Sunday 21 March 2010

The scramble for Africa’s treasures

From Nigeria Daily News Sun, 21 Mar 2010:

"The history of the African continent is littered with the exploits of plunderers. Slave traders - local and foreign - held sway for centuries, carting multitudes of Africans across the Atlantic, to plantations in the Americas and elsewhere. When the slave trade went out of fashion, the land grab followed. In Berlin in 1885, the colonial warriors carved Africa up into bits - represented on the map as brightly coloured slices - which they then proceeded to administer and exploit, until the wave of independence that arrived with the 1950s. Following that phase, the scramble has largely taken on an economic dimension, with Africa’s oil and minerals and farmlands up for grabs. Less overt, is another kind of plunder - involving the relocation of hundreds of valuable pieces of artwork - sculptures, pottery, from Africa to museums and private collections in the West. Take Benin’s bronze heads for example. In 1897, the British attacked and destroyed the Benin Kingdom. In the process they gained access to the Kingdom’s rich trove of extraordinary artwork, which they wasted no time looting. And the plunder has continued to the present day. Over the last few decades, hundreds of vigango (ancestral totems used to mark burial sites) have disappeared from Kenyan villages, ending up in museums and private collections in the United States. In 1994, the National Museum in Ile-Ife was broken into three times, with the vandals carting away some of the finest heads in the collection.

It is estimated that the global illicit trade in artifacts is currently worth billions of dollars. It would also not be farfetched to say that the West’s thriving exhibition circuit is propped up to a significant extent by artifacts illegally acquired from Africa. An exhibition, currently going on in London at the moment, is showing the finest of Ife’s terracotta and brass heads. At the moment, there are no plans to host the exhibition in Nigeria.

It would not be true, or fair, however, to lay the blame solely at the feet of Europe and America. The West would find it extremely difficult to gain possession of African artifacts, especially in contemporary times, without the collusion of Africans themselves, within and outside the government bureaucracy. Unscrupulous Western businessmen and art dealers may pay for Kenya’s vigango, but the actual stealing is done by unscrupulous Kenyan youth, who loot burial sites

The rest is here.

Vignettes: Vigango in the gallery and in context (SAFE). Heads-up from Museum Security Network.

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