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Fwd: [African_Arts] Quick thought on authenticity

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  • rpearsonpeaol
    One of these two. ____________________________________ From: RPearsonPE@aol.com To: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com Sent: 8/4/2013 2:20:03 P.M. Mountain Daylight
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 4, 2013
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      From JM:
      "It seems to me that one possible solution to this problem might be to look more closely at the objects themselves, in the same meticulous way that historians of Western art do as a matter of course with the works they study. Since these are indeed works by individual artists, why don’t we analyze them in those terms? Scholars who specialize in the art of various African ethnic groups or regions often learn how to recognize individual artists, simply by virtue of looking closely at many objects. Perhaps *that* should be the lens we use to assess which works of art contribute to our historical understanding of artistic production in a given place at a given time – are “authentic” – and which do not – are “fake”? "
      Do Africans care about the 'who, name, country, village' that made a piece, or the piece itself ? the artists signature on art is more of a western requirement to know what is 'good' (would a Picasso w/o his signature be worth anything ?).
      I frankly do not care what African made a piece if the piece is good, but will point out that collectors care if being able to attribute more than one piece to a maker, and then invent the 'Master of Blarney' title to increase the potential 'worth' to a new buyer, is the base for sudden interest in identification.
      As for revisiting these questions, it may be more collectors are questioning the 'expertise of experts' trying to increase the value of their collections with the old song of age/use/provenance/ & Authenticity. That and the chance of seeing 'many objects' by a single person is remote.
      bob

      Hi Everyone –

      Ah yes, the authenticity discussion again!I’ve now been in African Art internet discussion groups for about a decade, and it amazes me how the same issues come around again and again.Now I understand why the old-salt collectors, back in 2003, tended to act dismissive.These issues have been with us for quite some time – in their current form, at least since the late 60s – and we aren’t any closer to resolving them now than we were then.Hashing through the debate yet another time can feel like being trapped on a hamster-wheel, though I’ll admit that in my opinion the sheer intractability of the problem is reason to look at it closely – why can’t we resolve this?*That* is an interesting and I think quite revealing question to answer.� Also, the contributions this time around have been quite insightful and a pleasure to read.

      Anyway, I’ve already wrestled with this issue a lot in this group, and I’m busy teaching a summer course at the moment, so I don’t have time to develop a detailed response to all the good posts by Richard, Lou, Peter, Lee, Ed and others, but I did want to contribute a little something to the discussion, in the form of a complicating example.

      A few months ago, I was able to find an Akuaba figure that a British botanist purchased from the sculptor Osei Bonsu, in Ghana, as a souvenir, sometime in the 1930s.It has been given a nice uniform, shiny finish, and has obviously seen no use whatsoever.It is also formally *very* similar to a second Akuaba figure, illustrated in Doran Ross’ book “Akua’s Child.” The illustrated example has quite clearly seen extensive use.� Here are images of the two figures:

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/African_Arts/photos/album/2105321204/pic/list

      Looking at the two pieces in the way Western art historians look at paintings or sculpture, it’s fairly clear that they are by the same person.One is not a “copy” of the other.Both are original works, made with what I’d guess are very similar aesthetic concerns and intentions.Details such as the rendering of the ears, the nostrils, eyelids, etc., are extremely similar in the two pieces.At the same time, one was sold to a foreign visitor, and the other was used in-culture.Does that mean the one sold to the visitor is “fake”?It is, after all, by the same artist, a figure known by name, with a characteristic style and solid reputation among scholars of African art history.

      If we’re trying to shift away from the primitivist assumption that all traditional African sculpture is the anonymous product of a culture’s “collective mentality,” and instead want to acknowledge that these are works by individual people responding to specific circumstances, doesn’t it become counterproductive to arbitrarily exclude some portion of an artist’s work from his oeuvre simply because of who happened to buy it?It would be like disqualifying all Monets purchased by American collectors rather than French ones, because the Americans were “outsiders.”

