Damien Hirst and African Art: Inspiration or Imitation?

On 10 May this year, whilst most on the continent and in the diaspora woke up to a perfectly ordinary Thursday.  African art lovers from Maputo to Mombasa, London to Los Angeles and beyond were choking on their cornflakes as they digested the images from the 57th Venice Biennale plastered over social media, print newspapers and the blogs.

The images showed the new exhibition by Damien Hirst “Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable”.  Within the exhibition, (Hirst’s first in a decade) was a piece entitled “Golden Heads (Female)” which was purportedly “inspired” by the 14th century Brass Ife sculptures taken from Nigeria during British colonial rule and currently housed in the British Museum in London.

The similarities between Hirst’s work and the Yoruba sculptures are not just striking, they look a little lazy and careless.  As if Hirst made an assumption that the world would have such little knowledge of ancient African art, that there was no value in expending much creative currency of his own, to improve or enhance his work so that it was distinguishable from the Ife sculpture, which “inspired” him. This assumption, if made, was frankly crude and foolish – this is clear from the snowstorm of controversy which followed Hirst’s exhibition after Victor Ehikhamenor , a well known Nigerian artist posted the two images alongside each other on Instagram.  It took no more than twenty four hours for the story to go viral and be published in the New York Times and on CNN.

Hirst’s spokesman issued a statement that the Ife sculpture was properly referenced and attributed.  Whilst this is true, the response reeked of a slick PR team swerving the main allegation of imitation.  And instead giving a polite, but emphatic version of “calm down, children” to the press to kill a story that had the audacity to stray out of the narrow confines of the African art community into mainstream media.

This whole saga begs the question: where do we draw the line in the sand between inspiration and imitation?

The answer is not straightforward.  Artists are probably better able to articulate this.

Our take on this is that, when we celebrate the art of any artist, what we are doing is acknowledging a unique attribute of creativity which that artist is expressing, either better than, or different from, other artists.  If the work is derived from, or inspired by, a piece from another artist, we expect to see enhancement (good or bad) in the new art piece so that a material comparison can be made against the original.  To put it simply, when you look at the new artwork, can you see the imprint of the new artist’s individuality and uniqueness imposed on the original work?

Whatever your views on Hirst’s sculpture (and, for the record, ours are that it is distinct from the original, but has nevertheless, shone a welcome light on the issue of inspiration versus imitation), it is important that cultural appropriation does not become a politically correct stick with which to beat artists who step outside of the confines of their own racial experiences.  We should not build imaginary cultural walls around artists based on their geography; art is meant to transcend and shape culture not be imprisoned by it.

Picasso allegedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  This quote and other similar to it, are often erroneously used to justify skilful appropriation by artists of work done by their peers or predecessors. We prefer the approach taken by the French film director, Jean Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”