Using the conception of African ‘tourist art’ as the primary focus of my analysis, I will attempt to examine the notion of authenticity that distinguishes African ‘traditional art’ from ‘tourists art’ and argue that this categorization of levels of authenticity is nothing more than western construction of a romanticized pre-colonial Africa.
The summer of 2008, I embarked on my first vacation alone to South Africa. After spending 10 glorious days exploring the country, I ended my trip like any tourist would and headed to the flea market to purchase an object to commemorate my trip. My object was purchased at Burma Lake Flea Market, one of the largest flea markets in South Africa where vendors sell a variety of arts and crafts, furniture, clothing etc.
This painting is a familiar image of an African woman carrying her child on her back with a jug on her head; there are also two jugs in front of her. Patterns of triangles and diamonds colored in shades of brown border the black canvas. While brighter colors of blue, green, red and beige are used to paint the woman’s outfit, the cloth to wrap the baby on her back and her headscarf.
When I purchased my painting, I was not particularly looking for anything ‘traditional’ rather simply something I thought looked ‘cool’. However, after thinking about this essay, I realized I did purchased what I perceived to be ‘traditionally African’ at that time and was drawn to this particular overtly African painting.
In addition, the notion of authenticity only came up two years after my trip when a conservation with a friend led to the legitimacy of my object and questioned if I got ripped off buying one of those ‘fakes’ from the market. During discussions in this classroom, ‘authenticity’ came up again and it made me curious to find out how this concept emerged and how it continues to dominate our perceptions of objects and its value. So much so that it has defined boundaries that elevates some objects as art and dismiss others such as my object to be mere ‘tourist art’.
Hence, this essay will attempt to challenge the notion of authenticity through the analysis of ‘tourist art’. I will discuss the emergence of ‘tourist art’ and attempt to comprehend the production of categories within this framework from ‘authentic’ to ‘ fake’ objects. To illustrate this, I will discuss the role and impact of several actors that include colonial animateurs, artists, middlemen and tourists. In addition, I will draw comparisons in the manipulation and reinvention of meaning in both African art displayed in galleries and ‘tourists art’ sold in flea markets; two supposedly distinct categories of art objects.
The emergence of ‘Tourist art’
‘Tourist art’ is categorized as a commodity made by the artist/producer for an outside consumer and it involves ‘ the diversion of commodities from their predestined paths’, hence transforming utilitarian objects into artwork (Haute 2008, 24).
There is no doubt that the mechanisms of ‘demand and supply’ play an important role in the production of ‘tourist art’. However, it only serves as part of the explanation in the development of the tourist market in Africa (Horner 1993, 52).
In ‘ Tourist art in African before Tourism’, Alice E. Horner states that since the relatively stable conditions in the aftermath of World War I, colonial administrators and other western expatriates in Africa have already demonstrated interest in the conservation of deteriorating artistic traditions in Africa; of which they assumed the role of an animateur( 1993,54). An animateur is defined as a ‘reviver of the indigenous art form’ that is also claimed to be responsible for the exposure of ethnic art and artists to the western dominated world. Although animateurs varied in nationality and interests, they were bound by three common characteristics: the preservation of the perceived disintegration of traditional arts and crafts, an outsider status, and access to non-local knowledge and resources essential to production and marketing (Horner 1993, 54).
It is interesting to note that colonial anumatuers showed invested interest in more secular pieces such as utilitarian mementos and jewelry and promoted materials that fostered craftsmanship. For instance, wood sculptures became increasingly popular as it fueled the imagination of early modern artists. In addition, wood was a familiar medium in the western definition of art and its perceived religious representation resonated with the exotic, non-western stereotype (Horner 1993, 61). As Balandier aptly state “ We invest them [African objects divorced from their cultural context] with meanings which satisfy us at small cost to ourselves; they become symbols of savagery, images of perfect craftsmanship or excuses for inner liberation (1966:100)
The impact of animateurs was critical and widespread. The reasons behind their concerns however are still very much debatable. On the one hand, some academics claim that the motivation of animateurs derived from a sense of ‘ imperialist nostalgia’, where ‘ people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed (Horner 1993, 57). An attempt to salvage whatever is left of what they perceived existed before their arrival.
