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Excerpt: 'Mirrors: Stories Of Almost Everyone'

Origin of modern art

West African sculptors have always sung while they worked. And they do not stop singing until their sculptures are finished. That way the music gets inside the carvings and keeps on singing. In 1910, Leo Frobenius found ancient sculptures on the Slave Coast that made his eyes bulge.
Their beauty was such that the German explorer believed they were Greek, brought from Athens, or perhaps from the lost Atlantis. His colleagues agreed: Africa, daughter of scorn, mother of slaves, could not have produced such marvels.
It did, though. Those music-filled effigies had been sculpted a few centuries previous in the belly button of the world, in Ife, the sacred place where the Yoruba gods gave birth to women and men. Africa turned out to be an unending wellspring of art worth celebrating. And worth stealing.
It seems Paul Gaugin, a rather absentminded fellow, put his name on a couple of sculptures from the Congo. The error was contagious. From then on Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Ernst, Moore, and many other European artists made the same mistake, and did so with alarming frequency.
Pillaged by its colonial masters, Africa would never know how responsible it was for the most astonishing achievements in twentieth century European painting and sculpture.

Lost and found

The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited.
The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor's footsteps.
In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon.
But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.
If not on the moon, where might they be?
Perhaps they were never misplaced.
Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.

From the book MIRRORS: STORIES OF ALMOST EVERYONE by Eduardo Galeano translated by Mark Fried. Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books (www.nationbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Eduardo Galeano