Who Is Afraid Of Phantom Africa?
Major Publication On Colonialist Ethnology And Imperialist Plundering Of African Artefacts
‘… our research methods resemble the interrogations of an investigating magistrate much more than amicable conversations, and because, nine times out of ten, our methods of collecting objects involve forced purchases, if not requisition. All this casts a certain shadow over my life, and my conscience is only halfway clear. When all is said and done, as much as adventures like the taking of the kono finally leave me without remorse, because there is no other way to obtain such objects and because sacrilege itself is a rather grandiose notion, still all this constant buying leaves me perplexed, because I have a strong impression that we are going in vicious circle: we pillage the Negroes under the pretext of teaching people to understand and appreciate them-that is, ultimately in order to mold other ethnographers who will go in turn to ‘’appreciate’’ and to pillage them…’Michel Leiris. (1)
Brent Hayes Edwards has rendered the world of scholarship an invaluable service in translating from French into English Afrique Fantôme by Michel Leiris, first published by Gallimard, Paris in 1934. With the English version, Phantom Africa now available for the first time, English readers have the possibility to appreciate the significance of this historic book by Leiris. This is an important and indispensable classic of French literature, an absolute must for anybody interested in colonialism, postcolonialism, and above all, in the questions of restitution of artefacts looted during the colonial era. The Dakar-Djibouti Mission and Marcel Griaule, head of the mission, are generally considered to have made very important contributions to ethnology and its development as science in France. (2)
Michel Leiris was a member and secretary archivist of the notorious French expedition to Africa, Dakar-Djibouti Mission (10 January 1931-31 May 1933) under the leadership of Marcel Griaule, that collected some 3,600 ethnographic objects, including historical and religious paintings and murals from an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Gondar, over 300 Ethiopian manuscripts and 6000 photographs as well as zoological and botanical specimens from Africa, mainly the French colonies but also from Nigeria, Soudan and Ethiopia. Griaule reports that the mission was received everywhere with good-will and support; they were also, allegedly given gifts in many countries. However, Griaule apparently had intended to sue the Government of Ethiopia for 750,000 francs for difficulties he had encountered in his work, such as delays through customs and other administrative requirements. (3). One must read the writings of Marcel Griaule with some caution. In many situations, such as those created by the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, Africans really had no choice but to be friendly with a mission with the principal aim of looting their artefacts within the colonial context of structural violence. Can anyone, aware of the respect African have for their dead relatives, believe that the 70 skulls the mission brought to France were given as gifts? (4) Leiris gives us detail accounts of the incredible methods the French used in collecting cultural artefacts from African countries, travelling from Dakar across the African continent to Djibouti during a stay of 21 months. Many other such missions followed the Dakar-Djibouti Mission: Mission Sahara-Soudan (1935), Mission Sahara-Cameroun (1936-1937) and Mission Niger-Lac Iro (1938-1939.
Members of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission in May 1931, at Musée d'ethnographie du Trocadéro. From left to right André Schaeffner, Jean Mouchet, Georges Henri Rivière, Michel Leiris, Prince Oukhtomsky, Marcel Griaule, Éric Lutten, Jean Moufle, Gaston-Louis Roux, Marcel Larget.
In some parts of Phantom Africa, we get the impression we are reading a novel or a thriller instead of a diary of an ethnologist from the field. Were these ethnologists also trained in criminal methods and activities? No doubt in their ethnology studies they took courses in field methods, explaining how to make notes, use questionnaires etc. but did they also teach them what to do if the natives refused to surrender their cultural or religious objects? In the case of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, like in all similar expeditions by Europeans, all the methods of criminals were employed: intimidation, coercion, blackmailing, straightforward stealing, robbery and the carrying of weapons to impress the unarmed natives. Religious objects were profaned and disrespectfully taken away, sometimes in the presence of frightened believers unable to prevent sacrilege and sometimes crying at their own powerlessness in the face of obvious sacrilege by Europeans who thereby demonstrated dramatically their lack of respect for African culture. Objects which were too big or heavy were broken into pieces to facilitate transportation. Pressure was brought on villages to sell religious objects which were not for sale at ridiculous prices dictated by the French. If villagers showed themselves reluctant to depart with objects, they were threatened that the French colonial authorities would be brought in to deal with them. It is then no surprise that in many parts of Africa, people were afraid of Europeans. Colonial rule had demonstrated the Europeans’ capacity to use brutal force to achieve their aims. Such colonial expeditions by Belgians, British, French, and Germans had already achieved a terrible reputation as Anthony Shelton stated:
‘These highly organized, comprehensive, systematic, and concerted collecting expeditions deeply affected the societies they afflicted. Complaints against Leo Frobenius, who led no less than six major expeditions to Africa between 1904 and 1914 for various German museums, were legion; while the reputation of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition for looting and desecration preceded it, leaving expectant villages terrified and panic stricken. So effective was this form of accumulation world - wide that Sturtevant estimated that, by the mid-1960s, there were more than1,500,000 ethnographic items in US museums alone, and 4,500,000 in the world as a whole’. (5)
This is one of the 3 Kono Marcel Griaule and his team stole from Dogon villages. It is in the Musée du quai Branly but the visitor to the museum is not informed how this highly religious and powerful object reached Paris from Mali.
