By the early 1900s, traditional African sculpture became an increasingly powerful influence among ‘Modern’ European artists. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and friends blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the works of Cézanne and Gauguin. While most of these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognised the spiritual aspect of the works, helping them to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art for 500 years.

These avant-garde artists, and their circles were among the first Europeans to collect African sculptures for their aesthetic value. Starting in the 1870s, thousands of African sculptures arrived in Europe in the aftermath of colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions. They were placed on view in museums throughout Europe. At the time, these objects were treated as artefacts of colonised cultures rather than as artworks. While artworks from the Pacific Islands and the Americas also drew attention, (especially during the 1930s Surrealist movement), the interest in non-Western art by many of the most influential early modernists centred on the sculpture of sub-Saharan Africa.

The masks offered on this website have been chosen for their aesthetic qualities, and the dates are approximate.