amp1 AT geneseo.edu message:
Hello, my name is Ana and I am a student at SUNY Geneseo.
I am writing a research paper on African art and its relation to the United
I was wondering if you could answer a few questions I have to help me along
with my paper.
First, I was wondering if you had, or knew of, any information on the number
of roving exhibits, such as fair trade stores, in the U.S.
Also, I saw that you had information on dealers, but I was wondering if you
had anymore statistics as far as dealers in smaller cities and the number of
dealers per state.
African Art Work in the Developing World:
Emerging Appreciation through Americanization and Exploitation
In our world, a basic element of all cultures is art. Whether it be for aesthetic pleasure, a means of survival, or a creation for certain rituals, art has defined cultures for centuries, displaying values and customs in a tangible form. The motives behind art have been progressively evolving in all regions of the world, particularly Asia and Africa. As the Western demand for home décor themed around these diverse nations grows, the developing world is changing artwork through means of production, quality, and commercialization. It is interesting to examine the location and popularity of certain pieces of art, and to understand the affects certain areas have on particular art markets. African art, used more strictly for traditional rituals and practical pieces in the past, has become an elaborate market, in which Western countries trade and invest. Through investigation of various topics regarding African artwork, the increasing aspect of business, locations of art markets, and comparisons with art markets of other cultures, I have been able to infer and draw many conclusions.
Although African art may not fit the interior styles of common American households, the number of demanded art pieces has shown a steady increase as homes try to diversify décor and ornamentation. Americans, as well as other Westernized nations, have fallen
subject to the upcoming trend of collecting and incorporating art of the developing world, in this case Africa, into interior decoration themes. These pieces can introduce an element of
uniqueness and simultaneously display a characteristic of worldliness and cultural familiarity among homeowners.
African Art Markets
There are a variety of markets in which African art can be purchased. Personal dealers are located throughout the country, and are outlined in specific art dealership organizations, such as the Tribal Art Association. These dealers can either buy from small scale or factory-based producers in Africa and assign value of products based on the source, location, and method of production, or buy from street vendors, with whom they would directly bargain for a price. Fair-Trade stores are becoming more prevalent in the United States, and are another supplier of African artwork. People may also obtain African art through travel. Africa is conforming to Americanized business techniques to attract more customers.
The African tourist market for artwork is changing many aspects of business so as to accommodate the growing demand for “original” African art pieces in the United States. Production has been altered dramatically in order to lower prices and increase sales. The modification of production corresponds with a decrease in qualitative value, as less time is invested into the construction of the product. Skilled craftsmen may spend days on a certain project, expending much time and energy into a single piece to achieve exact symmetry and proportions. Through assembly line production commonly used, the requisite for skill is unnecessary, as replicas of the same object can be rapidly mass produced by many people. This segmented form of production lacks the creative aspect and genuine effort put into
making the product, given that multiple people assemble a single piece. All of these factors further depreciate the artwork, lowering the price and increasing sales.
The meaning behind the art pieces is lost with this seemingly fraudulent way in which they are produced. The “ethnoaesthetic” factor in the economics of this business overpowers
and diminishes the value of the art, even if it is originally created in Africa. Western generalizations of what art from certain cultures should look like influences, and in blatant terms, demoralizes, the way in which supposed traditional art is produced. Genuine African art is not, and cannot necessarily be recast as, a visually pleasing, typical piece of work; the worth behind this type of art is derived from the effort put into creating the piece, along with the traditional function or role in the culture. One could go so far as to say that the Americanized versions of these works are inauthentic, as they are not made and used in the customary way for which it was supposedly intended.
A study in the Cote d’Ivoire, described in Christopher Steiner’s African Art in Transit, exposes sale of African art on a lower level. Street vendors and smaller scale sellers are still part of the tourist art industry, but they too are losing creativity and effort to faster, cheaper methods of production. They cannot compete with mass-produced goods, and must also outbalance the importance of quality with the value of saving time and effort. These sellers differ from mass-produced products in their manner of trade with tourists. Vendors rarely trade directly with the tourists, and instead sell to dealers and middlemen (Steiner). This level of vendors then sells directly to tourists, or sometimes to an even higher level of merchandising buyers or collectors. Also, rather than having set prices, street sellers must
bargain with a customer for value. This could work either for or against the vendor; ignorant buyers may spend more than necessary for a product, not knowing the background of what they are really buying, or the vendor, in competition with cheaply produced imitations, may not be able to obtain the price worthy of the artwork. It is interesting to note that business in more than just the factory level is becoming Americanized.