The very brutal methods which the French ethnologists used to acquire artefacts in Africa are very well illustrated by an incident Leiris reports as occurring on 6 September,1931, when they arrived at a village and saw a sacred mask at the Kono altar, in Soudan (now Mali). On arriving they had noticed a remarkable hut and sought permission to enter:
‘Work in Bla with the blacksmiths. A huge group of forges making up a common workshop. A vulture nailed to one wall. Lunch in Bla, then departure.
In Kemeni (24 kilometers from Bela), we spot a magnificent hut, no longer of a nya but this time of a kobo. I have already seen the one in Mpesoba (I even entered the courtyard during the night), but this one is much prettier, with its niches filled with skulls and bones of sacrificed animals, under pointed ornaments of dried earth in the Sudanese manner. We are burning with desire to see the kono. Griaule gives an order through the interpreter that it is to be brought out. The head of the kono replies that we can give a sacrifice.
The proceedings take a long time. The man who goes looking for the chickens takes forever. He brings back a little one and a big one and hands them to Griaule. Mamadou Vad sticks close by him, worrying that he will desert us. Another piece of news: the sacrifice will only permit one man to enter the hut, and I must buy two other chickens in order to be granted the right to enter. Two more minuscule birds are brought, clearly among the scrawniest. Everything starts to drag. Now there’ s a different problem: the sacrificer hasn’t shown up. We decide to enter the courtyard: the kono’s hut was a small retreat closed with a few planks (one with a human head) held in place by a big, forked log, the other end of which rests on the ground. Griaule takes a photo and removes the planks. The hiding place is revealed: to the right are indefinable forms made of a sort of brown nougat that is actually coagulated blood. In the middle is a large calabash filled with assorted objects, including several flutes made of horn, wood, iron, and copper. On the left, hanging from the ceiling surrounded by a bunch of calabashes, is a nebulous bundle covered with the feathers of various birds. Griaule, who fingers it, thinks there is a mask inside. Annoyed by these people’s dilly-dallying, we quickly come to a decision: Griaule takes two flutes and slips them inside his boots, we put things back in place, and then we leave.
Now there’s another issue: the chief of the kono has said that we have to choose our sacrifice ourselves. But when we try to make the selection, they all of course decline. We ask our own boys if they can’t make the sacrifice themselves; they also decline, obviously terrified. Griaule then decrees and has Mamadou announce to the village that, since they are clearly mocking us, they must hand over the kono as recompense in exchange for 10 francs, or the police supposedly hiding in the truck will take the chief and the village notables to San, where they will have to explain themselves to the administration. Appalling blackmail!
At the same time Griaule dispatches Lutten to the cars to prepare our departure and to send Makan back immediately with a large packing cloth to wrap the kono (which neither women nor the uncircumcised may see, under pain of death) and two raincoats, one for Griaule, the other for me, as it is beginning to rain.
We wait outside the house of the kono. The village chief is crushed. The chief of the kono has declared that under such conditions, we can remove the fetish. But a few of the men with us seem horrified, to such a degree that the fumes of sacrilege are beginning to waft around our heads; with a single leap, we find ourselves completely out of our depth. I give the chicken to the chief with a theatrical gesture and now, as Makan has just arrived with the tarp, Griaule and I demand that the men go and fetch the kono. They all refuse, so we go ourselves, wrapping the holy object in the tarp and creeping out like thieves while the devastated chief flees and, some distance away, drives his wife and children into a hut with heavy blows of his stick. We cross through the village, now completely deserted, and reach our vehicles in dead silence. The men are gathered in the distance. When we come into the square, one of them sets off running toward the fields and hastily breaks up a group of boys and girls just arriving. They vanish into the corn even more quickly than the little girl we saw a little while ago in the maze of mud-walled lanes; when she saw us she made an about-face, holding her calabash on her head and weeping.
