It’s Time for Africa’s Stolen Artefacts to Come Home

and private collections, out of the reach of their true owners’ hearts, minds and memories.

In a recently-released film, The Monuments Men, in which a group of Second World War soldiers embark upon a mission to save pieces of art before they are destroyed by the Nazis, Lieutenant Frank Stokes, played by George Clooney, notes: “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.”
While in London to publicise the film, this basic premise was given contemporary significance as the all-star cast touched a sensitive nerve by suggesting it was time for Britain to return the so-called Elgin Marbles to Greece.
Some British commentators hit out at the actors’ suggestions of repatriating the huge marble sculptures and pieces of architecture ‘acquired’ by Lord Elgin from Athens in the 19th century, while the Greek government expressed their “heartfelt thanks” for the show of solidarity.
The Elgin Marbles have been in the British Museum now for nearly 200 years and the calls for their return have gradually grown louder. However, seated alongside the classical Greek sculptures and scattered across innumerable other European and North American institutions and private collections are countless African artefacts too.
Africa is often portrayed as a place deprived of creativity and innovation. In his 1965 book The Rise of Christian Europe, for example, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper famously described Africa’s history as nothing but “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”
Unfortunately, this diminished sense of Africa’s memory and self-worth has also seeped into the consciousness of many on the continent. Africa’s remarkable artefacts debunk the notion of it as a place of creative scarcity, but the problem is that, looted under colonialism, these impressive and extensive historic achievements have long laid out of the reach of Africans both physically and symbolically.
Like the Elgin Marbles, it may be time for Africa’s great works to come home too – where they can furnish their homelands and bring pride to the descendants of their makers.

Looting the continent

Under colonialism, vast numbers of African artworks were stolen from across the continent. From the Kingdom of Benin, in present day southern Nigeria, alone, over 4,000 artefacts are believed to have been carted away during the British expedition that killed, maimed and sacked the entire capital of Benin and sent the ruling monarch into exile.
These artefacts are not just aesthetic works. In the wood carvings and sculptures are engraved pictorial and symbolic images of the achievements of generations of Africans that lived in that era.
In the Congo, the looting was arguably even worse. In addition to cutting child labourers’ limbs and killing millions of Congolese for not supplying enough rubber to his private companies, King Leopold of Belgium also seized thousands-of-years-old Congolese artworks. Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa remains one of the most visited museums in the country and is filled with an estimated 180,000 African artefacts.
In Kenya meanwhile, up to 300 wooden memorial statues known as vigangos were taken and have now been traced to 19 American museums.

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Posted by on Apr 24 2014. Filed under African News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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