Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Stanford Symposium on the Ethics and Legal Issues in Collecting "African Art"

Since 2003, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University has been holding an annual symposium on the 'Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas'. This one (Sat Jan 21st) has the title: "Cultural Heritage and African Art: Negotiating the Rise of Ethical and Legal Collecting Concerns". The blurb says:
In recent decades, the media and academic circles have given great attention to the protection of cultural property from looting and the sale and collection of archaeological materials. More recently, collectors, scholars and curators of African art have been increasingly confronted with ethical dilemmas and legal ambiguities in the collection of non-archaeological arts from Africa.

This day-long symposium focuses on identifying the ideological concerns and practical solutions surrounding the legal and ethical considerations of collecting African art made in the last 500 years.[...]Speakers are:

• George Okello Abungu, Ph.D., founding director, Okello Abungu Heritage Consultants, Nairobi, Kenya
Derek Fincham, J.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, South Texas College of Law, Houston
Kate Fitz Gibbon, J.D., attorney, Kate Fitz Gibbon Law Office, Santa Fe, N.M.
Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University
John Henry Merryman, J.D., LL.M., professor of law emeritus and affiliated professor emeritus in the Department of Art, Stanford University
Sylvester Okwunodo Ogbechie, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara
[...][my hyperlinks]

Discussions of collecting and international movement of cultural property these days tend to focus on the issue of dugup (archaeological) material. An equally contentious area is the collecting of ethnographic material. There is here too the same range of ethical problems as with the appropriation by individuals of the cultural property of an 'Other' for personal entertainment and profit and all the issues that involves. Perhaps the problems are greater in the sense that some of this material has freshly been removed from its social functions and context of living memory, while archaeological material has been through the stage of being 'forgotten'. I would argue too as indigenous societies undergo transformation, there is a context destroyed too when items are removed from one cultural context to serve as trophy "art" or "collectables" in another without adequate documentation. It is rather sad therefore to see that the issue is represented rather one-sidedly - several of the participants are connected with the "art" side of the issues of collecting of African ethnographic items, but no anthropologist or ethnographer will be on the panel. The concentration in this panel alongside the representative of the arts world of known pro-collecting advocates Merriman, Fincham and Fitz-Gibbon is striking. That they'll not be recommending "sending it all back" is my guess.

Also one is struck by the terms used, ethical and legal considerations are to be "negotiated" rather than guide actions. One almost gets the impression that this panel will be working on the premise that private collecting of African ethnographic items should go on unabated, but collectors, scholars and curators of "African art" should be learning to "negotiate" the ethical issues and the legal constraints.

It would be useful if this meeting resulted in a publication for those who cannot be in the audience in person.

In addition, I think one valuable first step to aiding "negotiating" the underlying question of concern to collectors (of legal origins) would be if somebody would gather together for collectors of such items a compilation of all the relevant cultural property legislation of the 54 recognised African states (65 territories) concerning the ownership, transfer of ownership and in particular export of collectable items, so anyone thinking of buying a piece can see at a glance what the legal, at least, criteria by which in doing their 'due diligence' they should be applying. There are translations of the legislation of individual countries available on the Internet (several such databases listed in the left sidebar of my main blog), but they are not complete or systematically compiled, so absence of legislation for a given country could be due to that country having a free-for-all on its cultural property, or the fact that the compilers have not yet found the relevant acts in a form that they can incorporate into their database. It is a notable circumstance that as far as I can see, not a single US dealer in "Tribal Art" includes even links to such resources, let alone lay out what the various pieces of legislation on export of cultural property relate to the items they have on sale, which ones need (and in their stock have) export licences, and which do not require export licences and why.

Vignette: Fundamental ethical issue to be "negotiated", making African cultural property accessible to all, including future generations in Africa.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this note. We look forward to reading about the outcome of this interesting discussion.
    Kwame Opoku.