By Agence France-Presse
Fakaha, Ivory Coast
“I’M SURE! I tell you, he came. I saw him!” insists Soro Navaghi, keen to extinguish any doubts about Picasso’s visit to a small Ivorian village famed for its painted textiles.
Whether in tourist brochures or online, it is not unusual to find references to Picasso’s reputed visit to Fakaha, a remote village in northern Ivory Coast, some 650 kilometres from Abidjan, the economic capital.
French travel guide Petit Fute describes Fakaha as “internationally renowned” for its hand-spun cotton cloth painted by the Senufo people, which once “charmed a certain Picasso as he paid a discreet visit to the region at the turn of the century”.
One of the artisans of Fakaha in Ivory Coast shows what he swears is a self-portrait that Pablo Picasso painted while visiting the remote village “sometime” in the last century, though exactly when is debated./AFP
A whole mythology has grown up around the question of Africa and Picasso, who never spoke of having been to Fakaha.
For the artist who once provocatively brushed off the subject, saying “Negro art? Don’t know it” was also an ardent admirer and passionate collector of African art.
Highlighting the resemblance between African sculpture and some of Picasso’s work, many art critics see the symbolism and imagery of Africa as one of his sources of inspiration.
One often-cited example is the striking similarity between an African Grebo mask and one of the faces in his 1907 breakthrough work “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.
“Whenever someone emphasised the influence of African art on the development of his own work, he would shrug his shoulders, annoyed at being reduced to that. Although it is certain he was influenced by it from 1906 when he experienced his first African sculptures,” says Gilles Plazy, one of his biographers.
“Picasso used everything that came through his door and integrated it into the constant evolution of his artistic process,” he told AFP. “He opened up new paths.”
Fakaha has its own widespread reputation in the arts, producing beautiful paintings on white cotton fabric./AFP
For the several hundred residents of Fakaha, there is no question about where the celebrated Andalusian artist and sculptor found his inspiration, after stumbling upon their village 15km from the main road to Korhogo.
For decades these local artists have been hard at work in open huts around a sandy track, where they can be found smearing earth-based pigments onto canvas.
Their dexterity is fascinating, their moves precise. Working with knives or sticks, they plunge their tools into the bowls of colour, quickly transforming the white cotton into a work of art covered with animal motifs and figures in masks.
And there is an element of Picasso in it, with a definite similarity between his works and those of the artists of Fakaha.
But is this just a random resemblance or creative coincidence?
“I tell you, he came here. He was inspired by us,” repeats Soro Navaghi, who’s in his 60s.
Picasso’s car apparently broke down while driving to Korhogo, and he set off on foot and eventually turned up in the village “bare-chested and without shoes”, Navaghi says.
The artist stayed there for several days and even gave the villagers some advice, they say.
“It was he who taught us to use sponges and toothbrushes to be quicker and more precise,” says Silue Naganki, one of the artists who takes his inspiration from long-dead ancestors.
“Before him, we never used the frames either. It was he who advised us to paint the frames."
Ducking into his house, Soro Navaghi comes up with the “ultimate proof” – a cotton canvas featuring Picasso himself.
The fabric is covered with multiple motifs of a bald, white man, sometimes wearing shorts, sometimes in a grass skirt, who is variously clutching a pencil or paintbrush or even some twigs.
A self-portrait by the master! Surely there can be no doubt, even for an amateur, that this is Picasso, proclaims Navaghi.
Attached to the canvas is a self-declared certificate of authenticity signed by a travel agent who attests to having witnessed the visit.
A group of women spin cotton in the village of Fakaha./AFP
“Picasso came barefoot to Fakaha in 1968. He worked shirtless and without clothes,” says the document, a copy of the original which is kept in the village archives for safekeeping.
For biographer Plazy, the account would have delighted the eclectic painter, the idea of him visiting Fakaha “like a magician, and infusing the traditional local art with an invigorating breath of fresh air”.
“There were a lot of stories about Pablo Picasso, and since he had a sense of humour, he would sometimes pretend some of them were true.”
Picasso died in 1973 at age 91, and other villagers concede that his visit was probably earlier than 1968, given his age by then.
The world-renowned painter, in his mid-80s, would have had to walk 15km through the bush, chancing upon a village with no electricity or running water and staying there several days.
Even though Picasso continued working until his death, it certainly wasn’t only at the end of his life that African influences appear in his works. But could he have been in Fakaha around the turn of the century, as travel guide Petit Fute suggests?
If he did, Picasso would have had to take a boat to Abidjan, then travel the remaining 1,000km by road in scorching, dry conditions with little shade from the sun – an adventure more suited to an explorer.
Such an epic trip would have taken at least several months, and would likely have featured in one of his biographies.
AFP contacted the Picasso Museum in Paris, which declined to comment, then spoke with several of his biographers, who also refused to be pinned down.
One theory put forward by residents of the city of Korhogo is that it was a false Picasso – a man who resembled the famed Spanish painter and fooled the villagers by pretending to be him.
But that also raises a question: why?