Juliet Torome, a Kenyan writer and documentary filmmaker now living in California reflects on a party that she attended recently. The rich American host was proudly showing his guests around showing off his collection of paintings and sculptures. One object caught the journalist's eye:
...an animal skin stretched and decorated with colored beads, and framed behind glass. The beads were the same kind that my people, the Maasai, use, but the dominant color was blue, not our preferred red. “Where is that from?” I asked, pointing at the piece on the wall. “That is from Zimbabwe,” our host replied. “It’s a wedding skirt that was worn in a Ndebele royal wedding in 1931.”The writer recounts that it was only later when she "heard that Yale had returned the Peruvian objects" that she "began to think about African artifacts as culturally and historically important". As she points out the many African artefacts that have ended up in foreign museums or in the hands of foreign private collectors "are largely the loot that Europeans pillaged from Africa during the slave trade and the colonial period". When on display, African art often gives details about each piece’s origins, which are often tied to a specific African kingdom or polity. There is rarely such expansiveness about the artefact's journey out of Africa, she says - citing the New York Times account of the exhibition of the famous Bangwa Queen last year in which it merely said that the sculpture had been owned by many famous collectors “since she left her Cameroonian royal shrine in the late nineteenth century”. This left unsaid anything about the role of Gustav Conrau, a German colonial explorer who later gave the statue to a museum in his home country.
For an African away from home, finding even the most insignificant African object on display can make you happy. When I see Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee for sale in New York or Paris, for example, it makes me proud that there are Americans and Europeans who consider a product from my homeland valuable. Learning that a wealthy American had found a traditional African skirt worthy of a place in his home triggered the same feeling. But our host’s next remark erased it instantly.
He boasted that he had acquired the skirt illegally through a friend who had “paid” a Zimbabwean government official to smuggle it out of the country. My friend and I looked at each other, trying hard not to show our disapproval. “I’m so disgusted,” my friend said a moment later. “Let’s leave before I get drunk and say something inappropriate to this guy.”
We left the party. On the way home, we ranted angrily about what we had witnessed. But our contempt was driven more by the West’s role in supporting corruption in Africa than by the fate of the specific Zimbabwean artifact we had seen.
Peru’s reclamation of its cultural heritage made me wish the same for Africa’s looted artifacts. But Peru is fundamentally different from any African country. Its demand reflected a reverence for its past. To Peruvians, the artifacts are a reminder of the great Inca civilization that European conquerors destroyed. Africans, on the other hand, tend to discount their past. To some extent, Africans appear to have internalized the condescending colonialist idea that Africa was primitive and needed to be civilized. We don’t treasure our historical artifacts, because they remind us of our rich civilizations’ supposed inferiority. It is no wonder that an object as culturally important as a royal wedding skirt can be smuggled out of a country without anyone noticing. Until Africans recognize the value of their history, their cultures’ artistic output will continue to be up for grabs.In other words collectors' continued acquisition of such cultural items, far from helping to perpetuate cross cultural understanding as they so often claim, merely perpetuate the patterns of dominance and submission as a legacy of the colonial era.
Juliet Torome, 'Africa’s Stolen History', Project Syndicate 13th Jan 2012.