While on the other hand, others state that the most radical animateur efforts of the revival of African art came in the disguise of colonial expositions. During the 19th century, colonial expositions of African art were a mix of economic and propaganda-type goals primarily aimed to increase colonial influence; it used Africa’s material culture to expose this ‘exotic’ culture to the west. As a result, by the 20th century, the production of African art had been completely transformed with art specifically produced for fairs in France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain and the USA (Horner 1993, 57).
Hence, the colonial period not only involved the revival efforts of arts and craft by animateurs but also impacted the production and marketing areas in Africa to provide for a global demand (Horner 1993, 58).
African ‘tourists art’: A product of the postcolonial exotic.
Although there is evidence of travels taken by colonial administrators to different towns and areas for vacation and the exchange of objects from local craftsman, it is claimed that mass tourism is more of a post- WWII phenomenon. The term ‘ tourist art’ was not popularized until the 50s and 60s and it was recognized to represent a particular category of objects (Horner 1993, 59).
However, considering the significant impact of colonialism on African art, it is claimed that there is a wider range of objects that can be included under that category since many other objects were already purchased by colonial officers who were not yet labeled ‘tourists’ nor were the objects categorized as ‘tourist art’ (Horner 1993, 60).
As part of the colonial imperialistic regime, the colonial rulers forcefully inhibited pre-colonial culture to propel assimilation while contributing to new art forms( Haute 2008, 22) The interaction between African artists and Europeans paved the creation for a new market where new meanings were produced through the interaction between artists and consumers ‘in accordance to their perceptions of each other’s needs, desires and intentions’ ( Schildkrout 1999, 203). This implies that African artists had to modify their craft early on and also suggests that the African artworks perceived to be traditional were in fact highly influenced by colonialism and thus have been compounded (Haute 2008, 22).
The notion of authenticity:
The notion of authenticity essentially tries to encapsulate the highest form of aesthetic expression of an object that has been used by the same society and is unaffected by colonial rule(Haute 2008, 23). This conception of authenticity is highly problematic and is often contested for it contradicts the discourse of cultural appropriation and colonial influence in the early stages of African and colonial interactions. As discussed above, colonial rule had an immense impact on African art and its aesthetics. Hence, the conception of authenticity is purely a western production which dictates the standards of what is authentic and what is not (Haute 2008, 23).
Thus the idea that traditional African art came from a ‘timeless past’ is nothing but a romanticized myth. Due to the fact that ‘authenticity’ relies so heavily on the premise of a romanticized pre-colonial past, it provides westerners with immense power. It enables them to limit and disregard the authenticity of any form of African art and set categories of value. Consequently, this has categorized ‘tourist art’ as the most inauthentic and contaminated form of African art( Haute 2008, 23).
Reinventing meaning in objects
With objects, and in this case, ‘tourist art’; the meaning of an object is transformative. Once an object is taken out of its original context, its meaning is believe to be removed and hence enable consumers to create meanings for the object rather than the culture or artists that produced it(Haute 2008, 24). Like my ‘tourist art’, once the object is with me outside the context of South Africa, it adopts a new meaning of being a souvenir to mark a great holiday and through hanging in my home, a cool decorative piece. It’s function of enhancing the aesthetics of my home further heightens the acknowledgement of it as a piece of artwork (Haute 2008, 24). In addition, especially for tourists, the artwork immortalizes the exotic ‘other’ who exists primarily in one’s imagination (Haute 2008, 24).
Structure of ‘Tourist art’ in four types of art markets
It is important to keep in mind that the concept of aesthetics in African ‘tourist art’ is culturally relative and influenced by conditions under which the art form was produced.
The relationship between production and consumption in tourist art exists in four types of art markets: a) the village market b) the urban market c) the curio trade 4) galleries used by popular artists. The village market functions as an ecosystem for tourists art while the village market functions as a site where carvers, potters and painters produce on order in an irregular basis drawing on designs and patterns developed in the village setting with the services of middlemen for circulation (Rosette 1986,43).
