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Kwame Opoku: Nok Once More

In this article, columnist Kwame Opoku comments on a recent article by Karl- Ferdinand Schaedler in the catalogue accompanying the recent exhibition AFRIKA AFRIQUE AFRICA in Vienna entitled “Against the Destruction of Art Objects - The Other Side of Restituting Cultural Assets”. Opoku argues that trying to create the impression that Western museums are at the forefront of the fight for restitution is a clear attempt to cause confusion in the minds of readers.

“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.” Ekpo Eyo (1)

Recently, a very observant reader drew the attention of the Nigerian authorities to a proposed auction of a Nok sculpture in a French auction house. (2) The Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments, the body established by law to protect and preserve cultural artefacts of Nigeria promptly sent a strong message to the French auction house requesting the suspension of all acts relating to the Nok object until its true provenance has been established. 

Suspension of the sale and discovering the true provenance of the Nok artefact would help Nigeria to discover how such an object was taken out of the country and enable the authorities to prevent such illegal activities.

A few months ago, there was an exhibition, entitled AFRIKA AFRIQUE AFRICA in Vienna. According to the catalogue, there were 73 Nok pieces in the exhibition. One whole hall was devoted to Nok sculptures. (3)  It has been said that some of the Nok sculptures displayed may well be fakes. This is a question we would leave to Nok specialists. What interests us here is the justification often advanced for keeping African artefacts, including Nok objects, in Western museums, institutions and in private collections. One such justification was given in the catalogue of the exhibition.

The catalogue includes five essays by Armand Duchâteau and one by Karl- Ferdinand Schaedler entitled, “Against the Destruction of Art Objects - The Other Side of Restituting Cultural Assets.”(4)

This essay is interesting from several points of view, especially, as the author seems to put the British Museum and other Western Museums as being in the forefront of the struggle for restitution and preservation of African artefacts.

One can see the essay’s potential for causing confusion in the minds of many.

The author refers to discussion on the preservation of national cultural possessions revived by the opening of boundaries in Eastern Europe and the large number of African artefacts, especially the Nok objects, that are available on the open market.:

“This abundance of finds presumably plays a role in the fact that a number of museums in Europe and the US are choosing not to acquire any Nok pieces (which some of these institutions are already regretting).” 

According to Schaedler, museums refrained from acquiring such objects because they were afraid of criticism from their own country and from the countries of origin of the objects. As a further indication of the unease of the museums, he states, was that during the 1995/96 exhibition, Africa - The Art of a Continent at the Royal Academy, London, archaeological findings from Mali and Nigeria were shown only on videos for the British Museum had threatened to withhold objects it had agreed to lend if the allegedly illegal objects were displayed.

According to the author, the efforts to bring the issue of cultural preservation of African artefacts died quickly because ”no one on the African side seemed to be interested in these cultural assets, unless it was for purely financial reason”.

Besides, those objects that were restituted quickly returned to the art market. Dr. Schaedler does not specify which objects and their country of origin. The author argues that all the efforts to preserve cultural objects are, as far as Africa in concerned, impositions from the West. For Africans, he argues, what matters is the present and not the past. Europeans have been brought up to preserve the past:

“As far as Africa is concerned, this entire situation seems to be based on a deeply rooted cultural misunderstanding. What is being put forward here is the image of the naïve African who is unable to manage his own affairs: economic neo-colonialism is now being followed by its cultural counterpart in its purest form. What we in the West do is right. And the others must follow suit if they intend to become part of the community of civilized peoples. They must preserve their culture and protect their cultural heritage; they must not only live for today, but also consider yesterday and tomorrow. These are certainly maxims with which we in America and Europe grew up, ideals which seem right to us and which we hold in high regard. And why not? But these principles must not necessarily hold true for other cultures … If those in the West feel compelled to preserve cultures and erect museums this is solely their view of things. In Africa this idea generally meets with incomprehension. And if Africa - where since the end of the Cold War colonialism has again been rearing its head - is not allowed to maintain its right to independence in economic and political affairs, it should at least have the right in the area of culture.”

This statement contains various ideas which cannot be left uncommented.

What Schaedler is saying in effect is that Europeans are trying to impose on Africans the idea and obligation to preserve their cultural artefacts. He considers this a form of colonialism in the cultural field. The author not only makes assumptions that are not supported by history and historical experience but also seems to ignore various international efforts such as UNESCO Conventions, UN resolutions, decisions of international conferences and other bodies to preserve cultural artefacts in all continents including Africa.

