The New Times (Kigali)

22 March 2014

Rwanda: George Clooney and the Return of Africa's Stolen Artefacts

Photo: Met Museum
Benin mask.

THE EXISTING state of diminished self-awareness among Africans can be traced to historical antecedents such as the unchecked looting of the continent's artifacts during the colonial era.

Africa's living memory and chronology of achievements live scattered in numerous museums and private collections in Europe and North America.

Renowned American movie star George Clooney, speaking of the effect of such experience on any society notes that, "you can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they will still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, if you destroy their achievements then it is as if they never existed."

Clooney made the statement in his 2014 movie The Monuments Men, where he had to put his life and that of six of America's best museum directors, art historians and curators on the line for the protection and recovery of European artworks from the Axis forces during World War II.

Much more than any other people grouping, culturally significant artifacts from Africa lie scattered across the western hemisphere.

In Benin alone, over 4,000 artifacts were recorded to have been carted away during the British "punitive expedition" that killed, maimed and sucked the entire capital of Benin and sent the ruling monarch on exile.

The artefacts are not works of aesthetics, as the British looters erroneously assumed, in the wood carvings and sculptures are engraved pictorial and symbolic images of the achievements of generations of Africans that lived in that era.

There were no cameras, video recorders nor words written in papyrus in Benin then, there were those artworks.

In Congo, the looting was much worse. King Leopold of Belgium had the leisure of seizing thousands of years old of Congolese artworks. Belgian's Royal Museum for Central Africa remains one of the most visited museums in the country and is filled with stolen artworks of the Congolese.

Since the commencement of colonialism till date, as George Clooney rightly said, the Congolese have been lacking in a sense of inner direction and are plagued with a minimal acknowledgement of their self-worth as a result of the achievements of their forebears being cut off of their geographical and mental ambit.

In recognition of the importance of Peru's artefact to the nation's socio-cultural and economic advancement, Yale University in 2011 and 2012 returned tens of thousands of artifacts carted away from Peru by one of its researchers in 1911.

On June 30 1998, thirty-nine European countries signed a joint pledge to identify artworks stolen from Holocaust victims and to pay adequate and acceptable compensation to their heirs. Most developed countries signed the agreement.

In the case of Africa, however, 18 of the topmost international museums where Africa's artifacts are held came together in 2004 to sign a memorandum of understanding which read in part that "whether purchased or gift, the works acquired decades ago have become an essential part of the museums that cared for them and by extension part of the heritage of the nations that house them

Arguments have been advanced in certain circles promoting the view that Africa is not stable enough to receive her artifacts. One asks, how stable was Europe while the recovery of artifacts by the men portrayed in The Monuments Men was being carried out?

Europe was in shambles, destroyed by war and needing years of economic assistance under the Marshall plan and other measures to get back on its feet. But a fundamental part of a reconstructed Europe became the reconstruction of its museums and the re-establishment of arts and memory across that continent.

When Jewish artefacts were being sought out from their hideouts across Germany, the state of Israel as we know it today was not in the map of history. How much more the much celebrated 'Africa rising' of recent times? Where there is a will, there is a way.

Could Mr. Clooney join his much respected voice with the heart cries of hundreds of millions of voiceless Africans to call for a redress to the grave and ongoing injustice against the continent's past, present and future?

Marlon Brando rejected the Academy Awards for his exceptional role in the Godfather, opting instead to use that esteemed platform to gather public support for the plight of Native Americans in Hollywood. Is it possible for an actor, George Clooney perhaps, to do same for Africa's artifacts?

Chika Ezeanya is an author, essayist, teacher and public intellectual who blogs at

www.chikaforafrica.com.

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