The definition of art is something that has widely been discussed and debated over time. Correspondingly, this question of, “what is art?” can also be applied to specific regions and cultures. In the article African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir (1992) examined the view of African Art in relation to how it is perceived as art by a variety of sources. Kasfir (1992) addressed the many components that have merged to compose and create the meaning for African art, which has taken place over an extensive period of time.
Likewise, Kasfir (1992) also addressed aspects of how cultural authenticity is determined.
The meaning of African art, as proposed by Kasfir (1992), is created by a range of sources. For example, the meaning of African art can be influenced by the culture that produced it, the purpose it was made for, the collectors who collect it, curators who display it, and critics who evaluate it (Kasfir, 1992). Because there are so many variables involved in the creation of African art, it has become especially difficult to distinguish its true meaning.
Kasfir (1992) stated that African items were not considered “art” until the twentieth century, after Western museums began prizing artifacts of natural and exotic history. This being stated, if African artifacts were not labeled as “art” until the twentieth century, what initiated the notion that they really were artworks? Kasfir proposed that the increase of Western influence began to skew the “meaning” of African art; practical items that were never intended to be art were suddenly being valued by foreigners, which spawned a market for their reproduction, solely for commercial consumption.
Sometimes labeled as “tourist art”, art began being made in a way that would be the most profitable.
However, despite the heavy influence of foreign consumption of African art, it is also argued that African traditions have been sustained in art, despite the purpose it was made for (Kasfir, 1992). Kasfir (1992) explained how Maconde carvers distinguish themselves as “artists”, and cannot be commissioned to create their works. The Maconde are evidently not swayed by the financial offers that tourist art could bring, but rather strengthened their self-perception (Kasfir, 1992). The Maconde carried out traditions in their art making- such as creating ritual masks- but at the same time, still sold their carvings to foreigners. This combination of influences has merged to impact what the true perception of African art is. Yet, Kasfir (1992) stressed that it is important to try and consider the perspective of those who have made the art, and not of those who purchase or collect it.
Corresponding, cultural authenticity is another aspect of African art that has been in debate. As previously mentioned, many variables, such as foreign consumption and collection, have shaped the meaning for African Art. These influences also create difficulty in determining its authenticity. For example, Kasfir (1992) noted that “authenticity” can be classified according to a collector’s taste: if collectors are seeking art of a particular style, which to them, is deemed “authentic”, is it really so? Consequently, there have been cases where art was made to reflect a certain time period in order to be an “authentic antique” (which were highly sought after), even though they were not actually created during that time. The “client-drive” art market shifted what was actually authentic and what was not. The market for foreign consumption also preferred art when an artist was not credited for the piece; this made the work “more primitive” and mysterious, which made the piece seem like it was created from a culture as a whole- not from an individual. By not wanting to acknowledge an artist, Kasfir (1992) stated, “it is not knowledge but ignorance of the subject that ensures its authenticity.” Comparable to the concept of the meaning of African art, the authenticity of it should be considered in such a way that combines aspects of outer influences with its reality. Viewers should not heavily focus on their perception of what African art should be, but rather how it really is and was created. The artists who create the art are still “real”, and the traditions, beliefs, and background they hold are as well. With this in mind, it is not justifiable to make a fixed definition of what “authentic” African art is, along with its meaning. The numerous factors that have gone into its evolution should be considered.