AfricaThe Traditional, Neotraditional, And Authentic
As mentioned above, many Africans have not totally abandoned their cultural heritage despite conversion to Islam. This is also the case with Christianity. During the colonial period, many converts venerated their ancestors secretly. Those living in the urban areas frequently returned to their villages to participate in initiation ceremonies and annual festivals featuring masks. Thus artists trained in the traditional or the so-called classical styles continued to receive commissions, though the number of their local clients had declined considerably.
However, these artists found new clients in the international market created by the interest in African sculptures and masks as a result of their influence on modern European art. The huge demand led some artists to move from rural to urban areas, forming cooperatives such as those of the Bamana (Bamako, Mali), Senufo (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire), Edo (Benin City and Lagos, Nigeria), Ibibio (Ikot Ekpene, Nigeria), Okavango (Rundu, Namibia), Wakamba (Nairobi, Kenya), and Makonde (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania). These cooperatives were still flourishing in the early twenty-first century, creating what is popularly known as "neotraditional," "tourist," or "souvenir" art. They specialize in copying and mass-producing the art of the ethnic groups to which they belong, in addition to occasionally replicating popular images in exhibition catalogs from other groups. Their products are sold wholesale to traders who then distribute them across Africa and overseas, making them available at hotel lobbies, supermarkets, boutiques, and duty-free shops in local and international airports. Other artists specialize in beadwork, leatherwork, jewelry, weaving, dyeing, pottery, and calabash decoration, among other arts.
This revival of interest in African art during the colonial period encouraged the Catholic Church in Nigeria to explore the possibility of adapting the art to a Christian context. So between 1947 and 1953 the church established an experimental art workshop in the Yoruba town of Oye Ekiti, Western Nigeria, where it employed the services of Yoruba artists. Two young British priests, Kevin Carroll and Sean O'Mahoney, supervised the project. They supplied the themes and encouraged the artists to render biblical characters in the Yoruba style, though without the rituals that sometimes preceded or accompanied the production of images destined for local shrines. The workshop produced madonnas, crucifixes, nativity sets, altarpieces, baptismal fonts, carved doors, and other works with Christian motifs. The finished objects replaced imported artworks in Catholic churches within and outside Oye Ekiti. The reception of the images, however, varied; it was positive in some areas but so negative in others that they had to be removed because they reminded some Yoruba Catholics of the "pagan" shrines of their ancestors (Carroll; Picton, 2002, pp. 100–101).
Thus a distinction is now made between "traditional" and "neotraditional" African art. The former refers to a work in the so-called classical style originally created for and actually used in private rituals or public ceremonies by the same society to which the artist belongs. The "neotraditional," on the other hand, refers to a similar work created outside its time-honored context for the tourist/souvenir market or to function as "art for art's sake." And because most Western scholars and curators regard the used image as "authentic" and the unused as "fake," the carving cooperatives in the urban and rural areas have devised various ways of artificially aging replicas to enable them to make the grade. In fact, such is the demand in the early 2000s for "old" or "authentic" art that a well-executed contemporary work may be passed over in favor of a damaged mediocre piece if the latter appears to be much older.
Sidney Kasfir (1992) has criticized this Western "antiquarianist mind-set" because it tends to ignore formal quality, an important yardstick for judging a work of art. According to Christopher Steiner, because "authenticity" is defined by Western patrons, those who sell both ancient and recent African art "are not only moving a set of objects through the world economic system, they are also exchanging information—mediating, modifying, and commenting on a broad spectrum of cultural knowledge" (Steiner, p. 2).
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