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Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude

By Souleymane Bachir Diagne


“Danced the forces that were given

rhythm by, that gave rhythm to the

Force of forces: Justice in accord,

which is Beauty Bounty

– Leopold Sédar Senghor


Near the end of 1906, at the time of Senghor’s birth, Picasso is 25 years old. He is already famous and numerous are the admirers of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. What is known as his ‘Blue Period’ (1901-04) has been succeeded by the ‘Rose Period’ (1904- 06) with its harlequins and acrobats.

Max Jacob, his friend, poet and art critic, perceives the depth of his genius. Guillaume Apollinaire, also a friend, has dedicated an article to him in 1905 entitled ‘Picasso: peintre et dessinateur’ in which he celebrates Picasso’s present and future glory. It even seems as if his life of bohemia and poverty must be coming to an end as connoisseurs, rich ones at that, begin to put the proper price on unsurpassable greatness: visiting his studio the year before, the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein spent 800 francs for some paintings they took away; while that year, 1906, the art merchant Ambroise Vollard would pay 2,000 gold francs at one time to awcquire several canvases.

Ms Stein would see her portrait, begun in 1905, completed. The Portrait of Gertrude Stein says something very important. But what?

Picasso, continually dissatisfied with the face, ended up erasing it and putting in its place a head for all eternity: the forehead is smooth and wide, the lines are ‘impersonal, schematic and regular?’ Rather than a head, it is a mask that looks off towards its own unfathomable mystery. Picasso’s Self Portrait, once again from the miraculous year 1906, gives the artist himself the head of a mask as well. The features are harsh, the shape pure, evoking a sculpture. ‘Picasso painted his own face as if it were a mask’ writes Marie-Laure Bernadac and Paule du Bouchet, ‘almost as if it belonged to someone other than himself. The intensity, the almost savage archaism of this self-portrait shows the progression Picasso had made over the course of several years, even over the previous few months.’ But progression towards what?

Towards faces that transform themselves into masks? It is true that Picasso has a rich collection of masks and other small sculptures. We know, for example, that among the ‘primitive’ art objects he possesses is a magnificent Grebo mask made of wood and vegetable fibres, and full of geometrical lines: two cylindrical protuberances for the eyes, a rectangular one for the mouth, a triangle for the nose… It would be surprising indeed if nothing from these ‘fetishes’ surreptitiously crept into his art! But for him to really look at these things, and for their ‘magic’ to function, it would be necessary for them to acquire a new and stronger salience that will force him to see them. This turns out to be his visit in the July of 1907, to the museum at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris.

Ethnographic museums are a negation of art because they prevent the objects on display from really looking at us. Because ethnography is constituted, at its colonial origins, as a science of what is radically other, it is in its nature to fabricate strangeness, otherness, separateness. An object in an ethnographic museum is kept at a distance, prevented from touching us because it is petrified: it cannot accomplish the movement Andre Malraux calls its ‘metamorphosis’. This movement involves becoming a ‘work of art separated from its function’. ‘The deepest metamorphosis,’ writes Malraux, ‘began when art no longer had any end other than itself.’ The ethnographic museum claims to maintain the dimension of the religious function but it is no more than a claim: because the object has been irreparably cut off from this function and the gods have withdrawn from it. Prevented, as regards its aesthetic face, from becoming a work of art, this object –created to make the divine present – finds itself equally missing its other face which looked to the god. Thus here it is exposed as a cadaver, doubly abandoned.

The Trocadéro museum is in urgent need of reform,’ wrote Apollinaire, who deplored the fact that beauty found itself buried in a place given over to ‘ethnic curiosity’ that attracted few visitors, instead of being offered up to ‘aesthetic sensibility’. He explained that ‘[o]bjects of a principally artistic nature should be separated from… ethnography and placed in another museum’. In fact, for Apollinaire, it is ‘the Louvre [that] should be collecting certain exotic masterpieces whose appearance is no less moving than those of the beautiful specimens of Western statuary’. Because Picasso, like his friend Apollinaire, is a poet able to see past the ethnographic fence, he understood during his visit to the Trocadéro how to look at objects in a way that gives life to things and unleashes the force of the spell. He later opened up to Malraux about what happened to him, who reported his words in La Tete d’obsidienne (1974) and in the foreword he wrote in August 1974 for Masterpieces of Primitive Art(1982). Here is the humorous account Picasso gave Malraux of his first visit to the Trocadéro (in 1937, ‘at the time he was finishing Guernica’):

“Everybody always talks about the influence that the Negroes had on me. What can I do? We all of us loved fetishes. Van Gogh once said, ‘Japanese art – we all had that in common.’ For us it’s the Negroes. Their forms had no more influence on me than they had on Matisse. Or on Derain. But for them the masks were just like any other pieces of sculpture. When Matisse showed me his first Negro head, he talked to me about Egyptian art.

When I went to the old Trocadéro, it was disgusting. The flea market. The smell. I was alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I stayed. I understood that it was very important: something happening to me, right?

The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. But why weren’t the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldeans? We hadn’t realised it. Those were primitive, not magic things. The Negro pieces, they were intercessors, mediators, ever since then I’ve known the word in French. They were against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits… I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! Not the details – women, children, animals, tobacco, playing – but the whole of it! I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren’t Cubists! Since Cubism didn’t exist. It was clear that some guys had invented the models, and others had imitated them, right? Isn’t that what we call tradition? But all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. They’re tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much), emotion –they’re all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter… Les Demoiselles d Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism – painting – yes absolutely! It is for that reason that later I also did paintings as before, like Olga’s Portrait: portraits! One is not a sorcerer all day long! How would one live?”

