Let's Stop Imposing Standards Of Authenticity On African Art

Let's Stop Imposing Standards Of Authenticity On African Art

Because who are we to decide what's authentic?

Let's talk about the term authenticity as it applies to African art. The term authentic is usually only applied to African art if the piece of art in question is anonymous, traditional, and abstracted. However, these qualities reflect the implicit values of the society that designates something as authentic —in this case the oppressive, colonial powers of the West— while they have next to nothing to do with the societies that they have come to represent.

One of these Western values is a teleological belief—that is, the idea that everything moves in a straight line toward a definite end— that imposes a self-centered narrative structure upon the cultures oppressed by Western imperialistic forces. However, this linear narrative, which is assumed in Western culture, is not inherently present in all African cultures. For example, the Yoruba people of Nigeria believe in a more cyclical and transient passing of time and energy, in which our world—the aye – is separated from both the state of transition between worlds and another form of existence that westerners would most comfortably refer to as the afterlife, which Yoruba people call orun. By enforcing a linear narrative and disregarding any other possibilities, Westerners became ignorant to cultures that they did not know enough about and managed to reduce these cultures to plot elements in the grand narrative of civilization’s Western genesis and global spread.

Assumptions like these are acts of purposeful ignorance on the part of the imperial forces in order to keep the colonized cultures from becoming distinct, individualistic, or in any way human; by requiring anonymity from the artists of these cultures, their art becomes a reflection of the collector instead of the creator. This is the ultimate act of cultural appropriation, wherein a culture’s art—which is a physical manifestation of the culture’s values and ideals—loses its ability to do cultural work because it has been taken possession of, refocused, and decontextualized by an alien culture. Through this act, the art becomes less powerful as a tool of cultural progression. Chika Okeke-Agulu echoes this idea in his article “Modern African Art” by asserting that “The notion of artistic freedom was antithetical to the ethos of colonialism” because “modern artistic subjectivity is linked to political independence” which colonizers would have seen as a dangerous tool. Instead, an appropriation of cultural forms took place, leaving in its wake the idea of authenticity as a designation made by the beholder instead of the artist.

By giving themselves authority over the value of African art forms, Western art critics and curators created a dangerous ultimatum for African artists: work toward cultural progress under threat of silence from the international art community, or reproduce the art of your culture’s past as if its present and future were static continuations of what existed when it was first introduced to Western eyes.

This threat of international ignorance was a way of imposing a self-centered narrative structure on African peoples and reducing them to influences on Western artists and their modernist tendencies instead of allowing nonwestern cultures to have their own nonlinear narratives. The continual misunderstanding—or, more aptly, the refusal to attempt an understanding— of African art by Western audiences lead to its stereotyping and a belief by the Western world that African art could only tell one story. The intrusion of a Western structure on African cultures, and with the moment of initial interaction with the colonizers in the climactic position of African cultures’ progressions, it is implied that, from this point on, they will only rot.

Unfortunately for the imperialistic powers, the “traditional African society” that it seeks to conquer does not exist. In fact, it is helpful to query the word ‘traditional’ here, which is a central tenet of so-called authenticity in African art, because it really has very little to do with African society when uttered by Westerners. Tradition from the point of view of its practitioners is timeless and comforting, but the same word coming from an outside perspective becomes almost patronizing by assuming that the way a culture behaved when it was first observed is the only existence it has ever had.

This process of refocusing African art on its Western consumption has required African artists to confront their need to reclaim authenticity. This has resulted in an African modernism that resides outside the Western definition of authentic because, in Okeke’s words, “African modern art does not propose a particular narrative of modernism, as the triumphalist European version did.” As African artists look toward the future of their cultures, they open themselves up to a variety of narrative structures—indigenous and assimilated—that are possible, instead of confining themselves to the decline promised by imperialist constructions. Artists at recently established African art schools—themselves proof of an agency that was impossible under colonial rule—are “concerned with the role of the artist in a culture in transition” according to Okeke, meaning that they have all heard the same message loud and clear: do not succumb to the forced anonymity and teleology of Western thought; rise and fill in the outlines of your own individuality. These students inhale the many influences of their cultures’ pasts and exhale a future of many winding paths, each as authentic as the other. Their reclamation of authenticity is therefore political-literary move toward independence and the right to their own, possibly nonlinear, societal structure.

So we have to stop allowing ignorance and reductivism (and therefore imperialism) to persist. We must educate ourselves and our friends, all the while learning to think with a little more relativism. And we need to seek out a variety of experiences and expressions of those experiences so that we don't limit ourselves to a single, hegemonic narrative. If you haven't already seen Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's wonderful TED talk on the topic, I suggest you start here.

Cover Image Credit: Ashley Malafronte / Ibiyinka Alao

Popular Right Now

I'm The Girl Who'd Rather Raise A Family Than A Feminist Protest Sign

You raise your protest picket signs and I’ll raise my white picket fence.

Social Media feeds are constantly filled with quotes on women's rights, protests with mobs of women, and an array of cleverly worded picket signs.

Good for them, standing up for their beliefs and opinions. Will I be joining my tight-knit family of the same gender?

Nope, no thank you.