Curio trade, on the other hand determines the rate of ‘tourist art’ production where the labor can be complex and the production rate high. Lastly, art galleries that display objects of high quality and limit quantity produced by highly skilled artists. In each site, the quality of the artwork is directly impacted by the structure of the market and the type of consumer it attracts (Rosette 1986, 44).
To get an insight on the perspective of the artists, I refer to Paula Ben-Amos (1976:327) study on Nigeria’s Ebony carver. Amos discovered that new modern Nigerian ebony carvers who enter the commercial trade come in with a mentality to produce whatever sells well in the tourist market disregarding the pride that comes with understanding traditional patterns (1976:327). Amos states that this mentality is evident across Africa and many carvers are financially motivated by the demand westerners’ pose ( Rosette 1986, 45)
Thus, this brings forth three critical features in the reconstruction of African artists in the commercial sector: 1) knowledge of tradition styles and techniques 2) a mindful attempt to alter styles to appeal to a broader, western audience 3) a relationship between suppliers and the source of commercial demand (Rosette 1986, 45). These three factors highlight the importance of aesthetics and quality in art as being a direct response to the structure of the art market and its demands. The consumer connection is evident through the quantity of the production, the quality of craftsmanship and the aesthetic quality of the final product (Rosette1986,45). Hence, it is evident that “the production of ‘tourist art ‘is a cultural formulation” that functions as a symbol of sights and events of other cultural themes(Rosette 1986, 55).
Therefore the perception comes across from both directions, from the consumers and artists’ point of view. It is the perceived demand that directs the artists to reproduce those perceptions and the consumer’s perception of African culture to alter the art forms. Having said that, ‘tourists art’ is a malleable cultural expression that shows both ambiguities and contradictions in its mix of universal charm with contemporary artistic work (Rosette 1986, 57). Furthermore, it is evident that this has evolved to be a notable reflection of interaction between African markets and the global economy (Rosette 1986, 57).
Going behind the scenes: The artists
A single male artist or a group of artists working in a workshop- type environment usually creates the production of African ‘tourist art’; it is said that sculpture-producing regions of West and Central Africa produce for both the local and global community. The most skilled carvers will carve for prestigious locals and foreign dealers whereas lower skilled carvers will supply to the tourist market (Haute 2008, 26).
When artists replicate traditional art forms for income, his skills is not considered to be a part of any creative nature of self-expression but rather a skill necessary to live and improve one’s financial standings in poverty-stricken communities (Haute 2008, 27) . In addition, creativity might be suppressed or discouraged because novelty artworks rarely appeal to tourists and the artists might be marked as an amateur for his inability to copy traditional artworks. As a result of global market forces and the western notion of authenticity, many artworks are in fact imitations and forms of repetition (Haute 2008, 27).
The repetition of traditional art forms can be also interpreted as a way for artists to identify or reconnect with their African roots. From this perspective, even though producing art forms is a livelihood, the continuous sculpting of traditional pieces sustains a sculptural tradition passed down from the past generations and thus ensures the preservation of this art-making skill( Haute 2008,27).
Since artists stick to the traditions that characterize the aesthetics of the object, it also expresses a specific local style and culture. As a result, repetition not only sustains the cultural existence that propels the production of art for tourist markets but also shows reconstruction in the midst of the pressure of assimilate and the threat of losing one’s culture ( Haute 2008,27). Hence, from this standpoint, the production of artwork seems successful in preserving one’s culture and profiting from the expectation of the international market that demands an artwork to display an aspect of primal, African-ness and exoticness (Haute 2008, 27).
The middleman, the translator
The person that has direct contact with the consumer is rarely the artist but rather than middleman; who is responsible for the distribution of the art works. It is the African middleman or trader that decides what artworks is displayed in the market and exposed to the consumer. The middleman’s role mediates between the artists and the consumer and his impact can go as far as stimulating the continued production of ‘tourist art’ in Africa (Haute 2008, 28).
