt 5, no. 2 (February 1925), (Berlin: Ullstein Verlag, 1925), 168-169.
(18) Maria Makela, Peter Boswell and Kristen Makholm, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996), 107.
(19) Maria Makela, Peter Boswell and Kristen Makholm, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996), 69.
(20) Maria Makela, Peter Boswell and Kristen Makholm, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996), 69.
(21) Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 160.
(22) The term in the original French was négrophilie. It was used by European avant-garde artists in the 1920s and 1920s to describe their fetishization of African culture.
(23) Maria Makela, Peter Boswell and Kristen Makholm, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996), 72.
(24) Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kitchen Knife, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 163.
(25) Carl Einstein, translated by Charles Haxthausen and Sebastian Zeidler, “Negro Sculpture,” October Vol. 107 (2004), 124.
(27) Carl Einstein, translated by Charles Haxthausen and Sebastian Zeidler, “Negro Sculpture,” October Vol. 107 (2004), 125.
(28) Maria Makela, Peter Boswell and Kristen Makholm, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1996), 147.
(29) Mathew Biro, The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 225.
(30) Andrew Maraniss, “Jesse Owens vs. Hitler wasn’t the only story at the 1936 Olympics,” The Undefeated, February 10, 2020, https://theundefeated.com/features/jesse-owens-vs-hitler-wasnt-the-only-story-at-the-1936-olympics/
(31) Jacques Schuhmacher, “‘Entartete Kunst’: The Nazis’ Inventory of ‘Degenerate Art,’” The Victoria and Albert Museum, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/entartete-kunst-the-nazis-inventory-of-degenerate-art
(33) Brian Dillon, “Hannah Höch: art’s original punk,” The Guardian, January 9, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/09/hannah-hoch-art-punk-whitechapel