Africa’s cultural heritage: The long road home

By Finbarr Toesland and Alison Culliford

Posted on February 29, 2016 15:14

Among the images of sapeurs and nightclub divas of the highly successful ‘Beauté Congo‘ exhibition at Paris’s Fondation Cartier is an unusual canvas by Chéri Samba.

The artist has portrayed himself surrounded by carved wooden figures that he saw in the basement of Zurich’s Völkerkundemuseum. The painting includes a text (in French) in which Samba says he could physically feel the effect some of the objects had on him. “I was […] surprised to learn that Mr Coray,” the text continues, “who had assembled this impressive collection had never visited the Africa where the works in his collection came from, to meet the creators to whom I pay homage. Are there other collectors similar to Mr Coray?”

The answer is not far away. At Sotheby’s Paris showrooms, minutes from France’s presidential palace, a private soirée is being held on the eve of an important auction of African and Oceanic art. Circulating, champagne glasses in hand, between podia displaying the lots to be sold, is a select gathering of the world’s most prominent tribal art collectors, experts and dealers.

The conversation is not about their latest trip to the continent, but of collections that have circulated among the same elite for decades, appearing, as their provenances reveal, at auctions in Paris, London and Brussels, and in private collections from Amsterdam to Missouri.

“At this level no one buys on the continent,” says one London dealer. “There’s nothing there! Anything of value was brought to Europe in the 19th and early 20th century. Nothing else survived.” UNESCO estimates that most African countries have lost 95% of their cultural heritage – through greed, neglect, destruction and theft.

“Tribal art”, as this field is known in the collecting world, accounts for only 0.68% of the total auction sales volume of art worldwide. Nevertheless, it is a market that is growing, and attaining ever more extraordinary prices. In their peak year of 2014 sales of tribal art made a whopping €92.1m, up from €13.7m in 2001, with a record $12.037m paid for a single piece – a Senufo female statue from Côte d’Ivoire or Burkina Faso.

The great beneficiaries of this are Western middlemen, dealers and auction houses

African art is the sector that is growing most quickly. “Once the works sold at auction surpass the million dollar mark, people pay more attention. The higher prices give a sense of confidence and entice new buyers to come into the market,” analyses collector and San Francisco gallery owner James Willis.

The profile of the collectors is also changing. According to Sotheby’s Jean Fritts, 25% of tribal art on the market is now going to the Middle East, including to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the future National Museum of Qatar. Some in the trade suggest that rising economies in sub-Saharan Africa have contributed, with wealthy Africans such as the Congolese entrepreneur Sindika Dokolo bidding to bring African heritage home.

Smugglers’ charter

The launch of new museums and wings devoted to these works has influenced the collecting frenzy. The biggest single event was the opening of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris in 2006, the pet project of then president Jacques Chirac which drew on two state collections from the colonial era.

Quai Branly has espoused a new type of museology, and even, in 2015, made an effort to identify the artists who created the work, with its ‘Masters of Sculpture – Ivory Coast’ exhibition. But what some see as a welcome innovation, opening up these museums to an audience who may have shunned them in the past, others see it as an attempt to whitewash the murky past. And the fact remains that a cultural trip to Paris – or indeed to Doha – is out of the question for all but a tiny percentage of Africans.

Quai Branly has also been held up to scrutiny over its acquisition of antiquities imported after the cut-off date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention – an agreement signed by 129 countries to act against the illicit trade in cultural property.

In April 2000, as a precursor to the opening of the museum, a selection of objects was exhibited in the Louvre’s Pavillon des Sessions. It included two Nok terracottas bought from the Brussels dealer Samir Borro in 1998, whose export from Nigeria had not been authorised. Chirac used his political influence with the then president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, to get a retrospective authorisation, but the Nigerian embassy in Paris refused to accept it. Further negotiations led to the terracottas being “loaned” to France for a renewable period of 25 years, which the Nigerian lawyer Folarin Shyllon has described as a “smugglers’ charter”.

