The repatriation of artworks to their countries of origin.

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LOGOAfrican art has always had a great purpose towards its people as it showed the growth and development of art from its earliest stages to the present day. It also served to tell the African history while commemorating culture and heritage.  Giblin (1998) states that art mirrors and articulates values and approaches which are

the products of everyone’s past experience. Between the 1870s and the 1900s, Africa faced military invasion, colonialism and the imposition of foreign cultures. During this process a number of African antiquities were exported to different European countries. Some of them were unrightfully taken away from African nations and in the past few decades, government officials have been requesting for the return of works that they feel have been pillaged from their countries.

Dr. Nwauwa (2015) states that African art mirrors the values and practices of its people, and this is different from the expectations of European and western ideologies which it continues to be classified as tribal. When these artworks are removed from their Motherland, nations lose a piece of their values. People have been taking away artefacts from their original location and have been selling these for profit, while some are saved as keepsakes, and put in museums. Frequently, historically significant artworks that have been stored in national museums have become of national value.

Richard Mudariki, a Zimbabwean born artist based in South African showed an interest in analysing the looting of artworks into other nations specifically the Great Zimbabwean birds which were Trans parted in Cecil John Rhodes’s South African home in Capetown and are still there. Mudariki states of how fascinated he was when he set his eyes on one of the Zimbabwean soapstone bird, a symbolic and culturally important artwork from Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo. Every student in Zimbabwe has knowledge of the history of the Zimbabwean bird and its significance to the nation and for it not to be in its rightful place creates a feeling of loss of one’s past. In 2003 Zimbabwe commemorated on live television the return of its Zimbabwe bird by a German museum.

Though Zimbabwe managed to get one of its birds in 2003 which was in Germany, this did not lower the pressure of the need to return of other artworks to their rightful places in other countries. Countries such as Egypt have been taking action towards the repatriation of their antiquities to the home country. In 2013 it was demanding the return of the granite tablet and tombs of their Pharaohs. These are being safely kept in the London’s British museum. Turkey on the other hand is also demanding the return of antiquities from a number of countries reaching to the point of threatening to hold back loans of artworks to institutions until they are returned. The return of these artworks is of great advantage as this may draw tourist attraction to the country once the works are stored in museums and galleries. Instead of travelling to foreign countries to view, if these return those who visit l be able to have an in-depth understanding of these artworks as they learn from the   of the works.

 Some argue that it is not wise for these artworks to be returned to their countries of origin especially to the countries facing economic challenges as they will not be able to fully protect them. Since the looting of these works was done decades ago, it could seem unfair for the museums and galleries that have devoted their time towards the safe keeping of these antiquities. Noting that there can never be a “universal museum” that is fully accommodative, a museum can be built instead, one that allows the participation of people in the display, interpretation and exhibition of their heritage. This way everyone can use the “universal museum” to correct historical injustices, rather than exporting them back to their countries origin where there is no guarantee that they will be protected. Though this may have some validity for countries that faced colonialism, this can project an injustice since some of their history and heritage is still under the superintendence of European countries.

Recently the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s Chief Curator, Raphael Chikukwa (RC) attended an awards ceremony in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire; where matters concerning repatriation were raised. The National Gallery of Zimbabwe spoke to him concerning the matter.


NGZ: Concerning your recent visit to the Ivory Coast, can you briefly state what the event was about?


RC:  This was to attend the Henrike Grohs award ceremony at the Geothe Institute, Abidjan and as a jury committee member I had to be there. The Jury Committee members included myself, Simon Njami and Koyo Kouh a jury we unanimously awarded the first Henrike Grohs Award to Emkal who is a multi – media artist. Henrike was the Geothe Institute Director and she was killed in a terrorist attack in Abidjan a few years ago. This award is to remember her contribution to the African Art sector. We honour her and her life which was dedicated to promotion of art and culture in Africa and it also says Africa needs peace and without peace, cultural and artistic expressions will suffer.

NGZ: What is your view concerning the return of artworks which were in other European countries to their home countries e.g. the Zimbabwean bird?

RC: We all need to address the purpose why Africans want their artefacts/culture back to their original countries. It cannot be denied that these objects have national importance to the countries of origin. Africans are aware of the so called Global Museums and we see this as colonial excuse of wanting to keep these stolen objects in the west and the idea can not be trusted at all. One cannot rule out that museums in Africa come from an unfortunate background having to deal with very little funding and highly depending on Western Foundations. Museums in Africa are all operating in different stages and phases depending on when the country gained its independence and furthermore depending on the political will on this matter.
Surely, these objects are significant in promoting education and bringing pride to the African communities.   It is in my view that denying people their heritage is an abuse of human rights. The issue of human rights need to include Cultural Rights as part of rights of people – language, heritage, culture and artistic expression are valid as developmental goal and are an imperative for national survival through the preservation of national identity.  People take pride in their culture and heritage but why do others have to take pride away from them. One can also ask how many Africans get to see their heritage in the Western museums.  The answer is, just a fraction. So my answer is very simple, the return of these objects will bring back our pride and also what is the excuse of not returning other than a colonial one.

NGZ: What are your views concerning the French president’s statement on bringing back looted artworks to Africa?


RC: Well the call by the French President Emmanuel Macron is more than welcome and it’s just needs AFRICAN UNION (AU) and the AU member countries to take this call seriously and to settle AU teams to take this further. We must be aware that there are many European countries who are against the repatriation of the looted African heritage. As Africa we have to do our part for many Museums in Africa are decaying before they are dead. The need for infrastructure development and capacity building is more urgent now. Our preparedness will make the French President’s dream possible in a big way. We have to be mindful that these objects need care, proper interpretation and labels for what they have now, they do not speak to us at all. Some of them are believed to be Makonde and yet they are Korekore Objects and the re writing of our history is more urgent than ever. It is time we take advantage of this call.

NGZ: What hopes do you have concerning the repatriation of these artworks?

RC: I am very hopeful but we need to play our part as AU member countries and invest in building and maintaining Museums in the continent that will house these collections. The concern should be focused on these conflicting demands of different interest affecting museums practice in Africa if we are to look into a brighter future. Let’s not forget the repatriation of human remains which are housed in these Western Museums too.
What impact does this have on African Continent?

The new millennium has arrived and yet we are still to realize the importance of our own cultural institutions and their practitioners. With Africa, Latin America and Asia attaining their independence; they felt that the West has not only a political and economic debt with their respective continents, but also a cultural one. They want their history and their culture back. The history that the Westerners find interesting [such as the mentioned ‘’great civilisations’’] this implies returning cultural heritage to their moral owners but also rewriting history together under a new era.  Now that museums have been repossessed, the questions that stand are; what is the way forward and what is the future of museums in Africa? There is nothing better than getting your heritage back and this will bring tourism to the continent for the Western Museums are benefiting from our heritage today. Long queues in front of their museums. Africans have the opportunity to tell their own story and preserve their heritage given the political will and appreciation. If you do not represent yourself, you will be misrepresented, and it is this statement that African Museum professionals must consider.

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