... a quiz about 'authentic' African art

Authenticity … a big term, especially were African (or, indeed other so-called ‘tribal’) arts are concerned and a problematic one. Consider this definition of the related adjective authentic quoted from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

1. of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine: the letter is now accepted as an authentic document.

• made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the film was totally authentic.

• based on facts; accurate or reliable: an authentic depiction of the situation.

• (in existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.

2. (Music) (of a church mode) containing notes between the principal note or final and the note an octave higher.

- DERIVATIVES authentically adverb [as submodifier] the food is authentically Cajun authenticity noun .

- ORIGIN late Middle English: via Old French from late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos ‘principal, genuine’.

["authentic adjective" In: The Oxford Dictionary of English. [2005 Online Edition]]

Elsewhere Nelson Goodman argues that

If we are asked whether what is before us is authentic, our response could justifiably be: ‘Authentic what?’ It might be an authentic oil painting, an authentic Italian painting, an authentic Renaissance painting, yet not an authentic Leonardo da Vinci painting, not the authentic Mona Lisa. Authenticity is always authenticity under one or another description. The question ‘Is it authentic?’ must be replaced by, or understood as, a question of the form ‘Is it an (or the) authentic so-and-so?’.

When the question at hand is thus clarified, the term ‘authentic’ tends to become superfluous. An authentic Leonardo painting is just a Leonardo painting, the authentic Mona Lisa is just the Mona Lisa, and a non-authentic Leonardo is just not a Leonardo. Everything is authentically what it is and not authentically what it is not. The terms ‘authentic Leonardo’ and ‘not authentic Leonardo’ dichotomize not the class of Leonardo paintings but some class of supposed or claimed, or hoped-to-be, Leonardo paintings.

[Nelson Goodman. "Authenticity." In: Grove Art Online: Oxford Art Online.]

So, what then is authentic African Art? Shouldn’t that simply mean that any art produced in Africa or by Africans should be considered authentic African art? Of course, here, further questions could be raised to how ‘Africa’ is geographically and conceptually defined - most prominently: Is North Africa part of our definition of ‘Africa’? – or who qualifies as an African – are diaspora artists included in our definition and if yes how many generations can they have spend in the abroad? are expatriate artists living somewhere in Africa included and if yes how many years or generations will they have to have lived in African to qualify? But, as we all know it becomes more complicated when it comes to African or other so-called ‘tribal’ arts. One of the first books I ever bought about African Arts was written by the collector Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler (and I have to confess that I have hardly referred to it since) who, shall I say, shocked me with his advices for potential collectors:

[My quick and rather loose translation from the German edition I own, the original German terminology in ( ) brackets, my annotations – necessary as I skip whole sections of the text – are in [ ] brackets.]

What qualifies as ‘authentic’ (echt) with regard to African art? Which criteria does a piece need to satisfy to be considered faultless and satisfy the art aficionado’s expectations?

Unlike for other cultural areas (Kulturkreise), the products of which are traded, age does at first not play a role in the assessment of the authenticity (Echtheit) of so-called primate (hence, also African) arts. […] On the one hand, due to the perishability of wood, the most common material of African art, only relatively few pieces are older than [100 years], and, on the other hands, in many regions believe systems have persisted in which cultic objects [such as the one’s collectors acquire as African arts] are still used (hence, [according to some definitions of antiquities] would be considered ‘antique’ in the present).

According to the above said, one could be tempted to consider a mask produced by an African carver – in fact the traditional one of the respective people – and produced from the ritually destined wood as ]authentic’ (echt). In fact, by no means can it be considered such – at least not on the basis of the here purposefully narrowly defined sense of ‘authentic.’ Hence, if for other “antiquities” time and provenance are decisive in order to define their ‘authenticity’, another factor comes to prominence where African arts are concerned: the purpose for which the object was originally produced. In other words, important is whether the magic or ancestor figure was produced for an actual cultic purpose and not for the tourist or art market. Theoretically, this determent should suffice – practically, however, other factors will always need to be considered additionally, such as the actual use of the object in the cult, thus, traces of this use in order to ascertain its ‘authenticity.’