‘Why?’ Picasso asks. His question has an answer which is at once lazy, Eurocentric and paternalistic, and which is contained entirely in the expression ‘primitive art’: since African art is a manifestation of primitive art or, in other words, art in its infancy, it is natural that they paint or sculpt ‘like that’, the only way in which humanity in its infancy is able to paint or sculpt. This art is ‘primary’ in that sense. There is, however, another answer according to which there is nothing childish here; this answer begins by paying attention to the fact that Picasso asked, ‘Why sculpt like that and not some other way?’He sought to understand how it is that to sculpt like that gives form to the spirits, makes the unconscious speak or provokes a strange emotion.

We may note that ‘emotion’ is also the word used by Apollinaire when he writes that the ‘result’ produced by this art is a ‘powerful reality’. It is precisely the riddle of this reinforced reality, perceived by the artist as unable to be domesticated simply by making it a curiosity, that Picasso’s question aims to unlock. At the end of his foreword to Masterpieces of Primitive Art, Malraux speaks of the savage artist’s ‘will to create’ (which we call ‘magical’ only because of laziness) that ensures ‘their sculptures the enigmatic unity that connects their work, even when it borders on random expression’. Celebrating the entrance of savage sculptures into the museum from which they had been kept away, he concludes that ‘this crucial and ageless art, so strangely relevant to our own, is the art of our next investigation: the night side of man.’ Apollinaire, Picasso, Malraux and others as well agree: behind the African masks and sculptures that now come to take part in the conversation of works of art gathered at the heart of ‘the immense range of invented forms’, as Malraux defines the ‘Imaginary Museum’, we find the riddle of a way of seeing, thinking and feeling of which these objects are the writing.

Senghor’s Negritude will claim to decipher this riddle and thus its most natural content will be answers to the questions posed by African art. To show that ‘African art forms, generally regarded as “aesthetic”… are equally interpretable as philosophical observations about the nature of the world’ will be a major aspect of the Senghorian project. Far from being reducible to the expression of an existential attitude without real content, this project is, in Senghor’s mind, the expression of African philosophy itself, that is to say, due way of seeing, thinking and feeling that integrates fields of human activity as different as medicine, law, religion, logic and wisdom by serving as their raison d’ être and the key to truly understanding them. Among these fields, artistic activity is primary, even before religion: because, where orality reigns, art constitutes the writing which allows us to read the metaphysics it transcribes. Art is the evidence of African philosophy and, conversely, we do not attain full comprehension of African art without understanding the metaphysics from which it proceeds. This metaphysics, to present it in a word, is a metaphysics of rhythm which, according to Senghor, is at the core of African thought and experience.


Beginning in ‘What the Black Man Contributes’, Senghor speaks of a rhythmic attitude, emphasizing the word and asking us to ‘[r]emember this phrase’. (He will consistently return to it over the course of many texts). When he writes, in a formulation that will appear in different forms as a leitmotif of his thought, that ‘[t] his ordering force that constitutes Negro style is rhythm’, he indicates in a footnote that this assertion is also defended in Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro’s Primitive Negro Sculpture (1926). This is more than a passing reference: when we look closely at the referenced work, we discover how attentively Senghor read it and, above all, how much his philosophy of art remains, following this reading, a continued reflection on (and of) this book. It is, for this reason, necessary to discuss it here.

The French version of Primitive Negro Sculpture is composed of three parts.18 First, a section in which the authors raise the question of the sculpture’s ‘relation with African life’; second, one in which they conduct a precise analysis of ‘its artistic qualities’; and third, photographic images of ‘forty-three Negro sculptures’. Are these sculptures and the works of the black continent in general, as discovered by ethnologists and European artists, the expression of African life? Guillaume and Munro’s answer is unequivocal: no. The situation henceforth for Africans on the continent and in the diaspora does not have much to do with the material and spiritual reality of the Africa of old, the Africa which it would have been possible to think of as reflected in the works of art that give witness, in their enigmatic way, to what used to be. Regarding the continent, it is necessary to begin with the colonial situation and, for America, with the world as it is after slavery: both created different Africans ‘in process of civilization’ and it is useless to try to find in these ‘evolved’ people, as the authors also call them, the state of mind of the artists who created the works we can still admire today.

It is a mistake to believe that we can think of the transformation of the African world as resulting from a simple addition of an exterior to a substrate that would be possible to isolate and examine. To pursue the question of the relation between African art and the identity of Africans is to interrogate a mute mirror. There is no essence towards which masks and sculptures point, no Africanity to be retrieved and examined behind its metamorphoses either on the continent or in the diaspora. Guillaume and Munro also pull no punches in affirming the consequence of this observation: by destroying the gods of traditional Africa, ‘civilization’ destroyed its art and henceforth Africans have ‘lost their genius for plastic form’. The artist, the one who invented these forms, has disappeared along with the secret of what it meant at that time to sculpt like that. To try at all costs to establish a continuity with today is, for Munro and Guillaume (the collector of African art), to open the way to counterfeiters and the poor imitations of the ‘occasional uninspired craftsman… chipping wood or ivory into a stiff, characterless image for the foreign trade’. This characterises what we would today call ‘airport art’, produced by those who no longer invent anything and who are condemned to the indefinite imitation of their own tradition which has become opaque and silent.