South Africa has emerged as one of the most popular tourist destination in Africa and has attracted many foreign traders to its markets to sell its merchandise. It’s tourist markets have increased exponentially in size and volume over the years (Haute 2008, 28). Hence, it is common to hear that dealers focus their sales in South Africa because of their high tourists numbers. Middlemen buy artwork from West and Central Africa and transport them by air to South Africa for sale. These items are usually bought from small villages and made according to traditional patterns( Haute 2008, 29). These objects are often still used in cultural customs such as weddings, funerals or rituals, thus partly accounts for its continued production. The sale of artworks provides small villages with both an extra income and the preservation of their traditions (Haute 2008, 29).
Once the middleman buys his goods, he markets them in three ways through the presentation, description and alternation of the objects. The presentation of the objects is important and middlemen tend to display the mass produced copies in a crowded, random manner while setting up the more costly, ‘authentic’ objects in a more spacious and noticeable way (Haute 2008, 31).
An approach use by middlemen is flattery; showering praise to his clients who have the ability to distinguish valuable, old objects from a new replications. This is an effective tool as it gives the consumer the impression that he/she has chanced upon something of great value enabling the middleman to up his price and make larger profits (Haute 2008, 32).
In the description of the object, the trader is in the position of power and knowledge and is able to create a narrative for the consumer in order to authenticate the object. The trader will reveal the history of the object referring to its country of origin and ethnic group and provides the cultural meaning and context behind the object (Haute 2008, 33). Some scholars have claimed that these stories are merely methods to entice to trick consumers into buying something. Having said that, we are reminded about the transformative ability of objects as discussed above; the middleman like colonials animateurs before him reinvents the meaning of the object and narrates stories to appeal to western taste and their African fascination. Thus the middleman not only physically transports the objects from small villages to mass markets to tourists but also exchanges information – “ mediating, modifying, and commenting on the broad spectrum of cultural knowledge’ (Haute 2008, 33).
In this situation, the middleman understands his role and positions himself as both the native informant for his African origins and the translator for foreigners all over the world. Apart from mediation, the middleman eroticizes the object to make the cultural difference appeal to the global market. He first selects objects that he thinks will appeal to the mass market, objects that are perceived to represent pre-colonial African traditions. Then, he manipulates the object and refers to it as the marker of symbolic value originated from indigenous, primitive systems. These strategies all account to add value to the object and play to ‘the politics of authenticity and authentication’ (Haute 2008, 33).
Furthermore, the middleman takes advantage of the imbalance of knowledge between himself and the consumer through story telling. This might translate as an act of manipulation for financial gain or be interpreted as an act of ‘self-presentation by people subjected first to colonial domination and then to capitalist commoditization’. For this reason, the middlemen’s roles like the artists who produce replicas indirectly support the preservation of African traditions and cultures (Haute 2008, 33).
‘Authentic’ versus ‘Fake’: Who gives African art meaning?
Since we have discussed the notion of authenticity and drawn similarities between contemporary middlemen and colonial animateurs, I would like to challenge the supposed differences between African art bought by collectors and ‘tourist art’.
Many have defined ‘tourist art ‘ as art produced by Africans intended for an external market and is characterized by a combination of styles. Whereas ‘Traditional art ‘is assumed to exist in the pre-colonial period by Africans and considered to possess cultural purity ( Haute 2008,22) Thus, it is apparent that there is a clear distinction between both terms. However, as shown above, this is a highly problematic for ‘tourist art’ came into existence soon after the earliest interaction between the colonizer and the Africans(Haute 2008, 22).
Today, it is common to find objects opposite of ‘authentic’ to be labeled as ‘fakes’, ‘copies’, and ‘replications’. However, after the analysis of Africa’s colonial history and the realities of ‘authenticity’, this begs the reevaluation of objects opposite of ‘authentic’.
Below I discuss several perspectives of replications from an artist’s point of view and question if these objects are really different from ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ African art.
From an artist’s perspective, the lines of ‘authenticity’ are often blurred and there are no clear rules to categorize what can be deemed ‘authentic’ or ‘fake’. On the one case, the adoption of a ‘tribal’ technique used from one artist to another making a replica is accepted to be part of traditional art while an artist using another tribal style different from his own is considered to be ‘fake’ because of its perceived intention is to deceive and trick the consumer. Another claim for an item to be ‘fake’ is when a carver artificially ages an object. From this, the intentions behind the production of an art piece seem to be the deciding factor of what is authentic and valuable and what is not ( Kasfir 1992, 45) .