The problem might be best explained with reference to pieces produced by carvers working in regions where, on the one hand, cults are still practiced and, on the other hand, there is, due to their artistic qualities, a demand on the art market. Here, carvers often produce two kinds of pieces for different patrons: for their own people (priests, chief, individuals etc.) for use in the cult and for traders for sale on the art market. Originating from the same artist, both pieces are completely similar in terms of their ‘authenticity’ – and still, as soon as it has been used in the cult, one of them becomes ‘authentic’/’genuine’ (echt) while the other, at first, a copy will be made into a forgery once fake traces of abrasion and usage.’

[Schaedler 1997: Afrikanische Kunst: Von der Frühzeit bis Heute. München: Heyne. 330-31]

This little excerpt, I hope, has already suggested why, ever since reading these lines, I have a deep seated dislike for the term ‘authenticity’ especially when it is used with regard to African or other non-Western arts and cultures. If not, let’s translate Schaedler’s requirements for genuinely authentic African art into the European context: An ‘authentic’ piece of European art would have been produced, not for an art market but for a local, preferably religious purpose. Now, in the (dare I say ‘traditional’?) European context such a piece would have been most likely produced for a Christian liturgical use or the private religious practice of European Christians. But where would one most likely find such pieces? Taking in account that to be considered genuinely authentic, according to Schaedler, the piece should have been previously used and, at best, display traces of this usage, such piece could be most likely found in a church or the private houses of believers. Preferably, the former I suspect. Now, how do such pieces enter the (international) market? … I really don’t know the answer as I have never really read anything about the market for Christian religious devotionalia, let alone those that at one or another time have been used in a Church context. But, don’t you feel uneasy about the idea of some, say, sculpture of Mary that served a local Christian community as an intermediary with God for years, decades, possibly centuries suddenly, potentially forcefully and without consent of the community being removed from a church by some intruders or an opportunistic minister or member of the congretion? I at least already feel upset by the thought that my grandma’s grave might be levelled and I only attach a personal, no further spiritual meaning to it. As a society we’re upset by the removal of artistic master pieces from museums … Now, how can it then be acceptable for an art collector such as Schaedler to expect an ‘authentic’ piece of African art to show traces of former usage in a religious context? Does that not qualify as incitement of theft?

And, of what concern is authenticity here anyway? I mean, a concept of authenticity that goes beyond ‘an authentic Leonardo da Vinci is an artwork actually or, rather, by the expertise of renowned specialists executed by Leonardo da Vinci?’ I don’t’ really know, don’t really understand. But I’m pretty certain that as, well, side effect (let’s not assert bad intentions) it limits the supply of ‘authentic’ African art to the market and such increases prices. After all, the Mona Lisa is not only so valuabe because it is, by cultural consent, considered a master piece but also because there is only one ‘authentic’ Mona Lisa and da Vinic will never be able to produce another one. Even more so as missionaries and zealous converts to Christianity and/or Islam destroyed/destroy objects associated with localised religious practices, now considered witchcraft. And, as potential producers get increasingly recruited to Christianity and Islam. (Though, does African art produced for and used in an African Christian context qualify as ‘authentic’ African art by Schaedler’s standards?) Worse, in the process – another side affect – it excludes the majority of contemporary artists from a rather profitable section of the (international) art market.

… … …

Well, and now, if you feel ready to face the African art crowds, here’s the quiz that originally inspired these rumblings: Authentic tribal art or not?? (not sure, whether you need to be logged into Facebook to access this) And if you want to add some extra twist to check whether you can actually identify where the pieces come from … and then, let’s discuss my issues with these (so-called) tribal labels (or the term tribal, let alone primitive art) another time, because – you might have guessed it: I have serious issues here … … …


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