If, then, we can no longer ask what was meant, we remain free to pose the question of what sculpting like that may mean: for us today. That is the only true question. For Guillaume and Munro, the bright side of the lack of continuity between the artist who created the great works of Negro sculpture and the African world today is precisely the fact that this break frees us from worrying about reconstituting the Africanity that would supposedly provide the key to understanding this art. We can and we must ‘forget who made it and look at it afresh’. Those who do not look afresh can be divided into two groups. One, the ethnologists who, Guillaume and Munro tell us, are attached to producing ‘abstruse metaphysical theories’ that are supposed to explain the African mentality. They put between us and the work of art a set of considerations – descriptions of ethnic groups, rituals, etc. – which do little to illuminate it and, on the contrary, manage to obfuscate it.

Then there is the group of European artists whom we might have thought, given that they were the first to recognize this form of art at the base of modern tendencies, to be most qualified to speak about it. What we discover instead is that the discourse of this group does not go beyond ‘extravagant’ praises: the artists find themselves struck impotent before the forceful reality of the works, feeling intuitively their quality while remaining ‘inarticulate when it comes to expressing their feelings’ and producing, in the end, only ‘vague rhapsodies, flowery, incoherent, confused’. We can add to these two types of discourse that of the professional art critics, whose jargonladen chattering very often manifests nothing but their own preferences: they too fail to explain to us the nature of the satisfaction provided by works of African art.

In contrast to all of these discourses, we need to rely on what is in the work itself; here and now, in the present moment in which it offers itself to us, rather than on what we take to be its necessary context. By thus dismissing the concern for context in order to return to the artistic thing itself and start from there, Guillaume and Munro ask that we learn to read African art by forgetting whatever is not directly there: everything besides its artistic qualities themselves. They thus adopt an approach to art appreciation that consists in focusing on the art object as it is, describing it while bracketing out those who created it and discarding preconceived ideas. The approach is defined as follows:

It differs from most art criticism in trying to avoid subjective reverie and unverifiable generalisation, and in the systematic attempt to see instead, as clearly and objectively as possible, the demonstrable qualities in the works of art themselves, and their relation to conscious processes of the observer. An attempt is made to consider the plastic qualifies of the figures – their effects of line, plane, mass and colour – apart from all associated facts. In this approach, we find the formalism associated with Clive Bell, a philosopher of art, whose influence is visible here. Indeed, it is he who insisted most on the necessity of reading the art object by confining oneself to its pure form isolated from all significance situated outside of it. It is necessary to be able to perceive with the eye of the artist for, at that point, ‘having seen it as pure form, having freed it from all casual and adventitious interest, from all that it may have acquired from its commerce with human beings, from all its significance as a means’ we can feel ‘its significance as an end in itself ’. It is when we are thus dealing with a universe of pure forms that we can answer the question: ‘Why are we so profoundly moved by certain combinations of lines and colours?’ The answer is: ‘Because artists can express in combinations of lines and colours an emotion felt for reality which reveals itself through line and colour’.

Thus is born ‘significant form’ which is the ‘form behind which we catch a sense of ultimate reality’.

In order to keep away outside considerations, it is necessary to dismiss not only the context but also, with regard to the onlooker, certain expectations created in him by his history and his taste as constituted by this history. The subject must first be informed about what is not in the work but which, unconsciously, because he learnt to find enjoyment in the Venus de Milo or the Apollo Belvedere, he expects to find there. To provide an education in African art that has not been reduced to the single value of a testament to Africanity, Guillaume and Munro begin by contrasting it with ‘classical’ art. Learning how better to enjoy the plastic qualifies of African sculpture requires, first of all, an understanding of the nature of enjoyment one gets from Graeco- Roman statuary, since it is the point of reference for European art. The question then becomes that of the erotic in Greek statuary versus African sculpture. This explains the choice of canonical works such as the representations of Venus/ Aphrodite, Goddess of Beauty, and Apollo, her male equivalent. The goddess and the god as they are represented in Graeco-Roman statuary express the ideal of the human form, its perfection. The erotic here belongs, then, to the category of ‘the pleasant to look upon’, which itself translates as that which we wish to resemble or to lovingly possess. The enjoyment the work of art provides stems from the caress of the glance and perhaps the hand, as the body puts itself mentally in the posture of imitating or embracing. Other works, without having so explicit a link with love or the ideal of physical beauty, belong no less to this category of mimetic pleasure: we are made to mentally smile by the ‘shrewd, whimsical smile’ of Voltaire when looking at the bust of the philosopher sculpted in 1778 by the neoclassical artist ]ean-Antoine Houdon; likewise, we break loose towards freedom with Michelangelo’s Rebel Slave (1513) by feeling in our body, as frail as it may be in comparison, all the energy of his powerful muscle structure.

