Boyden Gallery Lecture on Authenticity and African Art

Written By: Charlotte Mayer

On Thursday Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. via Zoom, Cory Gundlach delivered a Boyden Gallery Lecture on authenticity and African art. He also answered questions from students in the Art History 440 class. This class has been working for a number of weeks with large sculptures. They are learning about curatorial practice, according to Erin Peters, the Director of the Boyden Gallery at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM). 

Cory Gundlach is the Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. He has a PhD in art history specializing in African art from University of Iowa and has done research in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Gundlach’s lecture on authenticity in African art began with discussions of the first U.S. exhibits of African art. He stated that these exhibits were lacking context and were not respectful to Africa at all. Among the earliest recognized African art were Bamana headdresses. These were often worn during performances or rituals. 

Gundlach discussed how African art was often categorized as the work of tribes. However, important historical figures such as Leo Frabenius and Franz Boas were among the first to view African art as being made by individual creative artists. Boas refuted the hierarchy of cultural differences that placed Western art at the top. Even today, there is a lot of emphasis on the exhibition history of a piece of African art to determine authenticity. This is because prestige in African art has historically been associated with the ways that the objects have been used in the Western world. 

An interesting idea discussed in the lecture had to do with the meaning of originality. Many pieces of African art were made for a marketplace. Gundlach showed examples of two masks that were created in the same style before and after advice was given to the artists. Despite the fact that they were made in two different contexts, one is not more authentic than the other. Furthermore, artists throughout history have made copies of other works but that is not a reason to dismiss its authenticity. 

A man named William Butler Fagg was an accomplished scholar in this field, however he had unusual ideas about purity and he believed there was a decline in African art due to Europeans. However, as Gundlach said in the lecture, just because something was made in a different context does not mean that the artistry is inferior or cannot be appreciated. 

Gundlach himself has been to Africa and spoken with many artists there. They primarily make art for locals, either for religious purposes, to be placed on shrines or they work with objects for healing purposes. The artists are perfectly happy to create objects to sell to tourists and other people in Africa. In Gundlach’s experience, African artists are creative and make beautiful art either way. 

Towards the end of the lecture, Gundlach shared a photo of a mysterious object that he took to a radiology lab at the University of Iowa to see what was inside of it. While his original intention had been to share the results of that CT scan, at the same time he wanted to respect the secrecy of the elements included in objects such as those, and therefore decided to withhold those images. 

As Gundlach says, it is important to think about the political and racial inequalities that belong to the birth and development of African art. The majority of objects that have passed through European hands have not been documented well and there is a huge void of information.

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