NAIROBI – The news that Yale University has agreed to return thousands of artifacts that one of its researchers took from Peru in 1911 reminded me of a party that I attended recently – one that I had to leave prematurely.
An African friend had invited me to the event, at an acquaintance’s home. The host, a wealthy American, proudly displayed his collection of paintings and sculptures. As he showed us around, there was one object that appeared to be African, but I wasn’t sure; on occasion, I have identified art as African only to learn that it was, in fact, Native American.
The piece was an animal skin stretched and decorated with colored beads, and framed behind glass. The beads were the same kind that my people, the Maasai, use, but the dominant color was blue, not our preferred red.
“Where is that from?” I asked, pointing at the piece on the wall.
“That is from Zimbabwe,” our host replied. “It’s a wedding skirt that was worn in a Ndebele royal wedding in 1931.”
For an African away from home, finding even the most insignificant African object on display can make you happy. When I see Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee for sale in New York or Paris, for example, it makes me proud that there are Americans and Europeans who consider a product from my homeland valuable. Learning that a wealthy American had found a traditional African skirt worthy of a place in his home triggered the same feeling. But our host’s next remark erased it instantly.
He boasted that he had acquired the skirt illegally through a friend who had “paid” a Zimbabwean government official to smuggle it out of the country. My friend and I looked at each other, trying hard not to show our disapproval.
“I’m so disgusted,” my friend said a moment later. “Let’s leave before I get drunk and say something inappropriate to this guy.”
We left the party. On the way home, we ranted angrily about what we had witnessed. But our contempt was driven more by the West’s role in supporting corruption in Africa than by the fate of the specific Zimbabwean artifact we had seen. It wasn’t until I heard that Yale had returned the Peruvian objects that I began to think about African artifacts as culturally and historically important.
Many African artifacts have, of course, ended up in Western museums or in the hands of private Western collectors. The pieces are largely the loot that Europeans pillaged from Africa during the slave trade and the colonial period. Perhaps the most famous is the sculpture known as Bangwa Queen. Valued at millions of dollars, it is the world’s most expensive piece of African art.
African art exhibitions usually include stories about each piece’s origins, which are often tied to an African kingdom. But information about an artifact’s journey to the West is often vague or nonexistent. For example, The New York Times published an article last year about an African art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. The Times reported that the Bangwa Queen has been owned by many famous collectors “since she left her Cameroonian royal shrine in the late nineteenth century.”
In fact, the Bangwa Queen “left” Cameroon with Gustav Conrau, a German colonial explorer who later gave the statue to a museum in his home country. Considering the suspect tactics that colonial agents typically used to separate Africans from their possessions, it is unlikely that the Bangwa Queen left willingly. African artifacts on display in New York, London, Paris, and elsewhere have similar stories.
Peru’s reclamation of its cultural heritage made me wish the same for Africa’s looted artifacts. But Peru is fundamentally different from any African country. Its demand reflected a reverence for its past. To Peruvians, the artifacts are a reminder of the great Inca civilization that European conquerors destroyed.
Africans, on the other hand, tend to discount their past. To some extent, Africans appear to have internalized the condescending colonialist idea that Africa was primitive and needed to be civilized. We don’t treasure our historical artifacts, because they remind us of our rich civilizations’ supposed inferiority.
It is no wonder that an object as culturally important as a royal wedding skirt can be smuggled out of a country without anyone noticing. Until Africans recognize the value of their history, their cultures’ artistic output will continue to be up for grabs.