To approach African sculpture without preconceived ideas is to not expect to see this category of mimesis work there and to learn, by opening up to it, to see a different erotic register activated. Does the African spectator also feel like kissing the Venus? By God, yes! Does he want to hold in embrace the ‘deformed’ maternity idol from Guinea? No, thank God! Considered in relation to the category of ‘the pleasant to look upon’, this work and others where the natural form of the human body is deformed and dis-located are, for any subject, ‘a freakish monstrosity’. In relation to this category, these works cannot help but reveal themselves as ontologically lacking or as demonic inversions, which is what the missionaries of revealed monotheisms (both Christianity and Islam) did not fail to assert as they attacked the ‘fetishes’. How then are we moved by this form of art? How is it that, ‘with experience and a determined open-mindedness to new sensations, we find the beauty that is contained in the African statue? We could content ourselves with an appeal to habituation which brings about that ‘some things which first seem ugly come to be pleasing on further acquaintance’, a bit like how we become accustomed to eating spicy food. But there is another, more positive way to understand what Guillaume and Munro are saying: it is not custom that leads us progressively to art’s truth; rather, this truth is grasped through the initial experience of the eidetic reduction in which it is perceived that what appeared at first as a ‘distorted copy of a human body’ is in fact ‘a new creation in itself ’. It is this initial truth that will subsequently manifest itself more clearly through custom.

What is this truth of African art for Guillaume and Munro? What is the nature of the non-mimetic pleasure that we get from ‘primitive negro sculpture’?

“[I]t is apt to be unmeaning or even disagreeable to civilized people. But in shapes and designs of line, plane and mass, it has achieved a variety of striking effects [‘effets puissants’, in the French translation] that few if any other types of sculpture have equalled. These effects would be impossible in a representation of the human figure if natural proportions were strictly adhered to. They would be impossible in an ideal figure conceived, like the Greek ones mentioned, on a basis of what would be humanly desirable in flesh and blood.”

We find here once again the register of the power of effects born of excess and the absence of proportions in the name of another logic internal to the work, a logic which does not aim at the pleasure of a ‘beautiful reality’ consonant with our normal faculty of desire for what is ‘flesh and blood’ but at the shock caused by the ‘free play of impulsive feeling’, which is itself the image of the figure ‘dissociated into its parts, regarded as an aggregate of distinct units.

Enjoyment is derived here from an experience of limits and from the transmutation of the fear of seeing unity lost and ‘the whole piece… fall apart’ and become ‘confusingly unrelated’ into the surprise of sensing that the work has found ‘means to weld the contrasting themes together by some note common to both’. It is by a music composed at will, Guillaume and Munro claim, that we find ourselves possessed when we walk around an African statue as ‘its lines and masses flow constantly and infinitely into new designs and equilibria, with no hiatus or weak intervals between’. Music here is more than a metaphor. The plastic work is not like music: it is a ‘complete visual music’ in which:

“contrasting rhythms affect the sensitive eye and brain as a series of powerfully reiterated shocks in line, ridge, and roughened hollow, alternated with smoother intervals, like recurring bursts of drums and brasses in music. Distributed, spaced, contrasted, welded firmly together by repetitions of them, each shape is given its maximum aesthetic effectiveness, and the power of the whole is made cumulative, brought to a focus by the unity of design.”

All in all, Guillaume and Munro’s formalist approach invites us to place ourselves within an ontology of rhythms so as to fully grasp the nature of the world we are led into by African sculpture and the nature of the emotion it provokes as an effect of its powerful and violent stimulants. Creation consists here in the composition of rhythms, in building a rhythm from units, which are themselves rhythms, by repeating them without repeating them exactly and by making them respond to each other through contrast and inversion. This is indeed what Senghor will do, as this text will always continue to show through in his work, above all when he writes on African art, emphasising as he will that it is based on rhythm or vital force or even the oxymoron he coins to express that which gives this art its most distinctive characteristics: asymmetrical parallelism.


It is in ‘What the Black Man Contributes’ that Senghor writes the sentence to which his thought has often been reduced, generally for the sake of rejecting it altogether with a single gesture: ‘Emotion is Negro, as reason is Hellenic’ (‘L’émotion est nègre, comme la raison héllène’). The numerous comments it has provoked have not paid enough attention to certain important factors. The first is the choice of the word: ‘Hellenic’ rather than ‘Greek’ or even ‘European’, which he will later use. ls this but a stylish touch by someone who, as a khagneux agrégé de grammaire, was nourished by Classics? Is it the choice of a poet fond of the rhythm of the alexandrine, since it is true that, on the level of euphony, ‘héllène’ proves obvious and necessary to the ear? This is all no doubt true, but the sentence also makes reference to the contrast between Greek statuary and African plastic art on which the authors of Primitive Negro Sculpture based their analysis of difference in aesthetic pleasures.

The second important factor is the context: Senghor’s article is really oriented towards its last section, which is dedicated to what for him is the major contribution of Africans to the world of the twentieth century: art.

Further, in the lines immediately following the sentence, Senghor explains the concept of emotion by means of the notion of rhythmic attitude, thus foreshadowing his discussion of art. ‘Emotion is Negro, as reason is Hellenic’ can thus be understood, in the context in which it appears, in the following manner: emotion is to African works of art what reason is to Hellenic statuary. I will also contend that it is in Senghor’s aesthetic reflections that what is primarily and above all an analogy found its meaning before it was transferred, no doubt less felicitously, to the field of epistemology. Because his readings on African art (in particular, the work of Guillaume and Munro) encouraged an approach contrasting statues in the Hellenic tradition and African sculpture, Senghor too positions himself from the start within this polarity.