We give 10 francs to the chief and leave in a hurry, amid general astonishment and crowned with the haloes of demons or particularly powerful and daring gangsters.
As soon as we arrive at our stopping-place (Dyabougou), we unwrap our loot: it is an enormous mask of a vaguely animal form, unfortunately deteriorated but entirely covered with a crust of coagulated blood which gives it the majesty that blood confers on all things’.
The next day, the same acts of banditry occur;
‘Before leaving Dyabougou, we visit the village and make off with a second kono, which Griaule found by slipping surreptitiously into the special hut. This time, Lutten and I carry out the operation. My heart is beating very loudly because, since yesterday’s fiasco, I am more keenly aware of the enormity of our crime. With his hunting knife, Lutten cuts the mask from the costume adorned with feathers onto which it is sewn, passes it to me to be wrapped in the cloth we have brought, and gives me, upon my request - for it is another one of those bizarre shapes that so strongly intrigued us yesterday - a sort of suckling pig, nougat made of the same brown (i.e. coagulated blood) and weighing at least 15kilos, which I wrap up with the mask. We quickly carry the whole thing out of the village and return to our cars through the fields. When we leave, the chief wants to return the 20 francs we have given him. Lutten let him keep them, naturally. But this doesn’t make things any less ugly…
In the next village, I spot a kono hut with a ruined door. I point it out to Griaule and we decide to take it. Like the last time, Mamadou Vad announces brusquely to the village chief, whom we have brought to the hut, that the commandant of the Mission has ordered us to seize the kono and that we are prepared to pay compensation of 20 francs. This time I carry out the operation alone and slip into the sacred retreat carrying Lutten’s hunting knife in my hand in order to cut the cords of the mask. When I notice that two men - not at all threatening, to be honest - have entered behind me, I realize in a dazed stupor, which only later transforms into disgust, that you feel pretty sure of yourself when you’re a white man with a knife in your hand…
Very soon after this theft, we arrive in San for lunch, then make contact in a neighbouring village with some Bobo Oulés, who are charming people. Idyllic nudity and straw or cowry ornaments, young people with most attractively plaited hair and women, often with shaven heads (especially the old women), all of it more than enough to lull me, to make me forget all the piracy and divert my mind to the worlds of Robinson Crusoe and Paul et Virginie’.
The criminal and abusive methods of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission as we have just seen in the above daily entries of Michel Leiris in his diary for 6 and 7 September 1931, are repeated in one form or another by members of this predatory mission. We could refer to the dairy entries of:
18 September - a telegram arrives informing the mission they should return a mask they had stolen from San since the owner was asking for it.
12 November - Another day of sacrilege and plunder by the mission:
‘Departure from our lunar Rome. Yesterday they refused in terror to let us have several statuettes designed to bring rain, as well as a figure with upraised arms found in another sanctuary. Taking these objects would be carrying away the very life of the country, and one boy told us, who even though he had ‘done soldier’ during the war, remained true to his upbringing and nearly wept at the thought of the misfortunes that our act of sacrilege would bring upon them; and so, opposing our evil intentions with all his might, he alerted the old men. We are buccaneers at heart: this morning, while bidding an affectionate farewell to the old men, who were delighted that we were willing to spare them, we keep an eye on the immense green umbrella, normally used to shade us but today carefully tied up with a string. Swollen by a strange tumor that makes it look like a pelican’s beak, it now contains the precious statuette with upraised arms, which I myself stole from the foot of the cone of earth that serves as its altar, as well as that of its fellow statues. At first, I hid it under my shirt, along with a miniature ladder by means of which God descends to earth. Then, up on top of the great rock on whose summit rises the togouna near which we were sleeping, I put it in the umbrella, pretending to take a piss to distract attention.
The evening in Touyoguo - where we are camping in a public square, near
another togouna (this one in the form of a cossack’s hat) - my chest is stained
with earth, my shirt having once served as a hiding place, as we were leaving
this village’s cave of the masks, for a sort of double-edged, rusty saw blade
which is in fact an iron bull-roarer…’
14 November - Leiris writes: ‘the looting continues’.
15 November - Leiris writes: ‘Yesterday our friends Apama and Ambra surreptitiously brought us some fiber mask costumes which we requested. They begged us, above all, to hide them carefully. Today, they help me to write up the documentation on these objects. Apama and Ambara start at the slightest sound. A child who tries to come in gets reprimanded.
