"It is necessary to train one's eye. It is necessary to look, look, look.... Learn to look, look critically, to read a lot. Look at objects in museums and associate yourself with the object as much as possible, with its origins, with its meaning, and with what it does to you aesthetically." Roy Sieber in conversation with Laine Nyden 2000
The evaluation of authentic tribal art combines subjective response with objective assessment.
Some individuals appear to possess an innate talent for sensing 'rightness'. Their mysterious 'eye' is essentially a developed way of looking at an object: intuition and intellect combine to create sharp focus. Evaluation skills develop and strengthen over time through diligent research and the viewing, handling and comparison of objects. It is an accumulative, partly intuitive process.
In The Aesthetics of Primitive Art, H.G Blocker suggests that evaluation is: "the product of a great deal of looking, handling, reading, discussing, questioning, and intellectual worrying"… "Only on the basis of wide experience with a given kind of art can any genuine connoisseurship and critical facility develop."
Different interest groups within the tribal art field emphasise different aspects of an object: anthropologists and art historians are more likely to focus on the cultural and historical context of a piece whereas the tribal art market tends to highlight aesthetic qualities and issues of provenance. It is always pertinent to ask who is doing the evaluating and why.
Trevor Getz, Historian and Assistant Professor of African history at San Francisco State University, suggests: "In the modern African art market, four worlds intersect: the 'art' world that looks at a piece stylistically and aesthetically; the 'antique' world that evaluates a piece in terms of authenticity and age; the 'craft' world that assesses craftsmanship; the 'academic' world that asks: what is the meaning of this piece, and how was it used?"
"So, often we look at a piece of African art, perhaps an antiquity, and ask: Is this a 'genuine' artifact? Was this created to be useful, or just beautiful? What ethnic group (or tribe) does this come from? What is the meaning of this piece? And we try to assign them a value, either: aesthetically, in terms of 'beauty'; qualitatively, in terms of 'skill'; monetarily in terms of 'price'; ethnographically, in terms of 'contribution to understanding a society'. We also assign 'personal' values related to our own relationship to the piece."
Denis Dutton suggests: "The appreciation of ethnographic arts recognizes three areas of response: the formal (a work's immediate, sensuous properties), the stylistic (which is relational, a matter of fitting a work into a style or genre), and the symbolic or iconographic (roughly, the work's reference). The ability to see a work in terms of these three aspects is not an instant experience, it is an achievement, requiring sensitivity combined with years of familiarity."
In conversation with Laine Nyden, Roy Sieber suggested that the process of understanding and appreciating African arts is one that combines "our [Western] aesthetic, their [African] authenticity and validity of the piece."
Few collectors have the time or practical opportunity to develop connoisseurship but a basic tenet stands: to improve evaluation skills it is necessary to practice. The internet gives unparalleled access to museum archives, auction pages, major collections and research material; it also allows close study - for purposes of comparison - of poor quality authentic pieces, inventions, reproductions, copies and fakes on sites such as ebay.
A sound overview of evaluation can be found on Mark Johnson's blog:http://thetribalbeat.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html
Christine Mullen Kreamer's tribute to renowned art historian and collector Roy Sieber provides valuable insights into evaluation and assessment: A tribute to Roy Sieber: Part 2 - Biography Part 1, published in African Arts (Spring 2003), can be found on subscription sites.
An insight into identification and attribution is Who Made What: Methodology for Identification by Mark L. Felix, from the book Mwana Hiti. http://www.randafricanart.com/Who_Made_What.html
The following inter-related criteria should be considered when evaluating authentic tribal art. It is not an exhaustive list and it is not a check-list of separate factors. The comments under each heading are merely starting points for further investigation. The criteria will be discussed further in the forthcoming section Advice on Collecting.
Quality: Assessing quality can be a far more contentious issue than establishing authenticity. The judgement of authenticity uses a rubric of generally agreed criteria but divining quality involves a considerable degree of subjectivity, especially with regard to aesthetics.
