‘Cultural appropriation is a two-way thing’: Yinka Shonibare on Picasso, masks and the fashion for black artists


“After Matisse showed Picasso African art for the first time,” he says, “it changed the history of modern art.” This is no hyperbole. It immediately led Picasso to repaint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the incendiary canvas he was working on in his ramshackle Montmartre studio, giving three of the five naked sex workers in it “African” masks that set them free from all previous western artistic values and rewrote the rule book about what an image can be.

More than a century on, Shonibare is returning to this seismic shift in his new exhibition, African Spirits of Modernism. Three statues at the beginning of the show, at the Stephen Friedman gallery in London, mix animal and human anatomies, as well as European and African traditions, revisiting that tumultuous moment in Paris in a dazzling way.