Without a doubt, they have learned from our ways, and these two good boys went to take the fiber costumes from the cave of the masks where they were hidden. The influence of the European…’
18 November,1931 - Members of the mission see a small sanctuary with a wooden statue and Leiris notes: ‘To the right of the grotto, in a small sanctuary, is a handsome wooden statue. We don’t examine it too closely, so as not to attract attention; but it is agreed that Schaffner and I will go tonight to carry it off…
Tomorrow, we make our final departure from Sanga. As I write these lines, I am about to go to bed, having carried out the last act of plunder: Schaffner and I returned with the wood statue on our shoulders after an hour and half of ruses and variedstratagems.’
The dubious methods the mission used in 1931 to acquire artefacts - forced sales, stealing, intimidation and blackmail - are continued in the second year, 1932, by this rapacious mission on the African continent. One of the terrible exploits of the French mission was their stealing of old religious canvas paintings from an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Gondar where under dubious circumstances, it was alleged they had been given permission by the clergy to replace old paintings with new paintings by the artist of the mission.
An attempt to remove paintings from a second church failed. Leiris’ entry for 5 September,1932 starts as follows: ‘It has been decided that we will replace the paintings of the Godarotch Maryam church as if nothing had happened and we hadn’t received the two phone messages the alaqa Sagga. But, in order to be prepared for anything that might happen, we set out in force: a dozen ashkars armed with seven guns, Griaule, Larget, Roux, and I, all armed, plus Abba Jerome with his customary umbrella.
As soon as we arrive, Griaule hears that the alaqa Sagga is there and sends for him. The peasants, although we act friendly, are very frightened. Abba Jerome is extremely uneasy, He is visibly embarrassed at having embarked, as an official representative of the government, on such an adventure. He knows that if the alaqa Sagga shows up and refuses to let the old paintings in the church be replaced with the new ones we brought with us, Griaule intends to call the alaqa deceitful and demand that he get a guarantor for the court case that Griaule intends to bring against him in Addis Ababa’.
Continuing his entry of 5 September, Leiris states that the men who had promised to help remove the old paintings and replace them with new ones did not turn up; no doubt instructed by a chief who did not get the bribe he had expected. From this statement, it becomes clear the French mission used bribes and other forms of corruption to secure objects they wanted. The villagers at Godarotch told the French that in the absence of the alaqa Sagga, leader of the churches in the province, they could not allow them to remove the paintings. The rest of the entry of that day goes on to deal with other matters. As we have seen, when the mission wanted something and it met some reluctance on the part of the villagers, it kept quiet and made other plans to secure the same.
Leiris who is usually prolific about what the mission has been doing, does not say much about the paintings. According to Claire Bose-Tiessé and Anais-Wion, in their magnificent book, Peintures sacrées d’Éthiopie: Collection de la Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the mission’s artist, Gaston Louis Roux, demonstrated to the local church authorities the resistance to rain of the oil painting he had done by throwing water on the work whereupon the local churchmen agreed to taking down all the old paintings and replacing them with new paintings by the artist. The authors rely on annotations by Jean Jamin in his introduction to Michel Leris, Miroir de l’Afrique where he refers to an unpublished manuscript by Gaston-Louis Roux, the painter of the mission. (6) But no where do we have a full explanation of how the mission was expressly authorized to pull down the old paintings and replace them with new ones made by the mission. Leiris writes in his entry of 3 August,1932: ‘Griaule and Roux are continuing to remove the paintings in Antonios church, replacing them as they go along with dazzling copies executed by Roux. This work began a few days ago, with the agreement of the intendant and the head of the church’. However, when we check the entries from 1 July to 3 August,1932, we do not find any mention of such a permission. Surely, on a matter like this we could expect some details from the secretary-archivist of the mission.
In his entry of 5 August Leiris writes: ‘Our grand pictorial operations continue. As Roux can no longer execute single-handedly the 60 square meters of canvas which are to replace the Antonios paintings, improvised artists have been called in: Griaule, Lutten, and even me’.
In his entry for 20 August, Leiris writes: ‘The paintings in Antonios church are still being removed. However, the telephone operators of Gondar have taken it upon themselves to alert the dedjaz Wond Woussen. The fitaorari Makourya has taken no action, however, judging that the redoing of a church has nothing inherently blameworthy about it’.
