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?
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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

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I'm A Woman And You Can't Convince Me Breastfeeding In Public Is OK In 2019

Sorry, not sorry.

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Lately, I have seen so many people going off on social media about how people shouldn't be upset with mothers breastfeeding in public. You know what? I disagree.

There's a huge difference between being modest while breastfeeding and just being straight up careless, trashy and disrespectful to those around you. Why don't you try popping out a boob without a baby attached to it and see how long it takes for you to get arrested for public indecency? Strange how that works, right?

So many people talking about it bring up the point of how we shouldn't "sexualize" breastfeeding and seeing a woman's breasts while doing so. Actually, all of these people are missing the point. It's not sexual, it's just purely immodest and disrespectful.

If you see a girl in a shirt cut too low, you call her a slut. If you see a celebrity post a nude photo, you call them immodest and a terrible role model. What makes you think that pulling out a breast in the middle of public is different, regardless of what you're doing with it?

If I'm eating in a restaurant, I would be disgusted if the person at the table next to me had their bare feet out while they were eating. It's just not appropriate. Neither is pulling out your breast for the entire general public to see.

Nobody asked you to put a blanket over your kid's head to feed them. Nobody asked you to go feed them in a dirty bathroom. But you don't need to basically be topless to feed your kid. Growing up, I watched my mom feed my younger siblings in public. She never shied away from it, but the way she did it was always tasteful and never drew attention. She would cover herself up while doing it. She would make sure that nothing inappropriate could be seen. She was lowkey about it.

Mindblowing, right? Wait, you can actually breastfeed in public and not have to show everyone what you're doing? What a revolutionary idea!

There is nothing wrong with feeding your baby. It's something you need to do, it's a part of life. But there is definitely something wrong with thinking it's fine to expose yourself to the entire world while doing it. Nobody wants to see it. Nobody cares if you're feeding your kid. Nobody cares if you're trying to make some sort of weird "feminist" statement by showing them your boobs.

Cover up. Be modest. Be mindful. Be respectful. Don't want to see my boobs? Good, I don't want to see yours either. Hard to believe, I know.

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As A Muslim American, My Trip To Jerusalem Revealed That Open-Mindedness Bridges Communities

A life changing trip that opened my eyes up to the optimal dynamics in a community.

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On Dec. 21, my parents and I flew to Amman, a city in the beautiful country of Jordan, where we took a cab to the main part of Jerusalem. We were told by multiple family friends that it is not the safest to directly fly into Jerusalem because of the religious issues and riots going on. As we entered Jerusalem, I put my hijab on. A hijab is a head covering worn to cover a women's beauty in Islam. As I put my hijab on to pay respect to Mosque Aqsa, I noticed a change in perspective from everyone around me because suddenly, there were eyes from everywhere on me — Muslim and Jewish.

After we paid respect to Mosque Aqsa, we went to the hotel to sleep because we were exhausted from our 14 hour flight. The next morning, we woke up bright and early to begin our day by praying at Mosque Aqsa. I wore traditional American clothes, jeans and a top, because it was often worn in Jerusalem, though I kept a hijab on for prayer.

After praying, I was astonished by the gathering of all the Muslim people in the mosque area. This made me want to see the Wailing Wall and the place of the first church to view how others gather for their god. I knew the Wailing Wall was sacred because it was a prayer and pilgrimage place for Jewish people, while for Christians, Jesus was born inside the first church.

As we exited the mosque community, we found a kind man at the kiosk who gave us pomegranate and mangoes. My dad decided to ask this gentleman directions to the Wailing Wall. The man began screaming at me and my dad. He told us we are not allowed to even want to view the wall of the Jewish people. I responded and explained that we just want another perspective on other religions. The man yelled even louder. He told us that the Jewish people would convert us and that we should not leave the Mosque surroundings. With this, he furiously sat back down and did not give us any directions to the wall that was right behind this mosque. My dad and I were quite confused on what had just happened and the way our question for simple directions were handled.

We decided to walk along the sidewalk until we found someone to help us out. It was a 61-year-old man who seemed to be a Jewish person with his religious hat. He happily helped us out and gave us exact directions for the Wailing Wall, though he did say he was excited new people wanted to convert to his religion.

We followed his directions and successfully reached the Wailing Wall. There were gates at the Wailing Wall that had security checks that allowed people to enter as there were at the mosque. Although, the experience entering the wall and mosque was not the same. As a muslim woman wearing a hijab, I was able to walk through the mosque without anyone questioning me, I was easily able to walk in without questions asked.

At the wall, a security guard first made my family go through metal detectors, checked our passports and asked an immense amount of questions about why we wanted to go see the Wailing Wall if we were Muslim. Finally, after various obstacles and issues, we made it into the Wailing Wall.

As I experienced such obstacles, I thought about how different the community in Jerusalem was from the United States. It doesn't matter what group, each religion in Jerusalem was highly conservative. This is quite different from the United States.

The culture in the United States is significantly diverse, which allows the people here to be open minded. As an everyday routine, Americans interact with people of various religions and cultures that they don't question or change their perspective toward a certain race. Yes, there are always racist citizens who are not comfortable with other religions, but a majority of the United States depicts unity because of how culturally different every person is.

This is not how Jerusalem is seen. Religions are significantly segregated with one another through security check, restaurants, hotels and even streets. Every religion has their streets in Jerusalem and going to the one you are not a part of can result in awkward stares along with rude treatment.

As I had previously booked a hotel before arriving to Jerusalem, we were not aware that the street we booked was on the street of the Jewish people. This wasn't a major issue, but glares and different treatment were conveyed. As my parents and I would eat breakfast in the lounge, we would often get glares for the hijab or clothing we were wearing because it was different from everyone else around us. This was quite disturbing because every day we would go inside the hotel or leave and get glares that clearly depicted that we weren't wanted in this hotel. The hotel workers were indefinitely kind and caring at all times, though the people living there were not.

The experience I had was definitely an eye-opening lesson. It depicted the perspective of others in America versus Jerusalem. The people in Jerusalem are not open-minded, which detaches the various religious groups in the nation. It prevents various religions to connect or be able to create united communities to be able to act as one.

As for the United States, there are different religions and cultures blended together with majority of the people who are open-minded. This allows the union of communities, while also allowing people to connect without the similarity of religion. I'm glad that I was able to have a once in a lifetime experience with my family. Although the segregation in the country was a little uncomfortable, I am glad that I was able to understand how lucky I am to live in an open, happy and united country and that I am also able to learn about the significance of open-mindedness in uniting people and communities.

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