The history of the African continent is littered with the exploits of plunderers. Slave traders - local and foreign - held sway for centuries, carting multitudes of Africans across the Atlantic, to plantations in the Americas and elsewhere. When the slave trade went out of fashion, the land grab followed. In Berlin in 1885, the colonial warriors carved Africa up into bits - represented on the map as brightly coloured slices - which they then proceeded to administer and exploit, until the wave of independence that arrived with the 1950s. Following that phase, the scramble has largely taken on an economic dimension, with Africa’s oil and minerals and farmlands up for grabs.
Less overt, is another kind of plunder - involving the relocation of hundreds of valuable pieces of artwork - sculptures, pottery, from Africa to museums and private collections in the West. Take Benin’s bronze heads for example. In 1897, the British attacked and destroyed the Benin Kingdom. In the process they gained access to the Kingdom’s rich trove of extraordinary artwork, which they wasted no time looting. And the plunder has continued to the present day. Over the last few decades, hundreds of vigango (ancestral totems used to mark burial sites) have disappeared from Kenyan villages, ending up in museums and private collections in the United States. In 1994, the National Museum in Ile-Ife was broken into three times, with the vandals carting away some of the finest heads in the collection.
It is estimated that the global illicit trade in artifacts is currently worth billions of dollars. It would also not be farfetched to say that the West’s thriving exhibition circuit is propped up to a significant extent by artifacts illegally acquired from Africa. An exhibition, currently going on in London at the moment, is showing the finest of Ife’s terracotta and brass heads. At the moment, there are no plans to host the exhibition in Nigeria.
It would not be true, or fair, however, to lay the blame solely at the feet of Europe and America. The West would find it extremely difficult to gain possession of African artifacts, especially in contemporary times, without the collusion of Africans themselves, within and outside the government bureaucracy. Unscrupulous Western businessmen and art dealers may pay for Kenya’s vigango, but the actual stealing is done by unscrupulous Kenyan youth, who loot burial sites. In 2001, Chinedu Idezuna, a Lagos-based artifacts dealer with a thriving export business told Time Magazine: “Customs officials check the shipment for narcotics, for this and that, but because I’ve got the letter, I’m fine. Our government doesn’t permit it, of course, but we gallery owners get [objects] out by telling [customs officials] that we are having a show of African culture.” The “letter” he was referring to, according to Time, was “from the N.C.M.M. (National Commission for Museums and Monuments), permitting him to export contemporary arts and crafts - but not antiquities.”
Conspiracies like this abound at all levels of government bureaucracy. The truth is that there are few incentives for African art to stay on the African continent. The museums that should house them are grossly under funded, in many cases neglected outright. Pay a visit to the National Museum in Lagos, to see the dismal treatment meted out to valuable, irreplaceable antiquities. A few minutes in the museum is all it will take to convince anyone that the most valuable parts of our history lie buried beneath dust and darkness.
Beyond institutional disdain, there is the role of religion in making African art an endangered species. Christianity and Islam, in their vicious campaign against “idolatry” have succeeded in destroying several historic sites and artwork. In June 2008 violence broke out in Osogbo, Osun State, between Muslims and the followers of a popular masquerade. The masquerade was beaten and stripped and his clothing taken away by the Muslims. Communal shrines in many parts of Eastern Nigeria have for years been under siege from zealous Christians acting in the belief that the shrines are pagan and the source of misfortune and affliction.
Because of the reasons outlined above, there are many who have come to the conclusion that African artifacts are actually better off in the care of the West, where there is a better guarantee that they will be preserved and kept secure and even properly researched. On the surface of it this argument appears to make a lot of sense. But in truth what it does is to let out governments off lightly from their responsibility to treat our cultural heritage with respect.
We urge Nigerian governments at all levels to emulate the Osun State Government, whose efforts resulted in the listing of the Osun Osogbo grove as a UNESCO world heritage site. We also appeal to wealthy Nigerians to extend their philanthropic efforts towards preserving our cultural heritage. There are museums and private collections waiting to be built and funded, research chairs to be funded in Universities. After all, the intimidating stash of African Art currently in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art once belonged to the private collection of American politician and philanthropist, Nelson Rockefeller. Our billionaires already have their work cut out for them.