Although there is indeed a growing fondness of African art, it must still be understood that the demand for typical American forms of art, such as aesthetically pleasing paintings and photography prints, is much higher in comparison. This factor can also influence the price and production of African art, as the market is vulnerable and dependent on the wants of the consumer. Paula Ben-Amos quoted that traders, “produce whatever sells, regardless of a sense of a pride in knowing traditional patterns”, after a study of Nigerian commercial carvers (Benetta, 228). Besides the lack of market, products lose value due to their position as either overly scarce or overly abundant.
Low level vendors that produce original carvings, although unique and perhaps unalike from any other piece, can sometimes face more problems than those works of art somewhat common in the market. Scarcity must be balanced carefully, as an item that is too scarce is cannot be price by comparison to other pieces, and can be designated an undervalued charge. Even if the artwork is of higher quality than something slightly more common in the market, that item may sell for more. Products scarce only to a certain extent have the advantage of gaining popularity through the sale of identical items. It is possible for one to purchase an exact replica of a product already sold, but because that item is somewhat
scarce and increases in value as more are sold, one will be willing to pay more. This market is ideal for art, as pieces never depreciate in value.
Overly abundant products are obviously too common and result in very cheap prices. This is not necessarily a negative characteristic of a market if a product can be easily assembled, and if the market for that product is prosperous. This, however, is not the case with African art. Most African art consists of carvings, wooden or metal sculptures, tools,
and textiles; none of which are easily replicated compared to prints of paintings or photographs. Even though mass-produced African pieces are much cheaper than those made individually by hand, the cost and rate at which more typical Western wall hangings and paintings are produced is more efficient (Norris).
Though still not as prevalent as other art genres in the United States, markets and influence of African art is more concentrated in certain regions and cities than others. Characteristically, liberal states along the coasts and urban populations tend to be more cultured. Not surprisingly, this generalization is supported by statistics listing the number of African Art Museums in each state (Norden). The blue states have generally had a stronger connection with African Americans dating all the way back to the American Civil War. The majority of African American people are democratic, and it makes sense that typically democratic states would support and establish institutions dedicated to the culture and art of Africa.
There is also a correlation with population size of the state, and the number of museums. Expectedly, New York and California have the highest number of museums, as they are the most populated states. Texas is also at the top of the list, along with Illinois and
Ohio. All of these states also contain cities characterized to have highly dense and diversified populations. It is obvious that the number of museums in these areas would be greater than that of smaller cities.
Ohio, although home to a few large and influential cities with the reputation as a sway state, seems to stick out in the statistics. With the third highest figure in the recorded table, one may wonder what factors account for the large number of African art museums.
Through historical information, it is possible to infer potential explanations. Marcus Garvey, an important figure during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s that epitomized black nationalism, actually attended school in Cleveland, Ohio (Meleski). The Harlem Renaissance was able to connect the struggles of African Americans to their homeland through artwork introduced to America during this period. It is very possible that Garvey can be attributed with the establishment of museums in Cleveland and other cities in Ohio.
Besides the simple fact that Garvey once lived in Ohio and was involved with the influential Harlem Renaissance, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA), a black nationalist organization founded by Garvey in 1914, is headquartered in Cleveland. The purpose of this organization is to protect the rights and “‘work for the general uplift’ of the people of African ancestry” (UNIA). The different divisions of the UNIA also correspond with locations of the museums in other states and cities. There are obviously strong historical routes in Ohio concerning people of African descent, and this must have a connection to the number of African Art museums within the state.
The neighboring state of Illinois has a high number of museums not only because of the large cities, but also due to extreme racism in the early 19000s (Meleski). It is conceivable that African Americans fled from Illinois to neighboring Ohio in search of a better life. The influence of blacks entering the state could have also had a profound impact on cultural representation of their ancestry.
Many of the museums listed also are related to colleges and universities. It seems as though prominent educational institutions are able to finance such establishments due to their grants and monetary support. These museums are not only to enrich and diversify the lives of students, but to provide information and materials for incorporation with educational teachings.
African art is steadily gaining popularity and influence in the United States. Although the meaning and value behind the art is commonly compromised for a decrease in price, growth in markets and interest in new cultures will help the trade of African art continue to gradually prosper. The emerging appreciation of African culture and art is not only sparking economic growth, but the expansion of historical and educational establishments throughout the country. This connection between the United States and developing nations of Africa will strengthen as rising trends and admiration of culturally diverse artworks gain popularity.