Given that he was trying to establish ‘what the black man contributes’, Senghor quite obviously could not subscribe to the way in which Guillaume and Munro’s book invites us to ‘forget’ the Africans in order to better understand and enjoy the art their continent has given the world. We can easily imagine that he saw himself as writing against the tranquil racism, normal in colonial times, of authors who declare that outside of a few ‘traditions’ – like the idea that ‘as early as the third century AD’ the empire of Ghana (whose ‘probable capital ruins have lately been discovered’) was ‘flourishing in the Western Sudan’ – ‘the negroes are a people without history’ whose ‘past can be described only in terms of general racial intermixtures’. A reaction against this finds weighty support in what Senghor presents as his most important reading in Negritude, along with his companions, some three years before the publication of ‘What the Black Man Contributes’: the reading of Leo Frobenius. Senghor needed to bring back to African art the Africanity that Guillaume and Munro had somehow driven from it. His studies at the time with the Africanists at the Paris Institute of Ethnology and at the Ecole pratique des hautes études prepared him to restore the link between African sculpture and ethnos, to ‘re-ethnologise’ art. He does so by, above all, following Frobenius on African civilization but without giving up the approach of Primitive Negro Sculpture that consists of focusing attention on the art’s plastic qualities themselves.

In Frobenius, Senghor finds support for his idea that African art expresses an African ‘spirit’ and perhaps a ‘being – African’. We can guess how strongly he agrees with the following Lines by the German ethnologist when he reads them in Der Ursprung der afrikanischen Kulturen (1898; The History of African Civilization):

“And wherever we can still find evidence of this ancient [African] culture, it bears the same stamp. When we walk through the great museums of Europe – the Trocadéro, the British Museum, the museums in Belgium, Italy, Holland and Germany – we recognise everywhere the same ‘spirit’, a similar character and essence. Whichever part of this continent the various articles have come from, they unite in speaking the same language.”

And, later, in the same text:

“This is the character of the African style. Anyone who comes close enough to it, to truly understand it soon recognises that it prevails throughout Africa as the very expression of its being. It manifests it – self in the gestures of all Negro peoples as much as in their plastic art; it speaks in their dances and in their masks, in their religious sentiments as well as in their modes of existence, the forms of their polities and their destinies as peoples. It lives in their fables, fairy tales, legends and myths.

There is an African style which unifies the continent and, in it, Being expresses itself as a spirit spanning the ages, a ‘language that continues to be spoken in all the aspects and gestures of African life’: this is what Senghor too wants to assert (against Guillaume and Munro). If we should not take ethnographical knowledge as a starting point in interpreting art, since that would only obfuscate our understanding of it, it still remains that this understanding ought to bring us back to an African way of seeing things and to African life in general. It is true that the authors of Primitive Negro Sculpture admit that the art of Africans (or rather, the art created on the continent during the time of their ancestors) could constitute a source, ‘the most revealing’ one which we could find, ‘for understanding the primitive negro mind’. But Senghor is also interested in establishing an organic continuity with African life today, however altered it may be, and with life in the black diaspora, however alienated it may be. It is for the sake of this continuity that he puts ethnology at the centre of his philosophy: in order to make Africans visible after their art has become visible. To bring Africans out of their invisibility and make them appear as real ‘antagonists,’ that is to say, ‘interlocutors’: this too was proposed by the man Senghor always calls his teacher –Frobenius.

If it is to this teacher that Senghor appeals in order to restore the link between African life and the sculpture to which it gave birth, it is nevertheless the strictly formalist approach of Guillaume and Munro that is decisive for is philosophy of African art. It is decisive, above all, for the way in which he elaborates his notion of rhythm. Here is how he speaks about it in ‘What the Black Man Contributes’: “This ordering force that constitutes Negro style is rhythm. It is the most sensible and the least material thing. It is the vital element par excellence. It is the primary condition for, and sign of, art, as respiration is of life – respiration that rushes or slows down, becomes regular or spasmodic, depending on the being’s tension, the degree and quality of the emotion. Such is rhythm, originally, in its purity, such is it in the masterpieces of Negro art, particularly in sculpture. It is composed of one theme – sculptural form – that is opposed to a brother theme, like inhalation is opposed to exhalation, and that is reprised. It is not a symmetry that engenders monotony; rhythm is alive, it is free. For reprise is not redundancy or repetition. The theme is reprised at another place, on another level, in another combination, in a variation. And it produces something like another tone, another timbre, another accent. And the general effect is intensified by this, not without nuances. This is how rhythm acts, despotically, on what is least intellectual in us, to make us enter into the spirituality of the object; and this attitude of abandon that we have is itself rhythmic.”

This reflection on rhythm is echoed, 17 years later, by the following lines:

“What is rhythm? It is the architecture of being, the internal dynamism that gives it form, the system of waves it gives off toward Others, the pure expression of vital force. Rhythm is the vibrating shock, the power which, through the senses, seizes us at the roots of our Being. It expresses itself through the most material and sensual means: lines, surfaces, colours, and volumes in architecture, sculpture and painting; accents in poetry and music; movements in dance. But, in doing this, it organises all this concreteness toward the light of the Spirit. For the Negro African, it is insofar as it is incarnate in sensuality that rhythm illuminates the Spirit.”

