Nearly a half century since the decolonization of Africa, the question
remains: Why is Europe still the best place to view or buy traditional
and tribal African art?
While the world has started to pay attention to the collapse of
health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa--and the concomitant spread
of AIDS and the resurgence of "vanquished" diseases such as malaria
and tuberculosis--little is said about the continent's cultural
collapse. The governments that have plundered the continent's resources
also have ignored the vast cultural treasures in their countries.
Only African music retains a firm footing, because of its commercial
base and vague attraction to listeners of Western pop.
But Africa's great traditions of sculpture, mask-making and textile
design are poorly
16th century ivory Benin
by British invaders in 1897.
recognized at home. Even behemoths such as Nigeria, Africa's most
populous nation, or South Africa, the richest nation of black Africa,
boast no museums where visitors are presented with anything like
the breadth, diversity and sheer quality of the art produced across
the continent. Instead, museums in Africa tend toward the local
and disconnected. And that's in places where museum curators aren't
selling off pieces themselves or conspiring with thieves. To get
a feel for the immense diversity of tribal African art requires
a visit not to Africa, but to London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, New
York, Washington or Los Angeles.
This irony is all the more poignant because after centuries of
denigrating tribal African art as mere anthropological curiosity,
Western collectors and museum curators are now among its most devoted
admirers--and they have helped make it a thriving business. While
African statues and masks once went for a song, allowing shrewd
collectors to assemble a gallery of gems on the cheap, this is no
longer so. Quality pieces, dating from the 19th or early 20th century,
routinely sell for tens of thousands of dollars. A glossy catalog
for an upcoming auction in Paris, for example, advertises more than
600 objects that represent the bulk of the collection of a recently
deceased French collector, Hubert Goldet. The finest pieces, such
as a Baule mask from the Ivory Coast or a finely carved ritual table
from the Congo, are expected to sell for more than $100,000 each,
and many other pieces should fetch more than $10,000.
These are high prices indeed for tribal art that, in the main,
began to circulate as colonial booty. But this legacy of cultural
plunder carries an ambiguous morality--in part because African elites
never valued this art and took few steps to preserve it themselves.
This dilemma remains largely unacknowledged even as the cultural
and monetary value of African art booms among a select group of
Europeans and Americans.
Among the plunder from Africa, during the "great scramble" for
control over the continent in the late 19th century, art counted
among the highest prizes of imperialism. As the fruits of the looting
of central Africa in particular began showing up in Europe, important
artists took notice. Early in the 20th century, Africans inspired
a bevy of Europeans, including Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque,
both of whom admired what was then viewed as the "primitive" or
instinctive qualities of African sculpture and masks in particular.
Max Ernst created bronze sculptures that bore striking resemblances
to Africa's wooden statues. The Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti's
elongated and misshapen human figures owe a debt to African conceptions
of beauty. (This link between modern art and tribal Africa is well
documented in France's National Museum of Modern Art and in the
Picasso Museum, where African art owned by European artists is displayed
alongside their own work, to revealing effect.)
Despite this influence, the 20th-century art world did not grant
African art the kind of rarified status given to visual arts in
the West. Africans, it was believed, lacked the intellectual capabilities
and the emotional depth to produce art that matched the best of
the West and Asia. With the wave of independence throughout Africa
in the late '50s and early '60s, these racist attitudes began to
change. Black pride, while chiefly seen as an African-American reaction
to centuries of segregation and subordination, had its parallels
among thinkers and activists in Africa. Indigenous expression took
on fresh value. Some Europeans, meanwhile, began to idealize the
African aesthetic, granting the status of high culture to what were
once just seen as religious artifacts of tribal life and drawing
important distinctions of style and skill between tribes.
