Much of the inhabitants of Africa south of the Sahara experience a mostly undiagnosed, but overwhelming sense of mental displacement. The existing state of diminished self-awareness among Africans can be traced to historical antecedents such as the unchecked looting of the continent’s artifacts during the colonial era. Africa’s living memory and chronology of achievements live scattered in numerous museums and private collections in Europe and North America. George Clooney speaking of the effect of such experience on any society notes that, “you can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they will still find their way back.
But if you destroy their history, if you destroy their achievements then it is as if they never existed.” Mr. Clooney made the statement in his 2014 movie The Monuments Men, where he had to put his life and that of six of America’s best museum directors, art historians and curators on the line for the protection and recovery of European artworks from the Axis forces during World War II.
Africa’s past and present are often portrayed to depict darkness and deprivation. This is partly due to the absence of in-depth studies on African history conducted using the continent’s ago-old artifacts. Regius professor of History at Oxford University speaking in 1965 declared Africa’s history as nothing but “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.” The portrayal of Africa’s past as emptiness has been linked to the low level of creativity and innovation, and the dearth of motivation to transform the continent based on authentic African experiences, which several Africans display.
The Monuments Men, has placed George Clooney at the center of calls for Britain to return culturally significant works of art such as Greece’s Elgin Marbles held in the British Museum since early 19th century. However, much more than any other people grouping, culturally significant artifacts from Africa lie scattered across the western hemisphere. In museums and private collections of the developed world can be found Africa’s historical symbols of achievements, all out of the emotional, intellectual and physical reach of Africans. While Greece’s Elgin Marble, according to history, might have been purchased by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Parliament, much of Africa’s artworks in Europe were snatched amidst the tears, death and destruction unleashed by colonial forces on defenceless Africans.
In Benin alone, over 4,000 artifacts were recorded to have been carted away during the British “punitive expedition” that killed, maimed and sacked the entire capital of Benin and sent the ruling monarch into exile. The artifacts are not works of aesthetics, as the British looters erroneously assumed while concluding hundreds of millions of pounds worth of transactions on them. In the wood carvings and sculptures are engraved pictorial and symbolic images of the achievements of generations of Africans that lived in that era. There were no cameras, video recorders nor words written in papyrus in Benin then, there were those artworks.
In Congo, the looting was much worse. King Leopold of Belgium in addition to cutting child labourer’s limbs and killing millions of Congolese for not supplying enough rubber to his private companies, had the additional leisure of seizing thousands of years old of Congolese artworks. Belgian’s Royal Museum for Central Africa remains one of the most visited museums in the country and is filled with stolen artworks of the Congolese. Since the commencement of colonialism till date, as George Clooney rightly said, the Congolese have been lacking in a sense of inner direction and are plagued with a minimal acknowledgement of their self-worth as a result of the achievements of their forebears being cut off of their geographical and mental ambit.
In several instances, silence or lies mask the origin or history of Africa’s artworks in their various residences in Europe and the United States. The Bangwa Queen, valued at millions of dollars, is the world’s most expensive piece of African art and is housed in the Metropolitan Museum. According to official history, Bangwa queen has been owned by many famous collectors “since she left her Cameroonian royal shrine in the late nineteenth century.” Under what manner and in what circumstances the Bangwa Queen “left” the royal shrine is blotted out of living memory. But for those who wish to know, Banga Queen “left” Cameroun in the luggage of Gustav Conrau, a German colonial explorer who would later bequeath it to a museum in his home country. When the fact is considered that this thousands year old artifact was worshiped and reverenced by the people who produced it, then it becomes less difficult to reconstruct the circumstances under which the Bangwa Queen must have “left” its sacred abode.
Close to 300 stolen wooden memorial statues known as vigangos of the Mijikenda ethnic group in Kenya have been tracked to 19 American Museums. Kenya’s “Maneaters of Tsavo” the remains of the lion that killed an estimated 140 Indian workers before it was shot by a British railway engineer in 1898 is held in Chicago Field’s Museum. The location of the mummified lion in an African museum could have served as inspiration for several Masters and PhD theses by African academics, research papers, newspaper articles, movies by African producers, novels, documentaries, technological innovations, games and other breakthroughs by Africans. But Africans sit around searching for inspiration while the continent’s objects of inspirations lie elsewhere.
In recognition of the importance of Peru’s artifact to the nation’s socio-cultural and economic advancement, Yale University in 2011 and 2012 returned tens of thousands of artifacts carted away from Peru by one of its researchers in 1911.