And when he speaks once again of repetition, it is to clarify that ‘there is almost always the introduction of a new element, variation in the repetition, unity in diversity.’ Let us consider first the passage on rhythm in ‘What the Black Man Contributes’. If Senghor’s discussion of African art is at the centre of his writings, then this paragraph on rhythm is at the centre of that discussion. We see here the way in which Senghor takes up and reworks the remarks of Guillaume and Munro. What he says at the beginning of the quote about rhythm as a condition of African art responds to the way in which, in Primitive Negro Sculpture, the artist in front of the work to be created is described as taken away by the rhythm that imposes itself upon his imagination – he is, we are told, ‘obsessed’ with it – and into which ‘he will force the yielding block’. Thus, for Guillaume and Munro, at the beginning of creation is the rhythm that will harness the matter and whose primary form is repetition. The work is made of ‘plastic rhythms’55 responding to one another in repetition and contrast, as is shown in the following analysis of a mask that we imagine Senghor reading with the greatest attention “... [T]he mask has a direct aesthetic effect, independent of all associations, by the shapes and combinations of its part. The eyes are rough, irregular circles, boldly outlined; the huge upper lip, as a semicircle, relates the mouth to them and joins in a rhythmic series that is continued above the eyes. The lower lip, a stiff contrasting horizontal, relates the mouth to the base of the nose and to the horizontal lines of the forehead, and thus sets another rhythmic series in motion. The nose, a sharp-edged pyramid, is echoed in the line of rough, ribbed cones of hair that march across the forehead. The vertical ridge above the nose connects it with the hair, bridging an otherwise blank expanse, and helps to balance the heavy massing of features at the bottom. It joins with nose and mouth to form a wedge-shaped subordinate pattern; to right and left of this wedge, as a result, are two shield-shaped planes, each pierced by an eye, and each aversion of the face’s total contour. These contrasting rhythms affect the sensitive eye and brain as a series of powerfully reiterated shocks in line, ridge, and roughened hollow, alternated with smoother intervals, like recurring bursts of drums and brasses in music. Distributed, spaced, contrasted, welded firmly together by repetitions of them, each shape is given its maximum aesthetic effectiveness, and the power of the whole is made cumulative, brought to a focus by the unity of design.”

From his reading of Guillaume and Munro, Senghor forever retains this approach to the African art object as a combination, a unity of rhythmic series that respond to one another. What he adds is turning this into the language of African ontology, an ontology of vital force. Behind forms, for him, there is metaphysics. Indeed, he insists on a metaaesthetics: ‘The painters and the sculptors of the School of Paris... saw [in African sculpture] essentially an aesthetics while, beyond the laws of the beautiful, it also expressed a meta-physics, I mean an ontology, and an ethics.’ Senghor thus shares Bell’s philosophy of art and what the latter calls the ‘metaphysical hypothesis’. The question ‘Why are we so profoundly moved by certain combinations of forms?’ is not, for Bell, an aesthetic question but a metaphysical one. It leads us beyond the emotion and the object that provoked the emotion to ‘surprise that which gives form its significance’. For the artist possesses a particularity that makes him a guide toward this beyond:

“the peculiarity of the artist would seem to be that he possesses the power of surely and frequently seizing reality (generally behind pure form), and the power of expressing his sense of it, in pure form always. But many people, though they feel the tremendous significance of form, feel also a cautious dislike for big words; and ‘reality’ is a very big one. These prefer to say that what the artist surprises behind form, or seizes by sheer force of imagination, is the all-pervading rhythm that informs all things; and I have said that I will never quarrel with that blessed word ‘rhythm.’”

As for Senghor, he does not hesitate a moment to say that the artist discovers ‘reality’, or rather what he calls ‘subreality’, and that the latter is made up of rhythms.

Even before Senghor reads Tempels’ Bantoe-filosofie (1949) immediately after the Second World War, the idea that African art expresses the ontology of vital force is already present in his thought: he speaks of an ‘ordering force’ which is ‘the vital element par excellence’, thus inviting us to think of sculpture and ontology together. The discovery of Tempels’ work, which he greets with overflowing enthusiasm, allows him thereafter to be more precise in his presentation of the universe of the artist as the true reality: the reality of vital forces, which, he says, constitute the fabric of reality.

Tempels’ thesis can be summarised as follows: to understand ‘African life’ in its multiple manifestations; whether in terms of religion, art, ethics, medicine, law or government, involves going beyond ethnographic descriptions in order to reach knowledge of the ontology that is the ratio essendi (‘reason for being’) and ratio cognoscendi (‘reason for intelligibility’) of the things these descriptions present without managing to examine their true significance. This ontology gives meaning to everything else expressed in the equation: Being is force. Not that force is an attribute, even an essential one, of all things; what is meant, rather, is ens sive robur: Being, in other words, force. The true reality, the powerful reality about which Picasso spoke and which Senghor prefers to call the sub-real rather than the surreal so as to better indicate that it is what is appearances, the energy under the thing is thus the reality of pluralistic energetism, as the Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel characterises it. Apostel summarizes Bantu Philosophy in the following seven theses:

  1. To say that something exists is to say that it exercises a specific force.
  2. Every force is specific (as against a pantheistic interpretation, since what is asserted here is the existence of monadic, individual forces).
  3. Different types of Beings are characterised by different intensities and types of forces.
  4. Each force can be strengthened or weakened (rein-forced or de-forced, as Senghor puts it).
  5. Forces can influence and act upon each other in virtue of their internal natures.
  6. The universe is a hierarchy of forces organised according to their strengths, starting from God and going all the way down to the mineral through the founding ancestors, the grand dead, living humans, animals and plants.
  7. Direct causal action involves the influence of more – Being (or stronger force), on less-Being (weaker force).

