Restitution of African Art, why should we do that or not? part 2
Wars have also had a role to play. The Katanga war in Zaire (1960-1963) and that of Biafra in Nigeria (1967-1970) delivered thousands of works of art that populations drove to famine sold for a rice bag before fleeing doomed villages to be erased. In one country as in the other, at the end of hostilities, local antique dealers had acquired sufficient financial means and commercial practice to extend their trade to neighboring ethnic groups and even to neighboring countries. From the end of the 1960s all tribal Africa is meshed with a very active network of brokers, and merchants who operate on the same model as in Europe. The locals buy from a family they know well (because it must remain secret), resells to a broker, resells to an antique dealer in contact with European dealers and collectors. African antique dealers are starting to go back and forth between Africa and Europe or the United States. In the 1970s, the Wellington hotels on 55 ° rue and 7th avenue in New York and the Alamac were veritable anthills where all the merchants from Africa landed: there were several hundred permanently. In Paris, small hotels in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district saw African merchants disembark every day from Abidjan, Dakar, Bamako, Douala, while Brussels welcomed Zairian merchants whose activity was expanding from the Atlantic coast to Burundi.
Speaking of African dealers, we cannot ignore that the number of fakes sold across the world for fifty years by African antique dealers represents considerable sums, far greater than those generated by the villagers' trade in authentic works. If some in Africa complain of having been looted, others in the West could legitimately complain of having been stolen in the same proportions. The African art trade has harmed more than one.
We must stop accusing white people of having plundered Africa. All that is stated above is strict historical truth, and I have personally lived through this era since 1969, which is why I feel entitled to speak of it today with some authority.
The vast majority of tribal artefacts were purchased in villages between the early 1960s and the late 1970s by African merchants who resold them - often making colossal profits - to collectors and antique dealers in Western countries. Suppose there has to be a fault, and it is necessary to designate a culprit. In that case, we will first designate the direction of the evolution of History, Progress, the entry of Black Africa into a modern world, exhibitions highlighting the genius of African sculptors. But we will denounce in the same way the wars, the indifference of all these African countries which have never been interested in the protection of their heritage, often for lack of means, sometimes for lack of culture, almost always for questions of inter-ethnic jealousy on the part of the power in place. The absence of a collection of Bambara and Bozo puppets in the Bamako museum, when magnificent ones could still be obtained for cheap fifteen years ago, illustrates my point. The two copies published on page 84 of the museum's catalog are a shame considering what one could find inexpensively at the time of its publication. And we will also denounce museum curators who squandered the collections (the legacy of Paul Couturier at the Dakar Museum, for example) or the incompetence of some others or the dishonesty of curators. The works were lost, as we can imagine. We will also mention the complicity of this venal conservator who for thirty years delivered knowingly, and in return for payment, copy", and who then claimed that the antique dealers were deceiving him. Has he never heard that in India they put a seal so that this does not happen? In Africa, the relationship with African art objects accessible for purchase has always been, for all and at all levels, only a relationship based on interest.
But it's not about accusing; my point is only to put things in their rightful place.
The provenance of African art that landed in what is generally referred to as the market done by African dealers from the early 1960s until the late 1970s. The charges of theft on command are nothing but fabrications that offer an honorable way out for Africans, faced with the total absence of a cultural policy aimed at safeguarding their heritage since independence. We regret that this whole business of restitution rests on bases which are biased from the start.
I want to go further by evoking the notion of lost heritage which comes up in each claim. Heritage is "a set of goods inherited from the ascendants or gathered and kept to be transmitted to the descendants". Is African art treated as heritage in Africa? This is the question that arises, and it is important to answer it given the current claims.
The vast majority of masks and sculptures that appear in private or public collections date from the beginning or the middle of the 19th century. Metal or ivory objects, archeology, works preserved on-site under special conditions, such as Tellem statues found in caves often walled up, where time stands still, escape the rule. It means that objects collected at the beginning of the 20th century could be three to four generations old, a hundred years at most, never more. If the notion of heritage exists in Black Africa, why do we never find in families, in palaces, in huts, masks or fetishes, objects that are two hundred, three hundred years old? Age, ten, fifteen, twenty generations, and more? Posters advertising auctions of works of art in specialized rooms, dating from the third century BC, have been found in Rome. We know the passion of the Romans for Greek statues, and Latinists know the plea of Cicero against Verres, administrator of Sicily who had stripped all the temples and all the private houses of the most beautiful works of art so much his passion devoured him. The Marquis de Campana had such a passion for works of art in the middle of the 19th century that he ended up engaging in embezzlement in order to continue buying and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Its collection, the most important private collection ever, was partly bought by the Louvre.
