Magar Middle Hills

"Although it is extremely difficult to establish legitimacy for an object, it is often possible to point out what's wrong with it." Roy Sieber

What does authenticity mean in the context of tribal art?

A simple but generally sound position is that an authentic object is made by indigenous people for spiritual, ceremonial, social or utilitarian use within their living culture.

Authenticity is established through assessment of an object's patina, signs of use, style, motifs, etc, combined with an understanding of its cultural context, function and usage. Comparison to known objects and location within cultural narratives is also central to the process. Authentic objects are defined by materiality, purpose, time and place.  

When an object is declared to be authentic it undergoes a fundamental change: it becomes a 'genuine' example with 'meaningful' properties and 'real' value. But different interest groups within the tribal art field - art historians, curators, auction houses, dealers, collectors - have different agendas: cultural value, aesthetic value and economic value are inter-linked but the emphasis depends on interest and setting. It is always pertinent to ask who the authenticator is, what power do they exercise and represent, and what context are they operating from.    

Authenticity does not mean that an object was produced within a hermetic culture in a 'pure past'. Indigenous cultures were influenced by migration, conflict, trading patterns and cross-cultural exchange long before centuries of rapacious colonialism. Tribal art has always been an adaptive art, responding and accommodating to cultural influence, social shift and circumstantial change.

Accepted notions of what is authentic always lag behind existent knowledge of indigenous cultures. Baldly put, the art of ancient traditions only becomes authentic when dominant Western culture 'discovers' it and accords it a place in the pantheon of indigenous art. Notions of meaning also change through time.

In African Objects and the Idea of the Fetish Wyatt MacGaffrey examines how nkiis nkonde figures from the Congo area changed form after contact with Christianity; he further shows how these objects underwent a second transformation when they were later displayed in Western museums as iconic representations of authentic, pre-colonial African art.

The theme of cultural reassemblage  is further explored in the book The Mlungu in Africa: art from the colonial period 1840-1940 by Michael Stevenson & Michael Graham-Stewart. An linked essay can be found at:

Both Curious and Valuable, another book  by the same authors, examines the acquisition of S.E African art by Europeans in the late 19th Century. A linked essay can be found at:

Sidney Kasfir's article African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow in African Arts (Vol 25, No 2)  is also richly informative, as is the 1976 African Arts special issue Fakes, Fakers and Fakery.

Shelly Errington's book The Death of Authentic Primitive Art is one attempt to examine authenticity as a Western construct. Extracts can be found at: The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress A critique of the work is here:

An interesting study of indigenous aesthetic adaption and allied issues of authenticity is  Making the Carvings Speak by Fernando Armstrong Fumero:

From  the collecting viewpoint, the most important thing to understand is that authenticity has no intrinsic connection to quality, aesthetics, age, rarity, provenance or value.

John Monroe examines authenticity issues from the collector's point of view: 

There is nothing wrong in buying copies, reproductions and handicraft providing the purchaser is under no illusions about authenticity. There is everything wrong if a dealer knowingly sells such pieces as authentic tribal art.  An item becomes a fake when the intention is to deceive.

One of the classic texts is The Authenticity of African Sculptures by Henri Kamer. An edited version is available at:

A thumbnail guide to authenticity and other issues can be found in Collecting African Tribal Art by Howard Nowes:
The article also includes Dr Roy Sieber's rating scale.

Two articles by Denis Dutton, Authenticity in Art and Tribal Art, are also illuminating:

Lorenz Homberger and Christine Stelzig examine recent problems with authenticity in museum shows in a 2006 African Arts article:

The 2006 exhibition Object Lessons: Authenticity in African Art at Kent State University Museum explored fakes and authenticity:

Also of interest is an article by Andries Loots on the invidious effect of fakes on South African tribal art:

An interesting insight from a dealer's perspective can be found in an interview with James Willis:

Michael Brent's insight into terracotta forgery is at:

A  sound overview of assessing - and learning how to assess - authenticity can be found on Mark A. Johnson's blogspot:

The following link brings up an interesting - if somewhat outdated - article in which Jeremy MacClancy examines authenticity and other issues in the context of the British tribal art market:

A classic examination of commodification, the faking industry and the market's obsession with authenticity is  African Art In Transit by Christopher B. Steiner. Steiner's website contains images from the book and scores of related sources and articles. The book Tribal Art Traffic by Raymond Corbey is another valuable investigation.