Don't get me wrong, I am not going to be oblivious to my history and the advancements that women have fought to achieve. I am aware that the strides made by many women before me have provided us with voting rights, a voice, equality, and equal pay in the workforce.

SEE ALSO: To The Girl Who Would Rather Raise A Family Than A Feminist Protest Sign

For that, I am deeply thankful. But at this day in age, I know more female managers in the workforce than male. I know more women in business than men. I know more female students in STEM programs than male students. So what’s with all the hype? We are girl bosses, we can run the world, we don’t need to fight the system anymore.

Please stop.

Because it is insulting to the rest of us girls who are okay with being homemakers, wives, or stay-at-home moms. It's dividing our sisterhood, and it needs to stop.

All these protests and strong statements make us feel like now we HAVE to obtain a power position in our career. It's our rightful duty to our sisters. And if we do not, we are a disappointment to the gender and it makes us look weak.

Weak to the point where I feel ashamed to say to a friend “I want to be a stay at home mom someday.” Then have them look at me like I must have been brain-washed by a man because that can be the only explanation. I'm tired of feeling belittled for being a traditionalist.


Because why should I feel bad for wanting to create a comfortable home for my future family, cooking for my husband, being a soccer mom, keeping my house tidy? Because honestly, I cannot wait.

I will have no problem taking my future husband’s last name, and following his lead.

The Bible appoints men to be the head of a family, and for wives to submit to their husbands. (This can be interpreted in so many ways, so don't get your panties in a bunch at the word “submit”). God specifically made women to be gentle and caring, and we should not be afraid to embrace that. God created men to be leaders with the strength to carry the weight of a family.

However, in no way does this mean that the roles cannot be flipped. If you want to take on the responsibility, by all means, you go girl. But for me personally? I'm sensitive, I cry during horror movies, I'm afraid of basements and dark rooms. I, in no way, am strong enough to take on the tasks that men have been appointed to. And I'm okay with that.

So please, let me look forward to baking cookies for bake sales and driving a mom car.

And I'll support you in your endeavors and climb to the top of the corporate ladder. It doesn't matter what side you are on as long as we support each other, because we all need some girl power.

Cover Image Credit: Unsplash

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

The Gillette Controversy: Should Companies Share Their Views?

"We Believe: The Best Men Can Be" by Gillette is about creating a conversation, whether you agree with the commercial or not.


We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film) www.youtube.com

January 13, 2019, Gillette released a commercial that takes a new focus on their tagline "The Best a Man Can Get." The commercial weighs in on the Me Too movement and showcases different moments of toxic masculinity.

These moments include boys bullying another boy through cyberbullying, two young boys beating each other up while fathers are watching them saying that "boys will be boys", a set of a 1950s sitcom where a man grabs his maids butt to which the audience is encouraged to applause and laugh at his act, and a businessman laughing at his female colleague's statement and then says to the other male colleagues, "What I actually think she means…"

A voiceover in the ad says, "Is this the best a man can get? Is it? We can't hide from it, it's been going on far too long. We can't laugh it off, making the same old excuses. But something finally changed [implying the Me Too movement and people speaking up], and there will be no going back..."

The commercial then shifts to showing a man stepping in when another man tells a woman to smile, when a man stops another man from following a woman down the street, and video clips of men stopping fights and having two boys shake hands, as well as a father encouraging his daughter to say she is strong. There is also a moment when a father from the "boys will be boys" scene tells those kids fighting, "This is not how we treat each other."

The voiceover continues with "...Because we…We believe in the best in men. To say the right thing. To act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small. But 'some' is not enough. Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow."

This commercial sparked controversy with people saying that not all men show toxic masculinity, many people saying that this commercial is anti-male, and people saying they will now boycott Gillette and their partner company. Whereas others are praising the commercial with many saying that, if you're offended by this commercial, then that is why it was made.

But regardless of what you think of the commercial as a whole, the big topic of discussion is whether or not it is okay if companies should be political and put their two cents in through marketing.

I say yes.

I believe it is very okay for companies to express their thoughts and concerns about political and social issues through marketing. When the Me Too movement first came into the light, many people wanted Hollywood to stay out of politics/social issues. The public did not want to hear about the sexual harassment allegations throughout Hollywood, however, because of these celebrities bringing light to this issue more and more people, celebrity or not, are coming forward and speaking their truths.

More and more people are realizing the signs of harassment and speaking up before it can get worse. Society is more aware of these social issues because people with a platform are talking about it. Unfortunately, many people still do not want to listen to people with platforms, but having the conversation is important, so how else can we keep the conversation going?

That is where commercial and other forms of advertisements can come in. The commercial did exactly what it intended to do: to create a conversation. Talk shows like "The View" or "The Talk" are talking about, news outlets are talking about it, people on YouTube are talking about it, and here I am writing an Odyssey article related to the topic.

The commercial created conversation. It got people thinking about and discussing their concerns, their feelings about the idea of toxic masculinity, as well as how this commercial could or could not be the new wave of change. It is important to have conversations, as it is the only way for things to change and for people to see that how things used to be are not the way they should be now.

Related Content

Facebook Comments