Cosmopolitan Modernisms

Uzo Egonu, Mask with Musical Instruments, 1963 - © Egonu Estate c/o Grosvenor Gallery

Uzo Egonu, Mask with Musical Instruments, 1963 - © Egonu Estate c/o Grosvenor Gallery

Part of the alluring romance of modern culture has been the extent to which concepts of cosmopolitanism are often seen from a more elevated realm, as the condition, par excellence, of sophistication, worldliness, openness, and the comingling of cultures, ideas, and populations. But the loss of place for artists who migrate from one culture or national frontier to another casts a deep shadow on the romantic idealism of such worldliness.

Following the massive upheavals resulting from World War II, the terms of cosmopolitanism shifted radically. People were on the move. Massive populations — efugees, stateless people, and diasporas — were moving between continents, countries, and cities, forming dispersed lines of displacement, migration, exile, affinities, and settlements. In his essay “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said touches on the dilemma of the exile, observing that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience.” This is a valuable insight into how we might explore not only ideas of cosmopolitanism but also other conditions of being out of place.

For example, the hostile politics and constrained opportunities at home had pushed African American writers and artists like James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney to emigrate to Paris as a place of cosmopolitan refuge. So when we think of cosmopolitanism we should also imagine it within processes of change, upheaval, opportunity, fantasy, and as a form of cross-cultural and transnational artistic self-fashioning.

“New hybridities,” as scholars put it, have emerged in modernism and contemporary art when citizens of colonies and former colonies studied formally and informally in the West, or when refugees fleeing oppression and racism left their homelands to find safe places elsewhere. World War II was perhaps responsible for one of the largest and most extensive cultural and artistic migrations. The same is true of empire, with its discourse of la mission civilisatrice. Thus we can think of postwar art in recombinant terms, as a process of both acculturation and deculturation, whereby artists who combined international-style abstraction with indigenous, traditional, or local imagery fused new aesthetic logics and formal concepts. Particularly widespread was a kind of gestural mark-making (“calligraphic abstraction,” in Iftikhar Dadi’s term) that was as much iconic as it was indexical. That mark-making invoked identity and levels of meaning through allusion to language and legibility, challenging the universality of the modern. The Arabic calligraphic line was central to such artists as Sadequain and Anwar Shemza, who set the sinuous line of Arabic script in explicit relation to the geometry of the Roman alphabet. Categories including the local, tradition, nationality, autonomy, and universal conflict and combine to make new meanings.

Related situations of diaspora and the various colonial legacies, as well as Cold War funding for exchange, sent artists all over the world to study and participate in centers for the production and marketing of modern art.

Furthermore, magazines provided artists with an important source of virtual travel and intersection. As a result of exposure to publications such as Black Orpheus and Middle Eastern art, the work of Ibrahim El-Salahi and others reflects a pronounced set of pan-African and pan-Arabic references (African sculpture, Arabic calligraphy) informed by Western modernism. El-Salahi’s cosmopolitanism evidences time spent in London, but also reflects his relations with African American artists and musicians, travel to Mexico and China, and exhibitions in Nigeria and Senegal. His is a cosmopolitanism not primarily oriented towards the West.

When we consider cosmopolitan modernism, we should think not only of diasporas and exile but also of deliberately chosen affinities. How might our picture of cosmopolitanism change when oriented not toward the lingering end of colonial relations but in dialectical relation to nationalism? A reversal of this dialectic might be seen in extended visits by Jacob Lawrence to Nigeria, under the auspices of the Harmon Foundation. Or in Mark Tobey’s travel to Japan, which inspired him to create calligraphic marks with no semantic meaning, but as a connotative reference to “other” languages and lives.

Related artists