In an entry of 3 September,1932,Leiris writes: ‘The political situation has gone up a level in complication: the consul tells Griaule that the alaqa Sagga, leader of the churches in the province (who came to see Griaule last Wednesday and gave his full agreement for the replacement of the decorations of the Gondarotch Maryam church with new paintings), has just sent two telephone messages, one to the Emperor, the other to the dedjaz Wond Woussen, to say that the clergy in Gondar are displeased by the removal of the old church paintings…’
Leiris writes in his entry for 2 November 1932: ‘Yesterday Griaule got into serious trouble: after having a cow sacrificed by the Falasha of a village near Gondarotch Maryam, he wanted to go and photograph the church in Gondarotch - the one where we had already had problems over the paintings. As he is formally forbidden to enter it (by the order of the alaqa Sagga, the man responsible for the first incident), a dispute ensues, one of the alaqa’s guards threatens to shoot, and Griaule is kicked in the groin by another man and forced to hit the ashkars to keep them from firing on the man to avenge this insult… The affair is finally smoothed over, but it is the most serious incident to date involving the Mission.’
Subsequent entries in Leiris’ diary as well as the behaviour of the mission do not correspond to the behaviour of persons who had received full permission to pull down the old paintings.
It is true we read about the paintings in Leiris entry for 20 November,1932: ‘’The news brought by Abba Qesie is nonetheless rather assuring in that it suggests that we have supporters. At the meeting of the council of the forty-four churches, several priests maintained that the Mission’s work at Antonios church was done well…’’
We read in the entry for 24 November: ‘Bright and early, we hear a crackling sound in Larget’s room, as though, behind his closed door, he had lit a fire to get warm. But Roux, who is guarding the door, tells me what is actually going on: the destruction of the altar board that we are accused of having stolen or having had someone steal, the discovery of which might well lead to nothing short of a massacre. Yesterday evening, the designs engraved on it were copied so that the document would not be entirely lost.
Griaule and Roux methodically tie up the Antonios paintings into bundles. Only a few of them are to be shown to the Customs officials. The rest are rolled up, wrapped in paper, and packed in skins. These bundles will hardly look any different from the loads of abou gedid carried by caravans,’
Leiris writes in his entry of 28 November: ‘We spend the whole day disguising paintings: a triptych has been simply covered with paper bearing the same patterns, drawn and colored by Roux, as its own panels; this will be passed off as a copy. Griaule has made a diptych, also covered with paper, into an attractive portfolio into which he has put stamps and various papers. Lastly, a large painting has been concealed (under glued-on wrapping paper) at the bottom of a crate that is going to contain stuffed birds.
As we only have eight rifles and it seems wise to muster a few more, the Consul has given us an old Russian rifle of undecipherable make and so odd a calibre that it is impossible to find any cartridges to fit it. This display weapon has been allocated to Abba Jerome.’
These few examples from the daily entries of Michel Leiris, secretary-archivist of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, gives us a good picture of what that mission was about: to acquire, including stealing, looting, intimidation, bribery, and corruption as many African artefacts and other materials as the mission deemed necessary for a French museum in Paris. Besides, a special law of the French Parliament of March 1931, had accorded to Marcel Griaule the permit
take whatever he thought was necessary in the French colonies of West Africa -a sort of permission for scientific capture - ‘un permis de capture scientifique’.’ Ethiopia though was not a French colony.
We have in several articles underlined the importance of this first-hand evidence of criminal and other dubious methods used by French ethnologists to collect artefacts that are now proudly displayed in the Musée du quai Branly which stubbornly refuses to consider any claims for restitution by African owners of artefacts. (7) However, few authors of English articles on restitution, seem to be aware of the tremendous importance of Phantom Africa for the issues of restitution.
We made English translations of parts of this major work by Leiris in our articles, believing that perhaps the lack of knowledge of French may discourage others from referring to this unique evidence of French colonialist plunder. (8) However, we gradually concluded that the French language was not an explanation for lack of attention to Phantom Africa. Even though anthropologists and others have referred to the original French text, those writing in English on restitution of artefacts appeared to ignore this major publication.
Most of those writing on restitution are highly educated Western scholars and we can assume they are all conversant with the French language. At any rate, the high priests of the retentionists, the universalists, in Berlin, Chicago, London, New York, Paris and elsewhere, are all multilingual and very much at home in the Louvre and in Paris. Indeed, some of them studied French and German and could have read the French, German, or even Portuguese translations of this masterpiece as well. (9) So why would they not refer to such a major work in their discussions on whether the so-called universal museums in the West should or not return looted African artefacts? The answer appears to be that Phantom Africa provides irrefutable evidence of the illegal methods used by Europeans in looting African artefacts. One cannot openly admit being aware of this damaging evidence and still argue for the retention of looted artefacts and so the universalists ignored this major work. Is this an acceptable scholarly approach? Simply avoid mentioning major works that do not support your position and do not make your students and readers even aware of the existence of such writings. What else have the universalists avoided to mention? Could they be relied on to give us full information and facts about colonial acquisitions of artefacts?
