In a recently-released film, The Monuments Men, in which a group of Second World War soldiers embark upon a mission to save pieces of art before they are destroyed by the Nazis, Lieutenant Frank Stokes, played by George Clooney, notes: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they will still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, if you destroy their achievements, then it is as if they never existed.”
While in London to publicise the film, this basic premise was given contemporary significance as the all-star cast touched a sensitive nerve by suggesting it was time for Britain to return the so-called Elgin Marbles to Greece. Some British commentators hit out at the actors' suggestions of repatriating the huge marble sculptures and pieces of architecture 'acquired' by Lord Elgin from Athens in the 19th century, while the Greek government expressed their "heartfelt thanks" for the show of solidarity.
The Elgin Marbles have been in the British Museum now for nearly 200 years and the calls for their return have gradually grown louder. However, seated alongside the classical Greek sculptures and scattered across innumerable other European and North American institutions and private collections are countless African artefacts too.
Africa is often portrayed as a place deprived of creativity and innovation. In his 1965 book The Rise of Christian Europe, for example, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper famously described Africa's history as nothing but “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe." Unfortunately, this diminished sense of Africa's memory and self-worth has also seeped into the consciousness of many on the continent. Africa's remarkable artefacts debunk the notion of it as a place of creative scarcity, but the problem is that, looted under colonialism, these impressive and extensive historic achievements have long laid out of the reach of Africans both physically and symbolically.
Like the Elgin Marbles, it may be time for Africa's great works to come home too - where they can furnish their homelands and bring pride to the descendants of their makers.
Under colonialism, vast numbers of African artworks were stolen from across the continent. From the Kingdom of Benin, in present day southern Nigeria, alone, over 4,000 artefacts are believed to have been carted away during the British expedition that killed, maimed and sacked the entire capital of Benin and sent the ruling monarch into exile. These artefacts are not just aesthetic works. In the wood carvings and sculptures are engraved pictorial and symbolic images of the achievements of generations of Africans that lived in that era.
In the Congo, the looting was arguably even worse. In addition to cutting child labourers' limbs and killing millions of Congolese for not supplying enough rubber to his private companies, King Leopold of Belgium also seized thousands-of-years-old Congolese artworks. Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa remains one of the most visited museums in the country and is filled with an estimated 180,000 African artefacts.
In Kenya meanwhile, up to 300 wooden memorial statues known as vigangos were taken and have now been traced to 19 American museums. Additionally, Kenya’s Man-Eaters of Tsavo, the remains of the lion that killed between 35 and 135 Indian workers before it was shot dead by Colonel John Henry Patterson, a British engineer in 1898, is being held in Chicago's Field Museum. The mummified lion could have served as inspiration for countless African PhD theses, films, novels, songs or other creative endeavours over the decades, if only they it wasn't thousands of miles away, alienated from Kenya's historical consciousness.
In several instances, silence masks the real history of how Africa’s artworks made their way to residences in Europe and North America. For example, in descriptions of the world's most expensive piece of African art − the Cameroon sculpture known as the Bangwa Queen − it is often explained that the sculpture has been owned by many famous collectors since she left her Cameroonian royal shrine. However, the manner and circumstances in which the piece of art 'left' her home are, more often than not, left unexplained. The truth is that the Bangwa Queen, which was worshipped and revered by the people who made it, was taken from its sacred abode in Cameroon by Gustav Conrau, a German colonial explorer who would later bequeath it to a museum in his home country.
There is plenty of precedent of looted art being returned to its homeland. In recognition of the importance of Peru’s artefacts to the nation’s socio-cultural and economic advancement, Yale University in 2011 and 2012 returned thousands of pieces that had been carted away from Peru by one of its researchers in 1912. In June 1998, 39 European countries signed a joint pledge to identify artworks stolen from Holocaust victims and pay compensation to their heirs. And various bits of the Greek Parthenon that were taken by explorers other than Lord Elgin have been returned over the years.
The list goes on. However, in the case of Africa, it seems European institutions have been far more reluctant to return works of symbolic and artistic importance.
The result of this is that Africa's history − and therefore its reference for the future − lies out of reach. This detachment is physical, but it is also reflective of an emotional and spiritual alienation that started under colonialism, when imperialists used formal and informal education means to teach their subjects to hate indigenous values and knowledge.
After independence, by which time memories had been so distorted, physical remembrances in the form of artefacts would have been of immense help in the reconstruction and rehabilitation process. But they too had been taken away.
If they had been accessible, Africans would have seen, amongst other things, the carved histories of cooperation and agreements that existed between neighbouring ethnic nationalities. In a collection of 34 West African artworks obtained in 2012 by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, for example, there is a bronze bust from the late 15th or early 16th Century called the Commemorative Head of a Defeated Neighbouring Leader. This piece of artwork is believed to have been displayed on an ancestral alter in honour of the deceased king.
Post-colonial Africa could have taken its rich history − symbolised in its artworks − as a reference point for its future, but sadly even this possibility was looted. Artworks were taken and valued for their exotic uniqueness, beauty and economic value, while their real owners remained and still remain perpetually deprived of the life, meaning and hope they hold.
From the perspective of European institutions, many arguments have been advanced suggesting that the reason artefacts are not being returned is that African countries are not stable enough. However, returning to the events in The Monuments Men, one remembers that Europe was in shambles, destroyed by war and in need of years of economic assistance, when its artworks were recovered. Similarly when Jewish artefacts were being sought out from their hideouts across Germany, the state of Israel as we know it today was not even on the map. And in fact, in both these cases, the recovery of artworks and symbols of history was itself fundamental in the reconstruction project.
Additionally, one could argue that when it comes to stability and security, many African countries today are ready. Where there's a will, there's a way, and one can imagine countless ways in which artworks could be safely and sustainably repatriated.
Returning the hundreds of millions of dollars accrued to the various museums holding Africa’s artefacts could never serve as a true form of compensation. It is the knowledge and symbolic gap that has dealt the real and lasting blow to Africa. For the sake of their future, Africans must bring back, place value and widely disseminate its history, stolen in thousands of pieces and held for centuries off the continent and out of reach of the minds, hearts and hands of their true owners.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|Bones of Contention: The Politics of Repatriating Namibia's Human Remains||African Literature: Why we Need to Hear Stories about Ourselves Again||Africans Need to Stop Listening to the Colonial Voices in their Heads|