Illicit trading will not stop until the demand does

The journey an object makes from being illegally excavated to its sale at a Western auction house or display in a museum can be complex. In Mali, for example, the threat of poverty and war confronts an already struggling population. Young unemployed men and those who feel a disconnect to their heritage are easy targets for local dealers, who get them to perform rudimentary excavations, in sites such as the Djenné-Djenno. Extending over 80 acres it is one of the oldest urbanised centres in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Marked by years of digging, pottery shards are strewn over the site, disguising the important role the ancient place once played as a trade centre in the region.

From these historic sites the goods move on through Niger, onto dealers who ask few questions when acquiring new objects and are more than happy to accept goods from a private seller’s dubious “family collection”.

Depending on the value of the object, falsified documentation will be manufactured to get past any customs officials. From here the pieces head to mainland Europe where dealers turn their attention to high-priced items and forge further papers, so that auction houses will include them in future sales. Lower-end items without this bolstered provenance will be offloaded to smaller antiquities dealers and shops, which have far less stringent acceptance policies.

“The great beneficiaries of this are Western middlemen, dealers and auction houses,” says the British-Ghanaian cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford, who presented the BBC series Lost Kingdoms of Africa. He points out that looting and destruction often go hand in hand in conflict areas, as has been the case in Mali in the hands of Islamic rebels Ansar Dine.

But the past few years have also seen the return of a number of looted or stolen artefacts. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), for example, has sought to purge illicitly obtained items from its collections. Under the direction of Victoria Reed, curator of provenance, the MFA gave back a total of eight pieces of African artwork to Nigeria in June 2014, after a thorough investigation of over 300 objects bequeathed by a former museum overseer, William Teel.

“There were obviously some high-risk objects in the collection,” says Reed. “Nok terracotta appear on ICOM [the International Council of Museums]’s Red List and we knew they had come out of Nigeria, potentially in the ’90s.”

No permission

An ancestral figure once in the Oron museum was acquired by a Zurich gallery in 2004, accompanied by a document stating that the National Commission of Museums and Monuments had waived Nigeria’s ownership right to the object. On checking with the commission, Reed discovered that no such permission had been given. Following the looting of the museum during the Biafran war that ended in 1970 the whereabouts of the item until 2004 remains unclear. Although the MFA still owns artworks with a contested acquisition history, Reed’s work is a step in the right direction.

Leading figures across Africa have long argued for the return of illicitly obtained artefacts, but to little or no avail. Sindika Dokolo hopes to change this through his Sindika Dokolo Foundation. The foundation has put together a team of researchers, dealers and, perhaps more importantly, lawyers, to scour archives and investigate the international art market, looking for any potential stolen artworks.

When an object such as this is discovered, the owner is offered two options: sell back the item for the price it was bought for or deal with a protracted legal contest for theft. “If I have to spend a large deal of money and five years in court I will do it.” Dokolo asserts. So far his approach has yielded some results. Two ancestral female Pwo masks and a rare statue representative of the male figure of the Chokwe people, looted from Angola during the civil war, have been retrieved from private European collections. These objects will be returned to the Dundo Museum in Angola, where they were last exhibited.

Better museums

In many countries museum security has improved, but few governments have truly invested in the potential their museums could have – not least in tapping the growing interest in African art to raise revenue from tourism. Dokolo holds up the Dundo Museum as a prime example of a revived institution. “The argument that if you send these objects back to Africa they will be lost or stolen is not acceptable any more,” he says.

As further objects are repatriated, calls for the remaining looted treasures to be returned are building up. “Fortunately, public awareness regarding the devastating effects of looting and trafficking is growing, but illicit trading will not stop until the demand does. Transparency is key,” says Rachel Dewan, Executive Director of Saving Antiquities for Everyone.

In the meantime, Casely-Hayford thinks there may be another way to return African artefacts to their cultural context. “There is massive scope for loaning these objects on a semi-permanent basis, which would mean that museums and galleries across Africa would be able to enjoy these incredible objects,” he says. “[The] loss of narrative is what we have to fight,” he continues. “We must not be complicit in destroying our own history, especially as there are many people that would deny us of this. We mustn’t make it easy for them in actually selling our history out from under the feet of our own children.”

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