Indeed, dozens of African tribes have significant--and still living--traditions
in the visual arts: the Fang or Kuba in the Congo, the Asante or
Fante in Ghana, the Dan or Baule in Ivory Coast, or the Dogon or
Bambara in Mali are just a few examples. (For an introduction, gape
at the gorgeously illustrated 1998 volume by Jean-Baptiste Bacquart,
The Tribal Arts
of Africa.) But after decades of steady interest in African
tribal art by collectors, quality pieces no longer turn up consistently--and
pieces made more than a century ago are exceedingly rare. Still,
there are exceptions: The massive war in the Congo has boosted supply.
As a recent U.N. report documented, the invading armies of Uganda,
Rwanda, Angola and even Zimbabwe know enough not to stop at looting
just diamonds and timber from the Congo; tribal art, often stolen
directly from terrified villagers, also makes up part of the war
booty. Looted Congolese pieces can quickly make their way to places
as far away as the United States.
Today's looters are only carrying on a dubious European tradition.
Museum has long presented a smattering of African objects throughout
its rooms, and its ancient Egyptian collection is superb. Its new
African Galleries are first-rate. And they should be: While collections
in Belgium, France and Germany contain many valuable pieces, no other
nation could match the British when it came to plundering so many
art objects of a conquered people over so long a time period. The
British Museum, the official repository for much of this material,
controls 200,000 objects from Africa alone, which make up only a small
part of its vast collection built on a foundation of Egyptian and
16th Benin cast on view at
the British Museum. Would this art be
safe back in Africa?
The African Galleries contain more than 600 pieces, organized thematically,
and mainly dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibit,
which will be refreshed from the museum's collection about every
two years, also contains a few contemporary pieces, such as a hippopotamus
mask by the Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp. But most of the
objects are tribal art, such as a Kuba royal statue from the early
18th century, the late 19th-century dance shields by the Kikuyu
of Kenya or the elephant mask made of cotton and cowrie shells in
Cameroon early last century.
Undoubtedly the centerpieces of the British Museum's collection
are the arresting brass casts from Benin, a legendary African kingdom
that is now part of contemporary Nigeria and reached its peak in
the 15th century. The most special of these is a Yoruba brass head,
one of the so-called "Ife" castings. Benin casts are prized by West
Africans, because they were made using techniques unknown to Europeans
at the time. Indeed, the techniques were so superior to European
metalwork that for a long time, art experts in the West insisted
that the Benin people could not have learned this form of casting
on their own. They said the casts must be the work of a Greek colony,
perhaps even the mythical Atlantis. It wasn't until after World
War II that the senior Africanist at the British Museum declared
that the Ife castings certainly predated any European influence
on Benin's artists.
In an 1897 British invasion of what today is Nigeria, soldiers
seized many of these casts, including what is now an entire wall
on display in the galleries. "These objects should be returned,"
says Adama Gaye, publisher of the London-based West
Africa magazine. "African countries are mature enough to
manage this art, and it belongs to them."
John Mack, the senior "keeper" of artifacts at the British Museum
and an expert on African art who directed the creation of the new
African Galleries, disagrees. Mack says that most African countries
still lack the skills and resources to safeguard their most precious
objects: "In many ways, these are better off with us."
Some Africans themselves agree, he says, citing the example of
the Kuba tribe, some of whose objects are on display at the galleries.
"The Kuba chief was here at the opening, and he plainly said that
he was happy these objects weren't in the Congo, where they could
be stolen," Mack says. The chief even complained that prized tribal
art recently donated to a Congo museum has already been stolen.
The British insist that more African art is likely to shift to
the West, rather than return home, if only because European and
U.S. museums have the resources and expertise to preserve and safeguard
these objects. This view is hard to dismiss. The reality is that
in sub-Saharan Africa at least, governments have more pressing needs
than the task of art presentation and preservation. This is doubly
tragic, because when Africa is dependent on the West for management
of the very art that Africans can proudly call their own, it is
Westerners who define what makes this art beautiful and valuable.
G. Pascal Zachary is an In These Times contributing
editor and the author of The Global Me, on globalization,
society and culture. He can be reached at [email protected]