A critique of Steiner's book can be found at: 

The selling of culture and the globalisation of cultural products is a fascinating and often disturbing subject.  It is tempting to believe that the tribal art market is supporting economic development by default through the circulation of fakes but production is generally concentrated and artisans receive only a tiny percentage of the profit; many sophisticated faking workshops are now based in Europe. The aim of fakers is the maximisation of profit not the redistribution of wealth.

An interesting examination of the complexities and human face of cultural trade - focused on handicrafts - can be found in Paul Stoller's book Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City. A review can be found on Christopher Steiner's site.

The high prices paid for authentic tribal art will ensure that faking becomes ever-more problematic and skilful. The only counter-weight is the knowledge, experience and expertise of those who can tell the difference between the authentic and the faux. Gaining that expertise  is a never-ending apprenticeship; making mistakes is part of the process. 

Herbert M. Cole's article A Crisis in Connoisseurship? in African Arts (Spring 2003) examines the perceived recent decline in expertise within the fields of curating and art history regarding tribal art. This is viewed by some commentators as a victory over ethnocentric Western museum practice: the first chapter in Primitive Art in Civilized Places by Sally Price is entitled  'The Mystique of Connoisseurship'. Very limited extracts can be found at: 

Primitive Art in Civilized Places A critique can be found at:

Many contemporary commentators underplay or ignore the efforts of early connoisseurs - art historians and museum curators to the fore - who battled  an elitist establishment  which regarded tribal material as symbolic of indigenous inferiority.

Tribal art is a repository of fundamental spiritual and social responses to human existence. Authenticity might be a Western construct but without the ability to divine authenticity any attempt to understand immensely complex human patterns will be faulted at source. Authentic objects are material evidence of authentic beliefs and systems of social organisation; decrying those who attempt to decode, validate and contextualize them is pernicious.   

Art historians, curators, informed dealers and astute collectors are aware of the complex, culturally-bound frames of discourse which set the context for their field. They are also aware of the distortions caused by a burgeoning art market in which authenticity has a lead role in a narrative of profit, investment and status. 

Murray Satov examines the phenomena in  Catalogues, Collectors, Curators: the tribal art market and anthropology.  (Chapter 8, Contesting Art, ed. Jeremy MacClancy). The subject will be examined more fully in another section on Paleobree.

Provenance has become increasingly important because collectors fear buying the inauthentic; provenance is regarded as a talisman even though it can be hyped, invented and faked. Good provenance adds value but is not in itself a guide to quality or authenticity.

Dispersed collections often release mediocre examples onto the market, including tourist and presentation objects that are merely old. Such pieces often reach disproportionately high prices. Publication in old auction catalogues; reference books or museum monographs can add cachet and historical interest but does not guarantee authenticity.  The plethora of coffee table books on tribal art - text light and image heavy - also contain a worrying number of fakes which become authenticated by default. 

The piece itself should always be the guide. A collector should never pass on a good piece merely because provenance is lacking; provenance is a bonus not the prize.  When an object does have meaningful provenance the appropriate question to ask is whether the quality of the piece warrants the extra expense.

A straight-talking article on provenance by Dr. William A. Emboden, F.L.S can be found at:
Cultural commentators have fun when well-heeled Western collectors fall victim to 'unscrupulous' Hausa fakers or when a gilded auction house - utilising the gamut of marketing tools to sell the authentic - slips up and flogs a fake at $100,000. Many anthropologists and ethnographers have traditionally been dismissive of tribal art and hostile to those who use the term; those in thrall to tribal art are often portrayed as ethnocentric cargo-culters, asset-stripping the exotic and valuable from exploited cultures. This issue will be examined in another section on Paleobree. 

Those who are passionate about tribal art - be they artists, academics, dealers, collectors or curators - deserve credit for rescuing it from the dusty cabinets of ethnographers and recognising it as a major contribution to humankind's artistic achievement. 

Indigenous makers invest physical forms with spiritual belief, communal values and cultural purpose but their creations are also individual expressive responses to existence.

"The artist was conservative and committed to traditional modes. Yet from the evidence of the objects this was not an overwhelmingly restrictive deterrent" Dr Roy Sieber (Sculpture of Northern Nigeria 1961)

Authentic tribal art will continue to fascinate and inspire because it moves to the heartbeat of authentic human feeling.