A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Brits African loot is an art-rage!
by Lester Holloway found at .blink.org.uk 15/1/2007
It’s exactly a decade since the legendary late MP Bernie Grant challenged the British Museum over its looted artefacts, and demanded their return.
His efforts were rebuffed by an arts establishment playing “finders keepers.”
Now, ten years later, Grants’ campaign looks set to be revived as more and more experts call for restitution.
So the very institutions that have adopted a leading role marking the bicentenary of slavery abolition will themselves face questions about their own closet.
Museums are already fighting back; desperate to keep the floodgates closed and hang onto hundreds of ill-gotten and priceless artefacts.
Looting was legal at the time, insists the British Museum, and therefore not covered by a United Nations agreement reached in 1970.
They stand firm in opposing modern-day looting, and once in a while the sculptures are loaned out for set-piece exhibitions across the continent.
Such excuses are cold comfort to many Africans who thirst for evidence of their rich tapestry of history before the Europeans arrived.
“Bring them all back and make the story here where they belong”, a Nairobi man wrote in the visitor’s book after seeing the Hazina (treasures) exhibition at the old Provincial Commissioner’s house.
140 objects from Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Burundi are loaned out by the British Museum.
Ironically they will be withdrawn in March, the very month when the bicentenary commemorations are expected to reach their climax.
Large swathes of this unique history undergone “commodification” as they sold into private collections through auction houses.
Amazingly, Christie’s of London refuse to admit they have ever sold a single piece of stolen African art despite evidence to the contrary.
Plundered African Art
Campaigners have identified a cap and slippers decorated with gold, plundered by British forces from and Ashanti king in 1897, and sold at Christie’s in December 2003, as an example.
Even art that is in public hands is often hidden from view. And when it does get an airing, the true story about how such objects ended up in this country are inevitably airbrushed out.
One example of looted heritage that Bernie Grant focussed on was the Benin Bronzes.
Yet the collections’ jewel in the crown is currently mothballed in a wooden box at Windsor Castle like an unwanted piece of bric-a-brac.
The Queen was handed this spectacular 1,600-year-old bronze head in 1973 by the former military ruler General Yakubu Gowon.
The Benin Historical Heritage Group said it was not Gowon’s personal possession to give, and belonged to the people.
‘We’ve certainly not had any requests to return this item as it was a gift from the people of Nigeria’, said Francis Duncals, a royal curator.
The word “request” is a tightly-defined term meaning a government-to-government claim.
Britain’s institutions delight in pointing out there have been no such claims from any African nation, but the reality is more complicated.
A number of potential diplomatic clashes have been deftly sidestepped over the past few decades with a series of little-publicised returns of particular artworks.
Frequent demands by African MPs, and even ministers, for the return of valuable sculptures have not counted as official claims.
A different set of standards is applied to Nazi loot, with international acceptance of civil court bids made by individual Jews who were robbed of property.
Yet when it comes to African loot individuals, communities and experts are all powerless.
To Westerners the art is desired and sold for high-prices, but to many Africans it embodies their history and has cultural and religious significance.
Peter Ashen, a consultant to the V&A, said: ‘It is right and just that stolen art is returned to the places of origin.
‘They shouldn’t need anyone to let them know is doesn’t belong there. They know already!
‘When you go to a museum you often don’t notice the artefacts. They should be more open and say exactly how they got each piece of art.’
Dr Hélène Neveu Kringelbach, a Senegalese-born Oxford university professor specialising in written African arts, added: ‘It would be a good thing if they were to be returned, but they would have to be returned to the right people, not just the powerful elite.’
However opinions are divided, with defenders of the status quo warning against “cultural ghettos”, and claiming the presence of African art in the West helps to expand understanding of the continent.
Ironically much of the looted works were originally snatched not so much for its value, but so the collectors could reach their own conclusions about African history.
Some collectors searching for old objects were duped with “suspiciously aged” items, but over time Europeans pillaged the majority of ancient art.
It was perhaps the first act in the scramble for Africa, and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was among the lands that most interested the West.
The invaders regarded the inhabitants as backward and initially assumed the most advanced art must have come from Egypt.
