Engaging Authenticity: A Few Thoughts to Ponder

What constitutes “authenticity” in contemporary Aboriginal art is a matter of frequent discussion and heated debate. Like “tradition,” authenticity is open to varied interpretations, stubbornly resisting fixed and easy definition. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and may merely reflect an ever-shifting spirit of cultural vitality. Cultures and languages constantly evolve, but our thinking about them does not always keep pace with the rate of change and transformation.

But what is it about the notion of authenticity that engages us in critical reflection? Why do we care if a taste, song, image, story, or film is considered “authentic,” or certified “genuine”? Moreover, who are the gatekeepers of Aboriginal artistic legitimacy, and how does their endorsement, or disapproval, affect our understanding and experience of indigenous aesthetic phenomena? Does concern for authenticity merely reinforce a belief in cultural purity and idealized stereotypes? Not necessarily. In an age of cultural misrepresentation and institutional non-representation, Aboriginal artists in all areas of the expressive arts share a deep commitment to personal and communal self-representation. Through their voices and visual images they seek to present a more accurate and more “authentic” reflection of indigenous experience in Canada.

At the same time, both Native and non-Native consumers of Aboriginal cultural products—whether art, music, literature, film, or fine food—want assurance of authenticity in a media-saturated marketplace that celebrates the superficial and applauds the latest forms of technological imitation. The consumer is wise to be wary. Today, you are invited to engage with the presenters in this ongoing discussion on artistic authenticity. Enjoy!


A presentation of the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture
with the support of the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and the New Sun Fund
administered by the Community Foundation of Ottawa, plus the generosity of private donors