Is this universe of forces the one inhabited by Africans? It undoubtedly makes no sense to proceed to such a generalisation, which would in turn leads towards the idea – justly critiqued by Paulin Hountondji –of a collective philosophy. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to hold that this ontology is that which is accessed, as the true sub-reality, by the initiated, the sages. We can thus also include artists, who know better than anyone else how to find the door to this world. ‘If the hierarchical and pluralistic energetism that is described as Africa’s most original contribution to philosophy is no myth,’ writes Apostel, ‘then it should find its expression in African art;’ and he adds: ‘We believe that this is indeed the fact.’ For Senghor, certainly, Negro art is the proof of Negritude. If the artistic work provides access to the ontology characterised as pluralistic energetism, it is because it constitutes that ontology’s language. Senghor can be read as adding to the seven theses of Bantu Philosophy the following:

a) What constitutes the individuality of a given force is its rhythm.

b) We open up ourselves to the object, the art object in particular, by means of a rhythmic attitude that puts us on the same wavelength with it, i.e. with its rhythm: this is what it means to be in touch with its spirituality.

c) The harmonious combination of rhythms in a work of art depends on a force/rhythm which orders the whole into an indivisible organic unity.

Is this universe of forces the one inhabited by Africans? It undoubtedly makes no sense to proceed to such a generalisation, which would in turn leads towards the idea – justly critiqued by Paulin Hountondji –of a collective philosophy. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to hold that this ontology is that which is accessed, as the true sub-reality, by the initiated, the sages. We can thus also include artists, who know better than anyone else how to find the door to this world. ‘If the hierarchical and pluralistic energetism that is described as Africa’s most original contribution to philosophy is no myth,’ writes Apostel, ‘then it should find its expression in African art;’ and he adds: ‘We believe that this is indeed the fact.’ For Senghor, certainly, Negro art is the proof of Negritude. If the artistic work provides access to the ontology characterised as pluralistic energetism, it is because it constitutes that ontology’s language. Senghor can be read as adding to the seven theses of Bantu Philosophy the following:

In this sense, the whole precedes the parts that it orders just as music or rhythmic lyrics are prior to the words that constitute them. It is not surprising then that the poet Senghor’s philosophy of art would be a philosophy of inspiration, nor that on this point it meets with Bergson’s thought. Senghor will define himself as a bearer before anything else and, like all the poets of the anthology, as a ‘singer... tyrannically subjected to “inner music”, and primarily to rhythm.’ What Sartre wrote of Césaire’s poetry, noting that the words of the latter ‘are compressed, one against the other, and cemented by his furious passion,’ Senghor echoes in the following lines:

“when [the poet] writes a poem, he does not calculate, he does not measure, he does not count. He does not look either for ideas or for images. He is, in front of his vision, like the black Great Priestess of Tanit, in Carthage. He speaks his vision, in a rhythmical movement, because he is impassioned with a sacred passion. And even his song, the melody and rhythm of his song are dictated to him.”

The rhythmical movement is a whole, indivisible. It is the ideal of creation, from which alone the ‘joy’ Bergson speaks about can be born: the joy that informs us that the destination is reached when the inner rhythm is in perfect symbiosis with the transcribed rhythm. If African sculpture can be said to be ‘Cubist’, it is not because it analyses the object into separated elements, partes extra partes (one part external to another), before recombining them; on the contrary, it is because it insists on the indivisibility of the whole, on the total effect where all the rhythms which melt into it converge.

Once again, it is important to emphasise that Senghor has a plastic understanding of rhythm, given that he first met with it as a principle of creation and as the supreme aesthetic value in the art of sculpture before discussing it in relation to those areas more immediately associated with it (like poetry, music or dance). ‘Reading’ a feminine Baoulé statuette in the manner of Guillaume and Munro describing the Fang mask, Senghor causes it to speak ‘in music’:

“In it, two themes of sweetness sing an alternating song. The breasts are ripe fruits. The chin and the knees, the rump and the calves are also fruits or breasts. The neck, the arms and the thighs are columns of black honey.” What in the language of Guillaume and Munro we would call the ‘rhythmic series’ of fruits/breasts, is here referred to by Senghor as a ‘song’ or a ‘theme of sweetness’, which alternates (Senghor) or enters into opposition (Guillaume and Munro) with the rhythmic series of the ‘columns of black honey’.

If it is possible to move in this way from plastic language to musical language, it is because the ontology expressed in sculpture and in poetic song is the same: an ontology of rhythms.


Senghor is obsessed with the Negritude once claimed by Arthur Rimbaud and he quotes very often the latter’s famous words from Une Saison en Enfer (1873) which mark his break with the European world:

“Yes, I close my eyes against your light. I am an animal, a Negro... The cleverest thing to do is to leave this continent, where madness roams, searching out hostages for this dismal bunch. I am entering the true kingdom of the children of Ham.”

In ‘Lettre à trois poètes de l’Hexagone’ (1979), Senghor, more so than quoting Rimbaud, proceeds to a veritable collage of the latter’s phrases, taking them from here and there in order to end up with what he declares to be a Negro-African re-reading of Rimbaud:

“I am an animal, a Negro. But I can be saved. You people are phoney Negroes... I invented the colour of vowels! I organised the shape and movement of every consonant, and, by means of instinctive rhythms, flattered myself that I was the inventor of a poetic language, accessible sooner or later to all the senses.”

