Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad recently interviewed me on the need for Africa’s artifacts to be returned to the continent.Below is the original unedited English text.
In your opinion what makes the time right now for USA and Europe to return the African artifacts looted during colonial times? Why not later?
A people’s development starts from the mind; artistic expressions are one of the few direct ways of stimulating a people towards increased intellectual disposition. This is a well-appreciated fact in every other part of the world, but is seems to be underestimated, even undermined in Africa. It appears that the world looks on Africa’s development as merely an infrastructural exercise. Despite much conversations concerning Africa’s advancement, there is very little effort invested in making critical thinkers and innovators out of Africans. This submission is easily gleaned from the fact that, for instance, the World Bank for the past thirty years has only invested in universal basic education in Africa and made it a policy to shun investment in research and higher learning institutions. Much of the world, it appears, would only engage Africa at the elementary level, that is, the provision of basic necessities, food, shelter and clothing and not at the high intellectual stratum. But it was innovation and creativity, that is mental power, that built and still sustains the western world, Japan, India, China etc.
Intellectual inquiries in a people cannot be suppressed while the very same people are expected to achieve their best socially, politically and economically. It is within this trajectory that the conversation surrounding the return of Africa’s artifact brings to bear in present times. African intellectuals and everyday citizens need their minds developed, and this needed development ought to be founded on authentic African ideas and realities. Quite a few of Africa’s representation of what is authentically hers are held in museums across the western world. Africa’s intellectual advancement, which will feed authentic advancement in every other area are held in these artworks. Art is not art for art’s sake, especially with regards to African art. Africa’s artworks represent the continent’s historical facts and knowledge systems, which it needs to build upon for its future development. The question now should be how to appropriately return and invest in securing these artworks, and not if they should be returned. The return of Africa’s artworks is crucial for the restoration of stability to the continent. It is not the restoration of stability that should determine the return of the artworks as is proposed in certain quarters.
You already touched this subject in your article on thinkafricapress.com but in order to quote you on it I would like to ask you why you think it is of utmost importance that the African artifacts are returned to Africa? What will it mean to people?
Much of Africa’s artifacts as held in Euro-America hold the collective memory of the different communities that make up the continent. Africa is being culturally subjugated by the collection of what represents its history being out of its reach. There is a vacuum in the construction of Africa’s memory. Recall that colonialism repudiated and sought to delete Africa’s memory, seeking instead to replace authentic African past experiences with its European variant. A good example is that British history of Africa is taught as African history to Africans. This vacuum has unfortunately not been filled, even decades after the end of colonialism, and is manifested in Africa’s continued search for relevance among other continents. Africa records the lowest number of patent application globally, that in itself is an indication of a huge void in creativity and innovation. However, innovation thrives on familiarity and a deep understanding and appreciation of one’s environment. Africans do not even understand their own environment, and neither do they appreciate it. This is all founded on the way much of the continent was brutalized and looted during colonialism. In addition, the colonizers made Africans identify their past with shame, and Africans are perpetually seeking validation from outsiders. There is need for a transformation of this situation and one of the ways is to return the continents stolen memory and pride in the form of her artworks.
What do you think is the reason that European institutions seem more reluctant to return the looted artifacts to African countries than say to Peru for instance?
Several reasons, but first as an African, I have to search inwards before looking outside for causes. In this case I would say that Africans are not campaigning hard enough for the return of these artifacts. Colonialism made Africans identify their authentic beliefs, knowledge system, practices and indigenous structures with shame and backwardness. This is a very grave issue and one of the reasons why several Africans are not actively interested in their heritage held outside of the continent. Africans have been made to hold a myopic view of what they embody. Africans do not necessarily associate the numerous political, economic and social challenges they face as being traceable to the age-old and ongoing robbery of the continent treasures such as her artifacts and the repudiation of her knowledge systems and values. It is important for this connection to be established and be widely bought-into by Africans in order to generate the desire to correct some historical and even ongoing wrongs, part of which is campaigning for the return of the continent’s artifacts.
Secondly, one cannot discount the fact that as many African countries are still dependent on aid provided by the nations in which the museums holding the continent’s artifacts are located; there is therefore some form of unspoken dare-me attitude at play here. Peru to which reference is made is classified as upper middle income by the World Bank, and is the 39th largest economy in the world. If you wish to locate African countries in that index, you have to start from the bottom. Several African countries could be said to be reluctant to bite the finger that feeds them by taking on the museums in the donor countries.
Also, the negative narrative and representation of Africa as a conflict ridden continent by western media appears to lend credence to the snobbish attitude of the western museums and private collectors. However, conflict in Africa has reduced to the barest minimum in the past ten years and out of all the countries in the region, less than 5% can be said to be in active conflict. But the general impression is that Africa is unsafe.
Once the artifacts have been returned, what is the African countries own responsibility in order to restore the sense of history and add value and pride to it?
First the return of Africa’s artifacts has to be strategically planned and executed. The returned artifacts, for instance, have to be housed within secured and fully funded research institutions, museums or centers of excellence across strategic locations in Africa. Important also is that these artworks should be easily accessible to any interested party just as the museums in most western nations are. Africa’s regional bodies are getting stronger by the day, such that on mutual agreement, a state-of-the-art East African Museum could be housed in say the most stable and economically progressive East African country. Don’t forget that the entire East Africa is accessible by road transport and at very affordable rates, too. The same can be replicated across the continent.
The African Union could play a key role in designing strategies and guidelines for the return of these artifacts by bringing countries together and representatives of significant communities to discuss and reach agreements. The mere holding of conversations in the search for ways to return the artifacts back to Africa will greatly boost the intellectual climate of the continent and prove to be very inspiring towards improving creativity and innovation across the region.
Very importantly also, Africa’s curriculum of study should significantly reflect the stories of the artifacts and where they can be found across the continent. African students should be made aware of the glories of the continent’s past and be taught to take pride in it. Africans were taught by the colonialist to be ashamed of their past and their culture. Present day Africans do not really know better as the curriculum still reflects the colonial attempt to de-emphasize Africa’s achievements and superimpose an alien memory on Africans. African government ought to draw lessons from the United States where young pupils are taught very early about the achievements of their founding fathers, with emphasis on the investment of their forbears in building the country to be the great nation it is today. What this produces is a group of citizens who are proud of their heritage and very willing to be their best, and to give their all for the nation. Conversely, Africans are not being taught to take pride in the achievements of their forbears. This must be addressed and part of addressing it is by bringing the artworks closer home and investing in their research and in the dissemination of research findings. The role of Africa’s media and celebrities are also very important in this call.
You mention “The Bangwa Queen”: Do you happen to know if it is still the most expensive piece of African art? And who owns the statue today? Is it still in America?
To the best of my knowledge and based on available evidence, Bangwa Queen remains the most expensive piece of African art ever auctioned. The Bangwa Queen is widely exhibited across Europe and the United States, but appears to be part of the permanent collection of Dapper Museum in Paris.
Anything you would like to add to the interview?
It is very important to understand that while Africa’s artwork resident in museums across Europe and America hold mostly aesthetic value in the hands of their current owners, the value it holds for Africans are completely the opposite. Africa’s artifacts hold the collective history and memory of several communities that make up the continent. It represents Africa’s pride in her past, the absence of which has robbed the continent of a clear understanding of its present situation and the will to chart a veritable path to her future.