African cultural heritage fight with the West fuelled by national identity

Continuing story on African Art and the looting of it

Published on 12 May 2010

Author(s): Afrik.com/Alicia Koch

Type:  Comment

African cultural heritage, nationalism and the West. Balancing the thin lines or lines

The question of African cultural heritage in the West is still hanging in the balance. Should their valuable artifacts remain in European and North American institutions that possess the necessary preservation techniques and means or should they be returned to their country of origin where they could forge a much needed sense of national identity? Shock waves created by the international conference on the protection and restitution of "looted" Cultural Heritage which took place in Cairo, April 8, and led by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the powerful Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, has revived a debate that has long been relegated to furtive whispers.

At a time when the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, known for its remarkable collection of primitive art, has decided to give back a Makonde mask that has been in its possession since 1985 to Tanzania, the issue of the restitution of sacred African artifacts could not be more sensitive. Stolen from a museum in Dar Es Salaam, in 1984, the mask found its way into the prestigious Swiss museum where it was kept for 25 years! Given back to the Eastern African country officially as a "gift" at a formal ceremony held under the auspices of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Paris on Monday, the mask is well on its way back to its ancestral abode. This marks a further step in the process of the restitution of looted artifacts to Africa.

Spearheading this fight, Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, is hellbent to make life difficult for Western museums. After mobilizing 25 countries to fight for the restitution of artifacts "looted" during colonization at an international conference that took place in Cairo Thursday, April 8, Mr. Hawass is intent on being heard. At the conference he called for a strengthening of international cooperation and legal frameworks and judicial protection of heritage. But although he recognized that states that were present at the conference "agreed to fight together", they had not agreed on a specific joint action plan.

Nonetheless, Zahi Hawass, on behalf of Egypt, requested the return of six valuable Egyptian artifacts exhibited in museums throughout the world: "the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, the Nefertiti bust in Berlin, the Zodiac ceiling in the Louvre, the statue of the Hemiunu in Hildesheim, the statue of Ankh-haf at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the statue of Ramses II in Turin". According to him, Greece also "wants the Parthenon marbles back from the British Museum." These artifacts, needless to say, are capital to the historical and cultural representation of their country of origin. However, not all artifacts in foreign hands are being claimed. "We are only asking for artifacts that were stolen, looted, that were taken out of our country illegally. Museums, both Western and African, agree with the Code of Ethics established by the ICOM. If a museum buys a stolen item, it should expect a restitution request from the country deprived of its property," said Abdoulaye Camara, former curator of African art in Dakar.

Nigeria and Libya

Various countries have followed in the footsteps of Egypt and sought the return of some of their artifacts. A return symbolic of an identity renaissance at a time when many African countries are celebrating their 50 years of independence. Nigeria has made a wish-list that include a mask of Queen Idia currently at the British Museum in London, and a bronze head of Olokun in Frankfurt. In Libya’s case, this is not the first time that such an action has been undertaken. In 1989 the northern African country requested from Italy the restitution of the Venus of Cyrene, a white marble statue that dates from the second century AD. The Venus was only returned in April 2007. Libya is now requesting the Louvre Museum (Paris) and the British Museum (London) to return, among a variety of unspecified artifacts, the statue of Apollo.

The British Museum, the Museum of Tervuren, the Metroplitan Museum of Art, New York, The Smithsonian Museum’s African Art section, the Louvre and more recently, the Musée du Quai Branly, also called "museum of primitive arts", to name but a few, all have large sections devoted to African art. Although these museums have largely contributed to the value of some of the African artifacts in the West, these are not valued as such and are robbed of fitting displays. Deprived of their original context, or any explanation whatsoever, most of these artifacts are left on their inanimate own to express their value and history to the curious eyes of novice visitor.

Cultural heritage and national identity

Representatives of these large institutions were however absent from the Cairo conference, although they had been invited by Zahi Hawass. Their absence, according to many analysts, was probably due to the fear of losing the contested artifacts from their museum collections. Affected by a fear that is based on what one might call a "lack of trust" in African museums, African countries now want to see their antique treasures returned. And all these requests for restitution have been based on a common premise: to find a piece of the country’s history, consolidate national identity around a common heritage.

But this leitmotiv, many believe, has not found a common voice. The Sudanese, for instance, "consider it an opportunity to showcase their antique treasures," says Michel Baud, head of the Sudan-Nile section, and curator of Meroe exhibition at the Louvre museum. This comes after an invitation from Sudan asked the Louvre Museum to "share the discoveries made at the Meroe excavation site." An initiative that aims to facilitate loans for several years and afford a rare opportunity to restore excavated objects from the Meroe site in Sudan. They believe that the deal allows them to "place their cultural heritage into good hands" while showing them to the Western public. Analysts believe that while the Egyptian initiative concerns the restitution of "looted" artifacts, the Sudanese initiative is based on mutual understanding.

Restitution requests have always been complex and often unsuccessful. Some have been successful after long negotiations, needless to say. In 1991, staff at the Elysée (french presidential palace) offered former French President Jacques Chirac a magnificent Ram of unknown origin. But archeologist Jean Polet recognized the object. In fact, he had seen it some years earlier on the Thial archaeological site in Mali. The site had suffered massive looting by the villagers who saw an unexpected opportunity to earn money. Later, a media campaign in Mali that sought to recover the Ram was themed: "Chirac give our sheep back!". The Ram can now be found at the Bamako Museum, where it has been since January 1998.

A second and much poignant example is the case of the Hottentot Venus. Brutally torn from her homeland, South Africa, Saartjie Baartman toured Europe, where she was exhibited as an animal at freak shows. She was also forced into prostitution. After her death, the South African woman’s corpse was cast in plaster and and later dissected with her private parts kept in formalin. She was nicknamed The Hottentot Venus and displayed at the Museum of Mankind (Musée de l’Homme) in Paris. It was not until 1994 that South Africa requested the body of the young woman. The southern African country had just been reborn at the polls and needed to reclaim a piece of its past to forge a powerful sense of common identity.

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