On June 30 1998, thirty-nine European countries signed a joint pledge to identify artworks stolen from Holocaust victims and to pay adequate and acceptable compensation to their heirs. Most European countries, including the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, Russia and Israel signed the agreement. In the case of Africa, however, 18 of the topmost international museums where Africa’s artifact are held came together in 2004 to sign a memorandum of understanding which read in part that “whether purchased or gift, the works acquired decades ago have become an essential part of the museums that cared for them and by extension part of the heritage of the nations that house them.” In essence, unlike the case of every other nation deprived of its artifacts, Western museums are convinced that Africa’s artifacts now belong to them and to their nations.
Through Quai Branly Musuem in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and hundreds of other museums and private collections all over the world, Africa’s history, its reference for the future, lies out of its reach. Indeed, the physical removal of Africa’s artifacts pales in comparison to the concerted mental onslaught on the indigenous knowledge and collective consciousness of Africans, which colonialism orchestrated. Using formal and informal education platforms, colonialism taught and enforced a hatred for authentically African values and knowledge in Africans. When memories have been so distorted, physical remembrances in the form of artifacts would have been of immense help in the reconstruction and rehabilitation process. In the absence of Africa’s authentic memory and physical memory markers, deeply entrenched in Africans is a sense of genealogical inadequacy, leading to the prevailing lack of personal responsibility for social transformation.
In Africa’s artworks are carved histories of cooperation and agreements that existed between neighbouring ethnic nationalities. In the absence of studies emanating from these works of art, memories left of inter-ethnic relationship among Africans are the bitterness established by colonial authorities as they divided and ruled the continent in order to hold on to power. A good example is 32 works of Benin art obtained in 2012 from the great-grandson of the founder of the now-defunct investment group, Lehman Brothers by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The most spectacular item in the collection is a bronze bust from the late 15th or early 16th century called the “Commemorative Head of a Defeated Neighbouring Leader.” This singular artwork holds deep meanings and history to how much cooperation existed between the great Benin kingdom and its neighbours. Regrettably, the artwork’s current owners value it for its uniqueness, beauty and economic value, while its real owners are perpetually deprived of the life and hope it holds for them.
Arguments have been advanced in certain circles promoting the view that Africa is not stable enough to receive her artifacts. One asks, how stable was Europe while the recovery of artifacts by the men portrayed in The Monuments Men was being carried out? Europe was in shambles, destroyed by war and needing years of economic assistance under the Marshall plan and other measures to get back on its feet. But a fundamental part of a reconstructed Europe became the reconstruction of its museums and the re-establishment of arts and memory across that continent. When Jewish artifacts were being sought out from their hideouts across Germany, the state of Israel as we know it today was not in the map of history. How much more the much celebrated ‘Africa rising’ of recent times? Where there is a will, there is a way.
There are several scenarios that can be constructed for the safe and sustainable return of Africa’s artwork. For instance, aid as it is advanced to Africa today has been established to be of little benefit to the advancement of the continent. What if funds wasted annually in the name of aid to Africa are invested in building secured state of the art facilities across select universities in Africa to house these artworks? How about investments in African scholars to study African artifacts and diffuse and disseminate knowledge so gained in as many African languages as possible, and to the most rural of communities?
Mr. Clooney has spoken out for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, could he also join his much respected voice with the heart cries of hundreds of millions of voiceless Africans to call for a redress to the grave and ongoing injustice against the continent’s past, present and future? Mr. Clooney may wish to mobilize his contemporaries such as Ben Affleck who recently testified before the US Senate about his visits to Congo and the unfortunate scenarios he encountered. In calling for the US to increase its leadership role in that country, Mr. Affleck spoke from an absence of understanding of the real cause of the crisis in Congo; the Congolese are plagued with mental displacement as a result of ignorance of self and a wiping out of their sense of achievements. Marlon Brando rejected the Academy Awards for his exceptional role in the Godfather, opting instead to use that esteemed platform to gather public support for the plight of Native Americans in Hollywood. Is it possible for an actor, George Clooney perhaps, to do same for Africa’s artifacts?
Even if reimbursed, the hundreds of millions of dollars accrued to the various museums holding Africa’s artifact can never serve as any form of compensation for the knowledge gap that has existed in the minds and hearts of generations of Africans. For Africans to win the war upon their mental, physical, human and materials resources, it must bring back, place value and widely disseminate its authentic historical foundations stolen and held outside of the continent and out of reach of the minds, hearts and hands of Africans.