It is obvious that Africans did not need Europeans to tell them to preserve objects of their cultural heritage. Had Africans not preserved their cultural objects, there would have been none for the Europeans to loot or steal when they came to the Continent. Somebody must have looked after the various African objects that European invaders looted or colonial administrations and adventurers confiscated. And who preserved the famous Benin bronzes before they were looted in 1897 by the British in their infamous “Punitive Expedition”?

Surely, common sense would indicate that these Benin bronzes, kept in the palace of the Oba of Benin were preserved by the people of Benin who did not need any Europeans to advise them on the need to preserve cultural objects that had been preserved for hundreds of years. What about the Dogon sculptures that had been preserved for hundreds of years before they were stolen by the French in their notorious Dakar-Djibouti expedition in 1931? (5)

Surely the expert has heard the view often expressed by many that Africans venerate their ancestors hence many sculptures such as the Kota reliquaries. Some have even said Africans worship their ancestors. Are these the marks of those who do not care about the past and the future? What about the view often expressed  that the African concept of ownership of land is based on the belief that the land belongs to a whole lot of people of whom some have died, some are living but a lot more are to come. Could this also be a characteristic of a people who only live for the present?

Even assuming that Africans did not preserve their cultural objects before contact with Europe, surely the relationship that started in the 15th century must have left their marks. Various museums have also been built in many African countries during the colonial rule. Is one entitled to disregard these museums which have the main function of preserving cultural artefacts? Is one to ignore also the classes that have grown up in these five hundred years and their cultural development both in terms of African and European cultures?

What is very remarkable is that Dr. Schaedler completely ignores the existence of UNESCO and the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970. (6) The author seems to ignore the fact that the Convention as well as various instruments impose on States, including the African States, an obligation to preserve their cultural heritage. He even goes so far as to say that

“After all, the legal premise that all goods lying beneath the earth are the property of the country in which they are found certainly has no legal or moral basis and in the final analysis can be seen as a holdover from the colonial era.” 

Can a person with some familiarity with European history make this assertion?  Is the author aware that the 1970 UNESCO Convention attributes to the cultural heritage of the State cultural objects found on its territory? Article 4 of the Convention reads as follows:

"The States Parties to this Convention recognize that for the purpose of the Convention property which belongs to the following categories forms part of the cultural heritage of each State:
(a) Cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property of importance to the State
concerned created within the territory of that State by foreign nationals or stateless persons resident within such territory;
(b) cultural property found within the national territory;
(c) cultural property acquired by archaeological, ethnological or natural science missions, with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property;
(d) cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange;
(e) cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.”

Of course, Schaedler ignores all the efforts made by bodies such as UNESCO, United Nations and ICOM (International Council of Museums) and other bodies in the area of preservation of culture. It is remarkable that Dr.Schaedler can write about restitution of African artefacts, especially about the Nok artefacts without mentioning for once the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monoments, the body specifically charged with preservation of Nigerian cultural artefacts, a body whose consent is required for legal exportation of artefacts from Nigeria. Or are the activities of the Commission regarding control of exportation of artefacts not relevant to the issues we are discussing?

Can an expert in African art and culture afford, in the long run, to ignore historical facts and the work of UNESCO, ICOM , the Commission for Museums and Monuments and other bodies, write about Africans in a derogatory, if not racist, tone which we thought had disappeared with the end of colonialism?

1.  Ekpo  Eyo, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, 2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja. p.23. The preamble to ICOM red List  Africa reads as follows:  “The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale.”    http://archives.icom.museum/redlist
ICOM red List
See also K.Opoku, “Recovering Nigerian’s Terracotta, http://www.modernghana.com
Revisiting Looted Nigerian Nok Terracotta Sculptures in Louvre, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris “ http://www.myweku.com
“A Blank Cheque to Plunder Nok Terra cotta?”  http://toncremers.wordpress.com
“Let Others Loot for You: Looting of African Artefacts for Western Museums”

“Does the Demand for the Restitution of Stolen African Cultural Objects Constitute an Obstacle to the Dissemination of Knowledge about African  Arts? Comments o a Letter from Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.” http://www.afrikanet.info

2. http://tinyurl.com/c8clw3o

3. Herbert Stepic(Ed.) Afrika Afrique Africa, Christian Brandstätter Verlag, Wien, 2011, pp. 162-169; : http://www.stepic-collection.com/de/informationen.html

4. H. Stepic, pp. 16-23.

5. See Michel Leiris, Afrique Fantôme, 1953, Gallimard, Paris

6. http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

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