Aminata Traoré, former Minister for Culture, Mali.
The 3600 objects brought by the notorious expedition were first kept in Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, then transferred to Musée de l’Homme and then moved in 2006 to the new Musée du quai Branly which also inherited artefacts from Musée national des arts africains et océaniens
Canvas paintings from the Church of Abbas Antonios, Gondar, Ethiopia. now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France. These paintings were removed and replaced by copies made by the artist of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, Gaston-Louis Roux.
James Clifford declared in Predicament of Culture: ‘The relations of power whereby one portion of humanity can select, value, and collect the pure products of others need to be criticized and transformed. This is no small task.’ (10)
Many have criticised the power relations that existed and still exist between Western States and non-Western States, especially African States but hardly any of our contemporary scholars goes a step further to suggest that some of these ill-gotten artefacts should be returned to their owners. The belief that the West has an almost God-given right and duty to hold onto African artefacts is firmly anchored in the minds of many Westerners, even some who are sympathetic to African demands. With leading museums and museum directors expending energy to defend what is indefensible, no end to this incredible situation seems to be in sight. Western museums display looted African artefacts that African museums would, under normal situations, be expected to display as part of their culture but they lack such objects and few scholars seem to be worried. The distinctions between right and wrong, between illegality and legality, between legitimacy and illegitimacy, have been abolished by many Westerners as far as African artefacts are concerned. How can our contemporary Westerners defend the atrocious acts committed by the Western ethnographic expeditions?
Anthropomorphic initiation mask, Ntomo kun, Bamana, Mali, from the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
Nobody invited the various European countries to come and collect our cultural and religious artefacts; they came in with their well-organized troops, whether civilian or military or naval with all the power that their States represented and stole artefacts. Some ethnologists such as Luschan and Griaule pretended that various non-European cultures and peoples would disappear and so their artefacts had to be saved for the Europeans or as they hypocritically said sometimes, for humanity.
This cynical attitude should be noted. You argue that a culture or people are likely to disappear. You set about to kill them, loot their natural and human resources, destroy their societies, or prevent their development in many ways and impose by force of arms your own ideas, namely, that they should serve you as second class human beings. When decades later, some oppressed people survive and request the return of their looted artefacts, they hear from the looting Western countries that they have preserved the artefacts and are in no hurry to return them; indeed, some Westerners even think or say that we should be grateful for their humanitarian acts in saving the artefacts. They argue that Africans cannot preserve the artefacts if they are returned, forgetting that using their might and force to rob us, we would not be able to resist their superior force. Where then is their sense of shame? They wish to be congratulated for the criminal acts of the past. When we read what some of the universalists in the so-called universal museums and world museums have written about restitution, we wonder what sense or knowledge of history they have. They surely cannot be entirely ignorant or oblivious of the relations between the West and Africa in the last five hundred years. We often feel that for many of our Western contemporaries, colonialism and slavery just did not occur.
Adam and Eve, from the Church at Däbrä Giyoris, Metcha region, Ethiopia, acquired by the Dakar-Djibouti Mission at Gondär in 1932, now in Musée du quai Branly.
With the availability of an English translation of this major work, Phantom Africa, providing irrefutable evidence of the criminal and brutal methods used by Westerners to obtain African artefacts, added to the violent methods used to secure Benin artefacts, it should become increasingly difficult, at least at an intellectual level, to sustain many of the usual arguments provided by the Western high priests of retention that inhabit the universal museums. Even Westerners must finally recognize the difference between what is right and what is wrong in the matter of looted antiquities. Can we require this minimum also from those who, desiring to protect ill-acquired artefacts, have excluded all morality from discussions on looted artefacts of others? Alas! There is no end in sight of this cruel history of African artefacts looted with violence by Europeans. Many Western museums and governments are silent on these matters. Musée du quai Branly, the ultimate beneficiary of the artefacts looted by the Dakar - Djibouti Mission and with obvious affiliation with the notorious mission, acts superbly unconcerned by discussions on restitution.
Brent Hayes Edwards has, with the English translation of Phantom Africa,
provided us with an indispensable tool for understanding the relationship
between Western States and African States on the issues of restitution of looted
artefacts. This magnificent major work of 711 pages may not be light reading in
our times when readers seem capable of reading only few pages but will be
worth the effort for those seriously interested in understanding African and
Western relationships which have not been characterised by justice and fairness
in the last 500 years.
