In the accounts of early twentieth-century modernism the ethnographic object and its ‘discovery’ by avant-garde artists has come to occupy a central role. But the African studies by the German author and critic Carl Einstein (1885–1940) and the Latvian artist Vladimir Markov (1877–1914) have regularly been demoted to the footnotes of primitivist appropriations. In the histories of non-Western cultures and the anthropology of art both have endured a place in obscurity. Described as ‘the first and most influential’ of the ‘champions of primitive art’, Einstein's Negerplastik has regained some recognition, whereas Markov's Iskusstvo Negrov remains the lesser known of the two books. Emerging at the same historical juncture both authors postulated the limits of Western artistic traditions by advocating the aesthetic autonomy of non-Western sculpture. By introducing a comparative reading, this paper argues that the image/text strategies of both studies orchestrated a poetics of alterity that was central to their respective theoretical agendas and indicative of the politically charged cultural exchanges within the early-twentieth-century avant-garde. In addition to their seemingly analogous motivations it is proposed that their ‘ethnographic turn’ was based, nevertheless, upon conflicting approaches that betray their individual philosophical and artistic affiliations.