Les demoiselles du Congo_2015_Tsham_galerie Angalia

The women depicted in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon were prostitutes. The Picasso work has been hailed as the first prototype of Cubist deconstruction. It foreshadows Cubism’s alternative perspective.

To Picasso, a prostitute was a “deconstructed person.” Primitive art was the visual equivalent of a prostitute. He famously proclaimed “L’art nègre? Connais pas!” all the while visiting and studying works of African Art at the Musee de l’Homme. His denial is problematic as he must have been infused by the powerful images of African Art. The iconography of the prostitute and the primitive sculpture are therefore emblematic of his early conceptualization of Cubism. They are of paramount symbolic importance in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Tsham uses masks or statuary from the Congo in direct confrontation to Picasso. The pieces are (left to right):

  • Luba female figure with scarifaction
  • Chokwe mask. Mwana pwo mask with bikini
  • Luba-Hemba mask-pregnant with necklace
  • Basikasingo sculpture with pinup body
  • Pende mask with smirk
  • Congo cowries, often used in Kuba art and, at times, as currency
  • Stylized Kuba rafia as background?

In contrast to the social construct of Picasso’s lawless prostitute, each Congo figure is the embodiment of a powerful matrilineal heritage. The refined Kuba-like raffia matrix makes up a large part of the work’s background. As the Kuba are a royal heritage, Tsham’s use of this pattern is an acknowledgment of rule, order, and authority.

In contrast to Picasso’s denial of an African Art influence, Tsham’s usage of iconic masks and figurines undeniably asserts the African influence.

In denial of Picasso’s claim to have heralded in Cubism, Tsham claims that the African aesthetic is the Cubistic prototype. It is not Picasso or Iberian art as Picasso later claimed.

Through Tsham’s depiction of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as African matriarchal sculpture he forces us to acknowledge the forces of Picasso’s inspiration. Until that time, the West’s marginalization of African Art was certainly a form of denigration.


JC Biebuyck, MD (2018)
The Biebuyck Family Collection