Edwards provides a very useful and detailed introduction to Phantom Africa, including a section, titled ‘The Ghost of the Story’. I came into contact with Michel Leiris’ Afrique fantôme, decades ago, at a very impressionable age and refused to read the book for fear of hearing more about ghosts. It was much later that I realised it was not a book of ghost stories but contained solid information about a French ethnological expedition to our continent. I quickly bought the French editions I could find and later, the German and Portuguese translations. With the availability of the English translation, no one, I hope, will fail to realise that they have in their hands a major publication on colonialist ethnology and imperialist plundering of African artefacts.
Although there is no ghost story in Phantom Africa, the publication of this book in 2017 may appear to some universalists as a ghost from the past that has come to haunt them. The original French text of 1934 which they thought they had buried by their deafening silence, has been resurrected, appearing now in English language and likely to gain more attention and adherents than the original French Afrique fantôme. Besides, Phantom Africa has come out at a time when important matters concerning the restitution of looted African artefacts are being discussed. Firstly, there is the debate on the legitimacy of the looted Benin and other artefacts that are being transferred from the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin to the newly constructed Humboldt Forum, Berlin. (11) Secondly, there is the extraordinary proposals to set up a revolving exhibition in Benin City, displaying some of the Benin artefacts looted in 1897 but still in the ‘ownership’ of Western museums that have been illegally and illegitimately holding these looted artefacts. (12)
Would the universalists and their supporters confront squarely the English version of Phantom Africa or will they continue their silence, as children do when in the presence of an unknown or frightening creature and pretend it never existed? It was just a phantom.
Kanaga mask, Dogon, Bandiagara, Mali, brought by the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
‘At this time when the museum is opening its doors to the public, I
keep wondering to what extent the mighty and powerful will go in their
arrogance and violation of our imagination. We are being invited to day to
celebrate with the former colonial power an incontestably magnificent
architectural monument as well as our own decline and the complicity of
those, African political representatives and institutional authorities who
consider that our cultural objects are better kept in the beautiful edifices
of the North than under our own skies.
“In our opinion, the Musée du Quai Bradly is built on a deep and painful paradox since almost the totality of the Africans, Amerindians, the Australian Aborigines whose talents and creativity are being celebrated, will never cross the doorstep of the museum in view of the so-called selective immigration. It is true that measures have been taken to ensure that we can consult the archives via Internet. Thus, our works of art have a right of residence at a place where we are forbidden to stay’. Aminata Traoré , former Minister for Culture, Mali. (13)
Kwame Tua Opoku.
30 August 2017.
Anthropozoomorphic mask, Ciwaranin kun, Mande, Kayes, Mali, brought by the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
1. Leiris letter to Zette, September 19,1931 cited at p.163 in Phantom Africa by Michel Leiris, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, Seagull Books, 2017, ISBN: 978 0 8574 2 3771.
2. See the evaluation of this mission by Éric Jolly, Marcel Griaule, ethnologue : La construction d'une discipline (1925-1956) http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/jafr_0399-0346_2001_num_71_1_1256
Other major works that may be usefully consulted in this context are-
Cahier Dakar-Djibouti, Editions les Cahiers, 2015, with contributions from members of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, Griaule, Leiris, Lifchitz, Lutten, Mouchet, Roux and Schaffner; Leiris &Co, 2015, Gallimard/Centre Pompidou-Metz, catalogue of an exhibition with the same title edited by Agnes de la Beaumelle, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Denis Hollier; Claude Blankaert (ed.) Le Musee de l’Homme, Editions Artlys, 2015, pp .288.
3. Claire Bosc-Tiessé and Anais Wion, Peintures sacrées d’Éthiopie : Collection de la Mission Dakar-Djibouti, Éditions Sepia, 2005 p.18.
4. Marcel Griaule, Marcel Griaule , ‘ Mission Dakar-Djibouti, rapport général (mai 1931 - mai 1932) ‘, Journal de la Société des Africanistes , vol. 2, no 1, 1932, p. 113-122. Marcel Griaule, ‘ La mission Dakar-Djibouti dans son rapport avec les études ethnologiques et archéologiques ‘, Revue de synthèse, vol. 1, no 3, décembre 1931, p. 327-332. Éric Jolly, Ethnographic Expeditions - The Menil Collection https://www.menil.org/read/online-features/.../ethnographic-expeditions-eric-jolly
5. Anthony Alan Shelton,’ Museums and Anthropologies: Practices and Narratives', in Sharon Macdonald (ed.) A Companion to Museum Studies, Blackwell Publishing, 2008, p .68.
