Get Real: Seeking Authenticity in African Art

March 20–April 19, 2019


Professor Risham Majeed, Department of Art History, Yarra Berger ’19, Anna Gardner ’19, and Suzanne Tang ’19.

About the Exhibition

What makes African art “authentic”? How do we know when an object is the real thing and not a fake? For decades, there has been a consensus around authenticity for African art: a genuine object is one that was made by a “traditional” artist for a “traditional” use and was used to fulfill its intended purpose. But who decides when this “tradition” begins and if it ends? 

Is this understanding of authenticity anything more than a spurious and imposed notion? Such a definition of real African art emerged from the demands and desires of anthropologists, dealers, auction houses, collectors, art historians, and museums. Many of the traits they seek, including originality and age, are of subsidiary relevance to the objects’ primary audiences. The authentic piece is imagined to sustain residual ties to its users and makers, because it was once danced or kept in a shrine. These connections, though often severed through the physical removal of historical arts from their communities by colonial powers and commercial agents (and others), are recreated as “context” in the market and the museum.

Conferring authenticity on African art has long been a uniquely Euro-American preoccupation. Once an object that was spiritually or practically useful leaves its milieu, it enters other alien realms, including the market. An object that is viable as a commodity to sell, is accompanied by a parallel, entrepreneurial urge to fool through fakery. The market and the fake go hand in hand.

GET REAL seeks to unpack our associations of truth with originality as they relate to Africa and the art world as a whole. Ithaca College’s collection of African art will be shown with key loans to explore the tensions that arise in the bestowal of authenticity by questioning the real vs the fake and/or the copy, at different moments in an object’s biography. We examine artworks from the perspective of African patrons and artists, anthropologists, dealers, collectors, artists, art historians, and museums. In so doing, we hope to expose the elasticity of authenticity, and understand that getting real, is mostly about ourselves.

Special Events

Opening Reception: Thursday, March 21, 2019, 5-7 p.m.