Sunday, July 30, 2006

On Authenticity, Antiquity and Aesthetics

The most recent edition of African Arts magazine, published by the James S. Coleman African Studies Center, UCLA International Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, Lorenz Homberger and Christine Steizig comment on an exhibition – With the Eyes of an Aesthete: Art from Gabon – at the Volkerkundemuseum der Josefine und Eduard von Portheim-Stiffung in Heidelberg, Germany. They wrote, “…many of the objects shown in Heidelberg are contemporary reproductions and therefore highly problematic to the trained eye. However, a visitor or reader unencumbered by such prior knowledge cannot recognize this.”

The article, which I encourage you to read, goes on to complain that the presence of reproductions constitutes a threat to the field of African art, particularly when presented in art museums, where they might be construed as “authentic antique originals” or, at least, take on the halo of legitimacy from their association with a museum.

Whenever this subject arises, as it does often in at least one African Art discussion group on the internet, I always wonder if there is no place in the world of African art for extraordinarily produced carvings that are less than 50 years old; must the field be limited only to art that can be proven to be antique and “original”?

And what about the proof? Provenance is required to establish the ownership trail back to its original source. Yet, provenances are only pieces of paper and they can be as authentic or false as the persons who present them.

But, in the matter of aesthetics, does it matter if a carving or mask has no provenance but represents an outstanding example of a genre and a true pleasure to eye? Is such an item a “fake”, a favorite term of the “cogniscenti” when referring to such pieces, if they are not presented as antique or valued at the level of pieces proven to have been collected in the 1800s.

Is it not possible to treasure and love and take great pleasure from such pieces regardless of the “authenticity” placed on them by third parties, who frequently have their own egocentric or economic interests in similar pieces.

This is not presented as a defense of “fakes” when they are presented as something they are not. If, however, they are presented fairly, accurately as to provenance and age, and with a money-back return privilege, it seems to me to be reasonable to have and support a market in such items – at prices that are appropriate for the quality, authenticity and age of the item. And art museums would seem to be an acceptable venue for exhibiting them.

What do you think?

Tribal Artery is the periodic blog of Aboriginals: Art of the First Person, a tribal art dealer with web sites at for African, Australian, Navajo folk art and Arctic art; for Native American jewelry; for Native American pottery and for animal fetish carvings from Zuni, Cochiti, Navajo and San Felipe. Thank you for your attention and interest.

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