      It seems to me that one possible solution to this problem might be to look more closely at the objects themselves, in the same meticulous way that historians of Western art do as a matter of course with the works they study.Since these are indeed works by individual artists, why don’t we analyze them in those terms? Scholars who specialize in the art of various African ethnic groups or regions often learn how to recognize individual artists, simply by virtue of looking closely at many objects.Perhaps *that* should be the lens we use to assess which works of art contribute to our historical understanding of artistic production in a given place at a given time – are “authentic” – and which do not – are “fake”?

      John Monroe

    • Monroe, John W [HIST]
      In response to my post, Bob made some points that I d like to respond to: First: Do Africans care about the who, name, country, village that made a piece,
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 4, 2013
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        In response to my post, Bob made some points that I'd like to respond to:

        First: "Do Africans care about the 'who, name, country, village' that made a piece, or the piece itself ? the artists signature on art is more of a western requirement to know what is 'good' (would a Picasso w/o his signature be worth anything ?)."

        I think the answer to this question is "it depends."  There is certainly a large literature out there indicating that in many West African cultures, certain sculptors acquire local reputations for their ability, and their works are recognized as such by others, even if they are not actually signed.  There is a huge literature on Yoruba art, in particular, that shows this to be true.  In a similar way, Ruth Phillips found that Mende people remembered the makers of their masks -- particularly the ones they really liked.  Sidney Kasfir found the same thing with the Idoma and other peoples in the Lower Benue River region. 
        Valuing the way in which an individual "hand" manifests itself in a work of art, then, is perhaps not as exclusively Western as we've tended to assume.

        Second: "
        I frankly do not care what African made a piece if the piece is good, but will point out that collectors care if being able to attribute more than one piece to a maker, and then invent the 'Master of Blarney' title to increase the potential 'worth' to a new buyer, is the base for sudden interest in identification."

        Here, we get to Lou's post, with which I strongly agree.  He's right: "authenticity," "provenance" and "age" (I think more or less in that order) are the mechanisms by which an African object's rarity, and consequent value in the market, is established.  The way Western culture works, market value and aesthetic value tend to be correlated, although of course the relation is complex.

        Identifying a work with a particular artist is by no means an end run around this fact of Western cultural life.  Attribution is also, as Bob says, a way of creating rarity, and therefore value.  That does not, however, mean that such attributions are always wrong, as he implies.  On the contrary: there does, for instance, actually seem to have been a guy who was in fact "The Buli Master," and his handiwork is easy to identify.  There are many others: not just Yoruba sculptors, though the literature on individual styles is most highly-developed there, but also Igbo sculptors, Mende ones, Pende ones, Baule ones, Asante ones, and so on.  Identifying individual artists creates a whole new can of worms, value-wise -- it reduces the value of some pieces by "outing" them as newer than previously thought, even as it increases the value of others -- but it has the advantage of treating African art on equal terms with Western art, which we authenticate by paying close attention to the facture of a given object.  This is also a much more reliable way to determine if the piece actually is from when and where we think it is -- given the ease with which patinas can be worked up or "restored," as Skip notes.

        Finally: "
        the chance of seeing 'many objects' by a single person is remote."

        Once again, I have to disagree.  Actually, if you think about the numbers, the chance is pretty good, if that single person does a lot of systematic looking.  The pieces collectors of traditional African art covet come from a pretty short time-span -- say 1890-1950.  A little over half a century.  And it's not like there have ever been huge nubmers of sculptors out there producing things in West Africa.  While every culture solves this problem differently, in many, sculpting is like it is in the West: a special talent or vocation that not everyone has.  So statistically, it makes sense that works by the same person would come up multiple times -- especially in more urbanized or court-centered cultures, where you're more likely to find people able to pursue sculpting as their primary way of making a living, or in the case of object-types typically produced in large numbers, such as Ibejis.  This isn't always true, of course, but I suspect it's more often true than current conventional wisdom would lead us to believe.  Fortunately, this can be confirmed to some degree just by looking at the objects themselves, and seeing the similarities when they appear.