The quality of a piece is a composite value, determined by the rating of all other appropriate evaluation factors plus the individual's sense of qualitative worth.
Condition - General: The artefacts of most indigenous cultures are exposed to the ravages of extreme climates, insects and demanding living conditions. However, it is also common for objects with special significance - often objects connected to infrequent or important rituals - to be protected. Some objects are preserved over time and reused until they wear out; other objects are used but once.
Artefacts from the same culture can be exposed to different degrees of degradation according to their cultural purpose and patterns of use, most obviously when an object is intended for exterior or interior use. Understanding condition requires knowledge of local materials, environmental conditions, cultural use and social context. Condition per se is not an indicator of age.
Condition - Patina and Surface: Patination - the chemical and physical alteration of a surface through use, decay, oxidisation, handling, deliberate applications and accrued deposits - is usually logical and appropriate, developing according to usage, function and exposure. Knowledge of local materials, an understanding of an object's purpose and the effect of local conditions is necessary to decode the nuances of surfaces. Marks of wear accord with the conditions and methods of an object's use.
Generally, like should be compared with like when evaluating an individual piece; a Dogon statue thickly encrusted with libations should only be compared to other examples of its type; a yam mask charged with encrusted pigment should only be compared to other yam masks. Comparison of type helps the eye learn discrimination. There are many examples of legitimate variance; these 'exceptions to the rule' become recognisable when the typology and its possible contexts are understood.
Sieber points out: "Yoruba ibeji, when used in the traditional way, have a bluish-black color from indigo wash to the head, breast and pubic [area], a reddish color on the body from the oily rubbing it is daily given, and a lightened face from its daily washings with water. Yet an ibeji can also at some stage be placed in a shrine (often a Shango shrine), where it is washed once a year with an indigo wash. Such ibeji will soon turn bluish-black: all perfectly legitimate.... To assume that [one ibeji] was fake because it didn't "look right" would have been a false conclusion." 1984 Lecture: "Fakes, Reproductions and Restorations in African Art."
The appeal of a surface to Westernised eyes can run counter to indigenous perceptions and intent; in some cultures it is the newly painted and charged surface which is valued whereas the tribal art market has a perceived preference for aged 'relics' or fine surfaces.
The term 'trade paint' is often mistakenly assumed to mean contemporary, inauthentic or sullied by Western contact. However, many indigenous cultures embraced the use of enamel paint, using it to vivid, purposeful and culturally authentic effect.
Western oil paint and all, I think such things are wonderful! Culture is a bubbling, living thing and not a fossil, as many patina-minded collectors would have it. Last but not least, there are aesthetic standards and the native makers themselves...how the people themselves see it is more important than how a collector or dealer somewhere else sees it. Dirk Smidt, speaking of
Collector Andrew Turley's essay The Power and Politics of Colour discusses painted African masks, authenticity and the market: http://www.tribalartforum.org/essay_00004/essay.html
It was once customary for pieces in museum collections to be cleaned and polished. An old museum piece might have provenance but the perceived quality of its surface might be an unintended fabrication.
The term patina is often used as shorthand to denote authenticity, tribal usage, quality and age: the development and refinement of false patina is a major aim for fakers.
Condition - Repairs: Skilful, indigenous repairs can usually be regarded as a positive attribute. They suggest that the piece was used, valued in its culture and has some age. Consequently, it is not unknown for pieces to be deliberately broken and repaired to simulate this desirable factor.
Condition - Restoration: Restoration is a complex issue. Museum restorers and preservers work within strict guidelines; the market can be less scrupulous with regard to restoration. It is always pertinent to ask whose interest is being served when a piece is restored; it is usually done to make an object more marketable.
Condition - Alteration and Addition: Inferior authentic pieces are often cannibalised, reformed, repainted, repatinated, recarved or added to in a deliberate attempt to make a piece more marketable. Some cultures do the same but for authentic reasons: Himalayan tribal masks were often altered radically over time.