It is not only the collage effect which constitutes a veritable re-reading but also the choice to emphasise this or that word and this or that expression. What this re-reading sketches, then, and what Senghor presents in his commentary as the suggestion of a ‘radiant symbolism in which all the senses – sounds, smells, flavours, touches, forms, colours, movements – maintain mysterious correspondences and give birth to analogical images’ is once again an ontology of rhythms. Rimbaud has arrived at the sub-reality, to what reality is made of, to find that its elements are primary, ‘instinctive’ rhythms. He has gone beneath language and the words with which language is made to the vowels which are the primary colours and to the forms and primary movements that are the consonants. Like an alchemist witnessing creation from primary elements, he has then seen and heard how these rhythms combine in a poetic language which is in tune with all the senses.

So here we have Rimbaud’s alchemy of the word pointing towards the same pluralistic energetism, towards the same ontology Tempels described as being at the root of Bantu philosophy. Should we take seriously the ‘Negritude’ of Rimbaud, this claiming of the word ‘Negro’ because it signified in his eyes radical alteration, the most complete achievement of the ‘I’ as an ‘Other’? Why, after him, consider Paul Claudel or Charles Péguy or even Saint John Perse as ‘Negro poets’ as well? Senghor has a tendency to negrify all that evokes for him – above all when it is coupled with a concern, at times racialising to the point of absurdity, to locate black influences (i.e. traces of blood) or ‘characterological’ affinities – does not fail to irritate.

Ultimately, though, this racialisation ends up neutralising and destroying itself. If there is a Negro style that expresses itself in the juxtaposition of rhythmic series which respond to each other in an asymmetric parallelism, then we can see things this way: this style is not the natural emanation of something like a ‘race’ but rather the choice of, the preference for, and perhaps the religious and aesthetic obsession with, a particular form: that of parataxis, which Senghor opposes to syntax. Thus he and Césaire recognised themselves in Tristan Tzara because of the Surrealist poet’s taste for ‘parataxis’, i.e. the replacement of syntax by juxtaposition or coordination, [in which] melody is made of “the noises and sounds” of nature’.

The fact that Senghor’s racialism ends up negating itself is something we recognize when we read him attentively. Let us consider the following passage, a part of Senghor’s conclusion to his ‘L’esthétique négro-africaine’ (1956): “People will say that the spirit of the civilization and the laws of Negro African Culture, as I have exposed them, belong not only to the Negro African, but are held in common with other peoples as well. I do not deny it. Every people unites on its face the various features of the human condition. I claim, however, that nowhere else do we find these features united in this equilibrium and I under this light: nowhere else has rhythm reigned so despotically. Nature did well, desiring that each people, each race, each continent would cultivate, with a particular direction, certain virtues of Man; in this cultivation resides their originality. If it is added that this Negro African Culture resembles, like a sister, that of ancient Egypt, of Dravidian peoples and of Oceanian peoples, I shall answer that ancient Egypt was African and that there is black blood that flows in passionate streams through the veins of Dravidians and Oceanians.”

We are certainly dealing with racialism when the epidermis of Dravidians and Oceanians determines their essential Negritude. Nevertheless, the definition of what constitutes difference or specificity – what is called here originality – also puts racialism in question. What constitutes originality, Senghor tells us, is not a specific feature that would belong solely and exclusively to one race but, rather, a certain ‘equilibrium’, let us say a certain ratio, between various features that can be found everywhere because together they make up the human condition. Different cultures, then, will be characterised by different ratios between the same features that they combine in separate ways. It will thus be no mystery (needing to be explicated by scrutinizing influences, biology or characterology) if cultural practices breaking with or revolting against the customs and traditions of the context of their birth can sometimes recognise themselves in the mirror offered by an alternative way of establishing a ratio between the features which define the human condition. In this way, Rimbaud can declare himself Negro and Claudel can have, in Senghor’s eyes, a spirit and a style the latter considers African. In the same way, we can say that Picasso would never have encountered, at the museum of Trocadéro, the alternative answers to the problem of artistic representation which he saw embodied in the African masks that he discovered there if he had not himself brought with him the alternative questions then haunting him.

Underneath his differentiations, there appears at all times in Senghor the vision of an indivisible human condition, putting the differentiations in perspective and perhaps negating them. This is the case when we consider his philosophy of African art in which, even when he insists on the specificity of the Negro African aesthetic, it is ultimately for the purpose of making it one of the possibilities available everywhere, in all cultural spheres and in various ages, to human creativity. On the other hand, the rhythmic attitude for him is not confined to the aesthetic domain alone; it is, in a general sense, an approach to reality and a means of knowing it. With respect to this artistic knowing which is opposed to Hellenic reason, we may wonder whether he does in fact construct that specificity of difference that terminates in the creation of a separated humanity.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a professor of Philosophy and Francophone Studies at Columbia University and the current Chair of the French Department. His fields of research and teaching include history of philosophy, history of Logic and mathematics, Islamic philosophy, African Literature and Philosophy. His most recent publications are: African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude. Seagull Books, 2011; Bergson postcolonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Léopold Sédar Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal. Paris, CNRS Editions, 2011; Comment Philosopher en islam, Paris, Philippe Rey, 2013; The Ink of the Scholars. Reflections on Philosophy in Africa, Dakar, Codesria, 2016.

The African Art as Philosophy is an extract from the book African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude (The Africa List). Published by Seagull Books, 2012.


This article featured in ART AFRICA's 'A Luta Continua' issue, guest edited by Kendell Geers.


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