        John Monroe





         

        From: African_Arts@yahoogroups.com [African_Arts@yahoogroups.com] on behalf of RPearsonpe@... [RPearsonpe@...]
        Sent: Sunday, August 04, 2013 5:33 PM
        To: african_arts@yahoogroups.com
        Subject: Fwd: [African_Arts] Quick thought on authenticity

         


        From JM:
        "It seems to me that one possible solution to this problem might be to look more closely at the objects themselves, in the same meticulous way that historians of Western art do as a matter of course with the works they study. Since these are indeed works by individual artists, why don’t we analyze them in those terms? Scholars who specialize in the art of various African ethnic groups or regions often learn how to recognize individual artists, simply by virtue of looking closely at many objects. Perhaps *that* should be the lens we use to assess which works of art contribute to our historical understanding of artistic production in a given place at a given time – are “authentic” – and which do not – are “fake”? "
        Do Africans care about the 'who, name, country, village' that made a piece, or the piece itself ? the artists signature on art is more of a western requirement to know what is 'good' (would a Picasso w/o his signature be worth anything ?).
        I frankly do not care what African made a piece if the piece is good, but will point out that collectors care if being able to attribute more than one piece to a maker, and then invent the 'Master of Blarney' title to increase the potential 'worth' to a new buyer, is the base for sudden interest in identification.
        As for revisiting these questions, it may be more collectors are questioning the 'expertise of experts' trying to increase the value of their collections with the old song of age/use/provenance/ Authenticity. That and the chance of seeing 'many objects' by a single person is remote.
        bob

        Hi Everyone –

        Ah yes, the authenticity discussion again!I’ve now been in African Art internet discussion groups for about a decade, and it amazes me how the same issues come around again and again.Now I understand why the old-salt collectors, back in 2003, tended to act dismissive.These issues have been with us for quite some time – in their current form, at least since the late 60s – and we aren’t any closer to resolving them now than we were then.Hashing through the debate yet another time can feel like being trapped on a hamster-wheel, though I’ll admit that in my opinion the sheer intractability of the problem is reason to look at it closely – why can’t we resolve this?*That* is an interesting and I think quite revealing question to answer.� Also, the contributions this time around have been quite insightful and a pleasure to read.

        Anyway, I’ve already wrestled with this issue a lot in this group, and I’m busy teaching a summer course at the moment, so I don’t have time to develop a detailed response to all the good posts by Richard, Lou, Peter, Lee, Ed and others, but I did want to contribute a little something to the discussion, in the form of a complicating example.

        A few months ago, I was able to find an Akuaba figure that a British botanist purchased from the sculptor Osei Bonsu, in Ghana, as a souvenir, sometime in the 1930s.It has been given a nice uniform, shiny finish, and has obviously seen no use whatsoever.It is also formally *very* similar to a second Akuaba figure, illustrated in Doran Ross’ book “Akua’s Child.” The illustrated example has quite clearly seen extensive use.� Here are images of the two figures:

        http://groups.yahoo.com/group/African_Arts/photos/album/2105321204/pic/list

        Looking at the two pieces in the way Western art historians look at paintings or sculpture, it’s fairly clear that they are by the same person.One is not a “copy” of the other.Both are original works, made with what I’d guess are very similar aesthetic concerns and intentions.Details such as the rendering of the ears, the nostrils, eyelids, etc., are extremely similar in the two pieces.At the same time, one was sold to a foreign visitor, and the other was used in-culture.Does that mean the one sold to the visitor is “fake”?It is, after all, by the same artist, a figure known by name, with a characteristic style and solid reputation among scholars of African art history.

        If we’re trying to shift away from the primitivist assumption that all traditional African sculpture is the anonymous product of a culture’s “collective mentality,” and instead want to acknowledge that these are works by individual people responding to specific circumstances, doesn’t it become counterproductive to arbitrarily exclude some portion of an artist’s work from his oeuvre simply because of who happened to buy it?It would be like disqualifying all Monets purchased by American collectors rather than French ones, because the Americans were “outsiders.”

        It seems to me that one possible solution to this problem might be to look more closely at the objects themselves, in the same meticulous way that historians of Western art do as a matter of course with the works they study.Since these are indeed works by individual artists, why don’t we analyze them in those terms? Scholars who specialize in the art of various African ethnic groups or regions often learn how to recognize individual artists, simply by virtue of looking closely at many objects.Perhaps *that* should be the lens we use to assess which works of art contribute to our historical understanding of artistic production in a given place at a given time – are “authentic” – and which do not – are “fake”?

        John Monroe

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