Thu, 25 Nov 2010 Africa

Africa’s masterpieces must be returned

By The Herald

The restitution of a work of art or record to the country of origin enables a people to recover part of their memory and identity.

This pressing and contentious issue of the return and restitution of Africa's looted art, antiques and cultural heritage, from today's custodians of Euro-American museums, is one that requires urgent attention and government intervention of every African nation.

According to the International council of Museums ICOM, "The looting of archeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence, to the history of human kind.

Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can n ever be re-constituted."

For many enlightened Africans, the issue of restitution and its lack of resolution are indicative of the unequal relations between the West and Africa.

African antiquity in the US
Recently, this writer was privy to an exhibition of African antiquities at the Dallas Museum of Art (D.M.A.) belonging to the McDermott family. The oldest work of African art in the D.M.A. Collection, including that of Ancient Egypt, dates from the 8th Millennium B.C., whilst that of Sub-Saharan Africa dates from the 1st Millennium, B.C.

The objects in this collection include zoomorphic terra cotta figures from the Nok Civilisation in Nigeria, terra cotta heads from Lydenburg in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa, and some "Ziwa" Divining bowls from Zimbabwe, as well as rare terra cotta fertility dolls.

This also include double headed royal headrests "mitsago" from the Munhumutapa dynasty, latticed in gold leaf and dating back to the 11th century. It was indeed a revelation!

African antiquity in the UK
In Europe, the British Museum's "African, Oceania and America" section held and exhibition in May and June this year, of over 600 pieces of art from Africa, specially from traditional culture of Nigeria, to coincide with Nigeria's 50th Independence Anniversary, which fell on 1st October, 2010.

These works which were exhibited in London, were also shown in Spain, and will travel on a North American tour until April 2012, to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Museum of African Art, in New York. Regrettably, nowhere in this schedule is there an exhibition to be held in any African country, including Nigeria, the main cultural host of the material on exhibit.

The way forward
For Africans to progress, the issue of restitution, we must be aware that there are various legal instruments and structured forums for dialogue and arbitration. In the 2007, 14th session of the Unesco Intergovernmental committee for promoting the return of Cultural Property to its countries of origin held a meeting.

Representatives from Greece, Turkey and Mozambique joined the committee.

Greece pressed for the return of the Parthenon's Elgin Marbles from Britain, while Turkey wanted the return of the Bogazkoy Sphinx from Germany, and Mozambique, the return of the Makonde Mask from Switzerland.

In 2005, the Italian Government returned an Ethiopian Obelisk, preceded by the return of one of the Zimbabwean National soapstone birds by Germany, in 2003, at an African art exhibition in Belgium.

However, Zimbabwean art and cultural scholars need to be more vocal about the return of other pieces of antiquity that were looted by the pioneers and their followers.

The following objects of National significance and aesthetic value, were collected in colonial raids in present day Zimbabwe. These include:

l The Zimbabwean copper Fiscal Ingots from Guruve and Mhangura,

l The Mapungubwe golden plated wooden serving bowls, scepters and ornamentation.

l Copper coinage of Sultan Al Hassan Bin Sulaiman of Kilwa, southern Tanzania, from Great Zimbabwe.

l The set of 10 golden rhinoceros from Mapela, Mapungubwe, near the Limpopo River, have not been located since their discovery in 1953, during the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

l Lastly, the Zimbabwe birds, reputedly 10 in number; a figure of completeness in Shona ethonumerical etymology — "Gumi" (ten) is derived from "kuguma" to be complete or "whole".

l If so, where are the other 5 Zimbabwean Birds?
Some researches have said there are in a private collection belonging to the Rhodes Estate, in South Africa, others have said there are in a museum warehouse in Hackney, North London.

Whilst these assumptions may not be substantiated, it is worth establishing their presence.

As articulated by ICOM, "Objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong".

African scholars and cultural workers need to research and reclaim our heritage.

African art ranks amongst the most technically sophisticated and aesthetically remarkable in the history of world. The reclamation process can start by making forays into the British Museum.

"The museum is a huge repository of impressive collections from former colonised societies, and in that sense, the Museum mirrors the trail of the extent of the empire and the plundering of spoils."

Perhaps one should start by creating dialogue with them, to return stolen iconic treasures to post-colonial Africa. It is our duty, especially given the current indigenous empowerment drive.

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