But where are the African collections? In the fifty years that we have published catalogs, that we circulate exhibitions, that we auction, no one has ever seen the name of a single African collector. This is a terrible admission: on all this continent, in all these countries of sub-Saharan Africa there has never been a single person, not a single one, who wanted to collect, to collect for his pleasure or the pleasure of sharing. There was not the equivalent of a François Ier who asked the Dieppe shipowner Jean Ango to bring him objects from wherever his ships would go in the world. There was no Napoleon I who swept up works of art in all the countries he conquered. No Lawrence the Magnificent, no Rudolf II of Hungary, no Charles I of England, no François Cacault, no Catherine II of Russia, no prince or no individual to collect and preserve the witnesses of the past. Let someone explain to me why among all these African footballers and athletes who earn millions of euros per year, not a single one has ever participated in the preservation of his heritage. Quite simply because the notion of heritage does not exist.
Let us be clear, Africans should congratulate themselves on the fact that Europeans have been able to preserve a heritage doomed to disappear. Without the collectors, the 99% of objects that are in Europe would have almost all disappeared, victims of ignorance, termites, autodafés of religious of all stripes. Because always, African art taken out of the ritual context has left all Africans in total indifference, were it not for the commercial value that it represents.
It is normal, we are in another world, you will say to me. But if this attitude is normal, history must be judged on the indifference, renouncing the notion of heritage when objects were to be handed over to the ruin of time or the ravages of termites, such as Dogon masks photographed by Griaule in the "cemetery of masks » of the Bandiagara escarpment. The African statues were destined to disappear at the same time as the memory of the ancestor disappeared. They were replaced by other ancestors, more recent, that we had known and that we could invoke: the spiritual web linking the ancestor to the head of the family had to remain tense. African art was not made to be shared, except for the masks which were exhibited during a ceremony but which were perceived as deities with whom we had a reverential relationship and never as a work of art independent of the ceremonial context.
In ancient times, the absence of museums in black Africa undoubtedly reflects the peculiarity of a culture long based on the ephemeral.
The absence of stone architecture and the absence of writing did not encourage the populations to preserve their past as it was the case for Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. The famous mosque of Djenné, emblematic of Malian heritage, was completely razed in the 19th century by order of conqueror Amadou Lobbo. The current building was entirely built by the French in 1906 - William Ponty - and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) . In addition, in a society deeply rooted in magic, exhibiting a family statue would be exposing yourself to being a marabout.
We can evoke these difficulties to justify the absence of public collections worthy of the name in the capitals of the countries of Black Africa. But another question still arises: why never have a museum devoted to extra-African arts? Why condemn Africans to have and only see their vision of the world? Why have you never asked for works from the classical world, a few paintings and works of art that illustrate the diversity of cultures and the beauty of things? Should we conclude from this that, in Africa, masks and statues exist only in the narrow circle of the family or village community, and that all that is foreign to the culture of origin does not interest anyone?
Today it is a question of returning African art to Africa. If the intention is good on the merits, one should not expect great results from it. Today it is a question of returning to Benin what was created in Benin, to Côte d'Ivoire what was created in Côte d'Ivoire, in Mali what was created in Mali, and so right now. It would have been better to give Africans the means to see what their culture has produced globally over the centuries rather than to restrict them to consider a tribal past which will not enrich them.
It would have been better to give Africans enough works to furnish museums in such a way that they are proud of their continent, of their history viewed as a whole, of their shared values as a cultural entity rather than being proud of or ashamed of their ethnicity or their country. These items can still be bought in the market today, there are so many things to sell at reasonable prices. It wouldn't have cost much more than all the missions, lawyers, press campaigns, disproportionate costs that will have to be incurred over the years for a mixed and above all uncertain result.
Africa needs to realize that there is a specifically African cultural identity and that is what we must work for: unite the peoples in a common cultural melting pot, make them proud to be African rather than to be Fon or Bambara.
© La Tribune de l'Art, Reginald Degroux