There is also a difference in attitude towards art in western and African cultures. Foreign collectors tend to value objects that are old while most Africans see it as a preference to ‘antiques’ and as a result see no wrong in replicating them (Kasfir 1992, 45). Thus, this standard often does not translate to African artists. For example, Asante Carvers have long since copied successful forms of artwork not only for economic benefits but also to legitimatize and preserve the skill of their forefathers or pay homage to follow counterparts. Imitating a popular model is considered the highest flattery to the original artists and not considered to be deceptive (Kasfir 1992,45).
Colonial rule has had such a significant impact on African art and its production that its legacy is still very much evident in the present state of tourist markets. I feel that African art displayed in galleries are no different from art sold in flea markets. For both objects have been subjected to colonial manipulation and its meanings reinvented to satisfy the consumer’s fantasy; be it a tourists or a gallery owner. To a certain extent, I think that both categories can be considered one in the same that been separated because of arbitrary categorization set by western society.
As I have discussed, the fundamental notion of a ‘traditional society’ that produces ‘ traditional art’ of a pre-colonial Africa is dominated by an understanding of Africa as ‘ relatively isolated, internally coherent and highly integrated’; an ideal that has permeated through distinction between ‘authenticity’ and ‘fakes’ in African art (Kasfir 1992, 41).
The other fiction involves the stagnant nature of the artistic production of artworks that neither its pattern nor function has changed since its pre-colonial period. Thus it is important to distinguish that it is not colonial contamination but rather western taste that have decided ‘what is art and what is merely ethnographic specimen’ (Kasfir 1992, 42).
In addition, it is important to note that Africa has had a long history. Hence, to choose pre-colonial rule as a point of traditional and authentic art and the aftermath as a contamination due to contact with westerners is not only arbitrary but also very telling of the production of ‘authenticity’ and how it deems whatever comes afterward as ‘less relevant and less authentic’ (Kasfir 1992, 43). From the western perspective, inauthentic objects lack integrity. Hence, it implies that non-traditional artists are detached from culture unlike traditional artists thus deeming the objects they produce unworthy to be displayed in a gallery or museum (Kasfir 1992, 45).
Furthermore, Kasfir states that there is often a sense of anonymity when it concerns African artists to the extent that upholding anonymity has become a prerequisite to define traditional art (1992, 44). It is more common to associate the ‘artist as simply bound to and by tradition’, for identifying the artists erases mystery and no longer sustains the exotic fantasy (Kasfir 1992,44). This division between artists and collectors allows dealers or collectors to reinvent the object as an object of higher value. In this sense, it can be claimed that western connoisseurs function as the link to transform an object from an artifact to art (Kasfir 1992, 44). For this reason, it is ironic that it is the lack of knowledge of the object that verifies the authenticity since there is such as cultural distance between the marker and the collector. Therefore, it is solely the collectors that construct its meaning using one artist’s work to represent a whole culture that is more often than not presume to be homogenous (Kasfir 1992, 44).
Through this essay, I have attempted to demonstrate the extensive impact and legacy of animateurs in our contemporary markets (Horner 1993,55).
In addition, draw similarities between the middlemen and modern connoisseurs to colonial animateurs before them that play an important role in the manipulation of objects to fulfill the western’s preconception of authenticity ( Stenier 1995, 152) .
Furthermore, to consider the importance of the long history of production of artwork as a means of livelihood for Africans and its modification of objects since its pre-colonial patron-client interactions made to please customers. Thus, the attitude of producing what westerners want is not something we should view as being less worthy or opportunistic in nature compared to the past (Kasfir 1992,45).
In conclusion, after examining this flawed conception of authenticity, the best approach is to abandon this narrow-minded comprehension since it is varied and complex. Moreover, considering the transformative ability of objects, our conception of authenticity and value should not draw the line at misconstrued notions of what is ‘traditional’.
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