Saturday 12 May 2012

Will Other African Artefacts End This Way?


The recent damage to a Nok sculpture in Manhattan raises important questions about the removal of African artefacts from their origins and transporting them to the West to suit the whims of private collectors says Kwame Opoku ('Africa: Damage to Nok Sculpture in Private Western Collection- Will Other African Artefacts End This Way?', Pamazuka News 10th may 2012). An African sculpture that is some 2,630 years old has thus been destroyed in a Manhattan home in the United States of America, and Opoku suggests "The fate of the broken Nok [artefact] has given lie to the argument that African sculptures are better protected in the West". I discussed the reported damage to this object during a photo shoot in the collector's home:
Mrs Arman has claimed that the sculpture was worth some $300,000. What will the average Nigerian think of this sum? A question that will surely be raised is whether the precious object was insured against damage and for how much. If it was not insured, this may well reflect on the value attached to it by the owner. It will be interesting to see whether the issue of the legality of the possession/control of the Nok artefact would be raised in the course of this case. Many of the Nok sculptures in the West are presumed to be of doubtful provenance, a large number having been looted from Nigeria.
Opoku discusses the legal and ethical background of the collector's acquisition :
Mrs. Arman is reported to have stated "I lived with it for over 25 years." If the Nok sculpture was acquired in1986/87, the question arises as to the applicability of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import.Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both the United States of America (02 September 1983) and Nigeria (24 January 1972) are parties to this convention. Did the acquisition of the Nok sculpture violate the UNESCO Convention? Nok artefacts have been placed since 1997 on the ICOM Red List for Africa. It is since then prohibited, and therefore illegal, to export or import Nok artefacts from Nigeria. These objects are part of the historical records of Nigeria and should under no circumstances leave Nigeria.
It would also be instructive to see if the Nigerian Government/the National Commission on Museums and Monuments will intervene in this case to make representations on behalf of the Nigerian peoples and Government. After all, the Nok sculpture may have been exported in violation of a Nigerian law. There has been a ban on export of antiquities from Nigeria without permission from the authorities as far back as the 1953 Antiquities Ordinance. The relevant laws, ordinances, and decrees issued in 1969, 1974 and 1979 have been consolidated in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act, Chapter 242, Laws of Nigeria, 1990. Section 25 (1) of the Act provides that "No antiquity shall be exported from Nigeria without a permit issued in that behalf by the Commission."
In this connection, it would be useful to have a list of the number of authorizations Nigeria has given for exportation of antiquities, including Nok sculptures, outside the country.
If the possessor or controller of the broken Nok sculpture is unable to establish the legality of its acquisition, various issues arise. For example, can one compensate a holder of an illegal object for damage inflicted on the object by another person?
He then discusses the relative value of the cultural and historical object that means a lot to Nigerian history and culture item and to a New York collector who carelessly left it in the hands of unsupervised strangers. he asks what its value is "to US American history and culture"? How is a court to decide the compensation due, will it court be guided by the US "market price of an object that is not, in its country of origin, regarded as saleable object but evidence of the history of the people?"

The lawyer of the claimant is reported to have stated that the accident was "A loss of world heritage. It's a terrible, terrible thing." Hopefully, all concerned would realize that the removal of the Nok sculpture from its original location in Nigeria was equally a terrible thing. The great Ekpo Eyo declared that "It is indeed unfortunate that so much Nok material has been looted over time to supply the international market. Properly excavated, such pieces might have shed valuable light on the Nok culture." These words should be borne in mind by all those who deal with Nok sculptures and other African antiquities removed from their original locations under dubious conditions. The broken Nok sculpture raises the fundamental question whether artefacts of a particular people or country should at all be allowed to be kept in private homes in the West. The irreparable loss caused by damage, as in this case, should finally awaken those in the West who have always supported such practices. Artefacts that are important to a particular country or people should be kept by that country or people and not by others in foreign countries that need the objects for their personal prestige and aesthetic contemplation.
And here it is precisely the use of such objects as trophies to enhance personal prestige which is the issue here.


Cultural Property Observer said...

The destruction of the Oron Museum and the wanton burning of hundreds of ancestral figures (ekpu) as firewood during and after the Biafran civil war certainly undercuts any Nigerian claim to the high moral ground, and the foolish claim that the accidental breaking of a statue somehow justifies keeping all such artifacts in Nigeria. See Gathercole and Lowenthal, The Politics of the Past 297 (Unwin Hyman 1990).

Paul Barford said...

I have answered your neocolonialist racist argument (and that of your alter ego muamalh) elsewhere:

Shame on you both.

I was not writing of "leaving Nigeria" but being kept in people's living room.

And of course the United States of America has never seen a civil war or any other kind in its hugely-long history has it?

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