Aesthetics - Form, Technique, Intention and Vision: Aesthetic preference will attract one individual to an object which another finds repellent, whatever agreement might be reached regarding authenticity, meaning, function and cultural context. The first response to tribal art, as with all art, is often an emotional one.
In The Elegance of Menace, Michael Hamson examines outstanding examples of
A second book, Aesthetics of Integrity in New Guinea Art, develops the theme. http://michaelhamson.com/catalog.htm
Forms that are aesthetically pleasing to Western sensibilities can become iconic: validated as 'beautiful', published and republished, they stand as markers against which other objects - regardless of geographic and cultural disparity - are measured. Their original purpose becomes a footnote, overwritten by mere physical appeal and stereotypical ideas of 'what is beautiful'. One recent book describes a Baule mask as 'African art at its finest.' A populist aesthetic can demote what Roy Sieber called the 'tough' object to a mere ethnographic curiosity.
Sieber argued for an aesthetic approach to African art which rejected value-laden terminology drawn from Western aesthetic traditions, proposing instead that tribal art should be evaluated in terms of the intention, properties and purpose of its makers: "to comprehend [African] sculptures in the context of the cultural commitments of the artist[s]." The task to "Begin and end with the object" is fraught with potential cultural cross-purposes and mistranslations but it vitally supports the view that an object must remain connected in our mind to style, form, technique, cultural context and purpose; an object's aesthetic is the sum of its parts not an abstracted, singular and elevated value.
The market invests objects with aesthetic coding: patinas are 'lustrous'; features are 'sensitive'; poses are 'refined'. Such descriptions- supported by glossy photographs - prime the viewer and reinforce the 'art aesthetic' through an appeal to cultured sensibility. Objects are best appreciated under good lighting and in elegant isolation but aesthetic presentation has little relevance to an object's inherent qualities.
Aesthetic precepts are social, intellectual codes that change in emphasis over time but aesthetic response is deeply intuitive, personal and ahistoric. The mark of singular collections is a singular eye. It is not about 'being different': it is about being in accord with an inner sense of rightness, even though experience might reveal past mistakes.
Special Attributes: There is a tendency among some cultural commentators to deny that individuality and expressive intent are invested in works of tribal art, supposing that their academic constructs determine it to be art in the first place. This stand is taken despite evidence that many cultures encourage 'difference' and individual expression. It also avoids the issue that in many cultures the makers of tribal artefacts are regarded as specially equipped in skill or sensibility, above and beyond any social framing or status.
Regardless of any traditional strictures and 'codes of making' that act upon the maker, there are always those who produce work that stands out in terms of form, use of different materials, vision, technique, realisation, style, innovative iconography and nuance. Recognising the atypical is an important aspect of evaluation. An object need not be a 'masterpiece' to possess qualitative aspects that set it apart from others of its type.
Rarity: The term 'rare' is over-used and is often a red flag: a collector's rule of thumb is that the more times a dealer uses the word the less likely it is to be true. The important question to ask is why an object is regarded as rare. The cause of rarity - cultural, historic, qualitative, social or environmental - is more important than the described fact.
Provenance: Some dealers use the word 'pedigree' to out-cachet the already over-hyped term of provenance. The provenance of a piece guarantees nothing. The object writes the provenance: anything else is a bonus. Meaningful provenance is desirable but only if the quality of the object justifies the higher purchase price; lack of provenance is no reason to pass on purchasing a piece.
Age: Tribal art is not date-stamped. Modern authentic pieces can copy the style of older authentic pieces; 'aged' patina can develop rapidly; some old pieces - protected by accident or design - look more recent than new pieces; there are old fakes and contemporary authentic pieces… The complications of age are endless.
Age is desirable, difficult to estimate and usually impossible to prove. An object with age that is also of fine quality is meaningfully rare.
"With regard to the future, I would recommend that quality be given attention when collecting, and that includes letting the local aesthetic standards play a role." Dirk Smidt in Tribal Art Traffic by Ray Corbey, 2000