6. Claire Bose-Tiessé and Anais Wion, op.cit. p.15
7. K. Opoku, The logic of non-restitution of cultural objects - Elginism www.elginism.com/similar-cases/the-logic-of-non-restitution-of-cultural.../884/ The Musée du quai Branly has as its motto, ‘where cultures dialogue’, ‘là où les cultures dialoguent’. However, the museum is in no way interested in discussing with African countries their looted artefacts that fill that museum, including the objects looted or stolen by the Dakar -Djibouti Mission. An official of the Musée du quai Branly is reported to have made the following declaration:
We at the Quai Branly, as elsewhere in France, have decided to respect the principle of laicité [separation of church and state, very roughly equivalent to secularism]. Therefore, we do not take into consideration any claim based on religion or ethnicity. That’s important…. We’re a public institution, a secular institution operating in the public domain. If you allow the legitimacy of one religion, you allow them all, and then they all cancel each other out. That would put every place in the world on the same level!.. Giving credit to all the claims would be to cancel out all of them...If you really believe that these things have a profound meaning, well the museum isn’t made for that. The museum is not a religious space’. Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quay Branly, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p.123.
See the recent demand for restitution by the Republic of Benin which was met with a firm French refusal, based on old arguments which have been refuted many years ago-
Bénin : la France dit "non" à la restitution des biens culturels mal ...
Faut-il restituer au Bénin ses biens culturels ? | Le Point Afrique
Rendez au Bénin les trésors pillés pendant la colonisation ! »
8. From Benin to Quai Branly - Dr. Kwame Opoku - AFRIKANET.info
Kwame Opoku: Did Emperor Haile Selassie Authorize Dakar-Djibouti ...
More Dogon in National Museum, Bamako? ...
The reasons given for non return of cultural property - Elginism
What are they really celebrating at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris ...
9. The German translation of the French original, Afrique fantôme is entitled,
Michel Leiris, Phantom Afrika - Tagebuch einer Expedition von Dakar nach Djibouti 1931-1933, Band 1 und Band II, 1980, Syndikat Autoren-und Verlagsgesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main.
The Portuguese version is entitled A África Fantasma, 2007
published by Cosac Naify, Sao Paulo, Brasil.
The Spanish edition is entitled: El África fantasmal, by Tomás Fernández AZ and Beatriz Eibar Barrens, 2007, Ed. Pre-Text’s. The Italian edition is entitled, L’ Africa fantasma by Aldo Pasquali, Rizzoli Editore,1984.
10. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, 2002, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, p. 213.
11. European museums to 'loan' looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria ...
12. K. Opoku, Will Humboldt – Forum Defend Holding Looted Artefacts With
13. Aminata Traoré, Ainsi nos œuvres d’art ont droit de cité là où nous sommes, dans l’ensemble, interdits de séjour » Droit de cité - 23 juin 2006 - L'Obs tempsreel.nouvelobs.com › Culture “droit de cité”, par Aminata Traoré - Connaître l'histoire coloniale ... ldh-toulon.net/droit-de-cite-par-Aminata-Traore.html (Translation into English by Kwame Opoku)Those who can read French would benefit from reading the whole statement by Aminata Traoré, one of the most formidable intellectuals of our times.
‘A l’heure où celui-ci ouvre ses portes au public, je continue de me demander jusqu’où iront les puissants de ce monde dans l’arrogance et le viol de notre imaginaire. Nous sommes invités, aujourd’hui, à célébrer avec l’ancienne puissance coloniale une œuvre architecturale, incontestablement belle, ainsi que notre propre déchéance et la complaisance de ceux qui, acteurs politiques et institutionnels africains, estiment que nos biens culturels sont mieux dans les beaux édifices du Nord que sous nos propres cieux…
Le Musée du Quai Branly est bâti, de mon point de vue, sur un profond et douloureux paradoxe à partir du moment où la quasi totalité des Africains, des Amérindiens, des Aborigènes d’Australie, dont le talent et la créativité sont célébrés, n’en franchiront jamais le seuil compte tenu de la loi sur l’immigration choisie. Il est vrai que des dispositions sont prises pour que nous puissions consulter les archives via l’Internet. Nos œuvres ont droit de cité là où nous sommes, dans l’ensemble, interdits de séjour’.
A Tukulor doll from Mali, Kayes Region, now in Musée du quai Branly. Michel Leiris, 28 August 1931: ‘Looting, as in other villages, of everything we could find in the way of costumes, utensils, children’s toys, etc.’
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku, Dr. and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.