The British Museum acquired some objects by contracting the Compagnie du Kasai company to hoover-up artefacts in 1907, while other collectors like Frederick Starr and Herbert Lang criss-crossed the Congo basin.
In the 1990s Bernie Grant inspired campaigners to create a database of “hijacked treasures.”
The African Reparations Movement identified many works including the head of a 12th century Queen Mother from Benin, now displayed in Liverpool Museum.
Other items include a pre-1500 bronze hunter holding an antelope, owned by the British Museum, intricately decorated Kadaru pots from the Nuba Hills region of Sudan, and an Ethiopian parchment from the 1st century depicting the four gospels.
Arthur Torrington OBE, a member of the Museums and Libraries Archives Council, said it was time to send back many “pieces of heritage.”
‘[Arts institutions] don’t want to accept the objects were stolen because if they do it for one, they’ll have to do it for all.
‘A lot of this art would be extremely popular in Africa, yet they are here and a lot of us don’t even know they’re there.’
He added: ‘Unfortunately many African governments thinking about heritage is not that advanced.’
That is equally true of some reparations campaigners for whom stolen art is a minor element in the wider struggle towards reparations.
Kofi Mawuli Klu, from Rendezvous of Victory, said: ‘Before it can be returned, the governments of Africa and the Caribbean need to prepare for the safe return of artefacts.
‘The African community must put itself in the position to be the real custodians of artefacts where they are right now first.’
This will be welcomed by arts institutions keen to both expand numbers of black visitors rolling through its’ doors and hold on to their prized possessions.
While public battles for looted art are met with firm resistance, there is precedent for goods to be silently ghosted home.
Last year a number of items of ceremonial wear belonging to the Nandi leader Koitalel arap Samoei in east Africa, whom the British beheaded in 1907, were quietly returned from London to Kenya.
Privately, there is growing embarrassment about the West possessing objects that are part of local customs, such as venerating the dead.
But this is matched by a desire not to open the floodgates, and ongoing concerns about returned art disappearing. In Nigeria, curators are said to have conspired with thieves to steal valuable art.
And in official circles there is scant regard for the bloodshed that accompanied some of the colonial looting.
Many of the Benin Bronzes in Glasgow Museum were originally stolen by British army officers during an invasion of Benin in 1897.
In an orgy of looting and violence the Brits deposed Oba Ovonramwen, the leader of this once-great Kingdom, which later became part of Nigeria.
Led by colonial officer Captain James Philips, the British helped themselves a hoard of 3,000 ancient artworks from the Oba's palace before burning it down.
The British Museum said it honours the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, which outlaws art stolen after 1970.
A spokeswoman said: ‘We have campaigned vigorously against the continued looting of archaeological sites across the globe.
‘We would accept that some material from Africa entered museums and galleries in the West in the 19th century in a manner which would not now, under the UNESCO agreement, be regarded as acceptable.
‘This material was legally acquired under international law at the time it was collected.’
This stance is not dissimilar from the position of the British government at the UN racism conference in Durban, south Africa, in 2001, when they concluded slavery was not a crime against humanity because it was legal at the time.
While this position was softened by Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing in the New Nation newspaper late last year, the arts institutions remain wedded to their legalistic justification for holding on to stolen goods.
The Greek Elgin Marbles is perhaps the most famous piece of looted art, but there are thousands of equally valuable objects taken from across the continent of Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A large proportion comes from Egypt, and much of it is proof that the inhabitants of its lands were of dark skin with features now associated with sub-Saharan Africa.
The British Museum was created in 1756 largely as a repository for these looted artefacts. The plunder continued with the ransacking of Ashanti precious metals from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), including a king’s stool.
Many religious icons were shipped from Ethiopia during the British incursion of the 1860s, and the fortress of Magdala was stripped after British troops defeated Emperor Tewodros.
These are just a small slice of the loot that Britain and other European nations spirited away from Africa. Yet one key figure said the issue had “not crossed my desk.”
The question now is whether the British government will listen to those voices calling for the return of artwork that hails from an era When We Ruled.
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