Should Africans have art?

If you think the question is facetious, read this book

A few years ago, I found myself looking at a human head preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. I was in a storage room at Leiden University Hospital, and I had braced myself, but whatever I might have imagined I might feel when looking at such a thing was not what I felt. I had expected to be shocked, but the object felt strangely peaceful. It had belonged to King Badu Bonsu II, and it had been sitting in this collection since 1838, when he had been killed by the Dutch in what is now Ghana.

My partner, Arthur Japin, had learned that it still existed in the course of the research for The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi (De zwarte met het witte hart), a novel that, for many Dutch people, brought home the realities of their nation’s involvement in the slave trade—a history, like the head itself, that had long since been placed into a rarely visited back room.

“Brought home”: during the course of our involvement with this head—brought home, supposedly, for study—we learned just how much of this stuff is in European museums. Nobody, at least nobody we talked to, particularly wanted to keep it, or had any use for it, or thought it should be kept. But nobody quite knew what to do with it.

It turned out that Badu Bonsu’s descendants were still very much around, and still very much aware of the story, and still very much wanted the head back. (Ouf! someone has a picture of it; click at your own risk.) We tried to set things in motion.

But the head was surprisingly hard to put on a plane. Arthur had to go all the way to the Queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix, in order to get things moving—and when it finally returned, it was a big deal, involving the highest levels of the Dutch and the Ghanaian governments.

I always thought about this when reading about the restitution debates surrounding African art. If it was this hard to send something back that nobody wanted to keep, how hard would it be to send back the good stuff, the stuff these institutions and governments did want?

The answer? Hard.

This week, I went to Berlin. Normally, this would be fun, but not … breathtaking.

Walking down a street, seeing my family, eating in a restaurant, buying some new clothes: the neo-clochard look I reluctantly embraced stopped feeling like a holiday about a year ago. I was down to a single pair of pants. And so, with the eagerness of an East German pensioner allowed across the Wall on a twelve-hour visa, I ripped through the KaDeWe, which I was permitted to enter after getting a virus test, making an online reservation, registering at a security desk, and presenting my passport.

Was it worth it?

Reader, it was.

So now, though I haven’t yet had a haircut—it’s only been fourteen months—or been to the dentist—what’s the rush?—I do have four new pairs of pants.

And, of course, in that great bookstore city, I went to the bookstores. I always like bookstores, but I’ve never felt quite as much like a contestant in Supermarket Sweep as I did this week.

The sad thing is: unlike jeans and socks, I have more than enough books to last me for the rest of my life. But the excitement of being allowed back was such that I just threw in anything that tempted me.

One was called Afrikas Kampf um seine Kunst: Geschichte einer postkolonialen Niederlage (Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: Story of a Postcolonial Defeat) which captured my attention because of the subject, and also because of its author. Bénédicte Savoy is a French academic who has been involved at the highest levels in establishing just how much African art is in Europe, and just what ought to be done with it. She was the co-chair of the commission that led President Macron to announce that nearly all the African art in French museums should be returned to its countries of origin, an announcement that seemed like a huge deal at the time but that has since resulted in … not much.

The African claims interested me because of a shocking statistic I once read: that between 90-95% of all sub-Saharan African antiquities are housed outside Africa. This makes Africa a very different story from Greece, say—whose claims to the Parthenon marbles I fully support—or Mexico, or China: we’re talking about nearly the entire cultural heritage of an entire continent. Just imagine that 90-95% of the cultural production of France or Italy was kept in storerooms in Lusaka or Kinshasa. It’s a theft on an unbelievable scale.

Then there’s been the insult on top of the injury: because European visitors see so little old art in Africa, they assume that the conditions for preserving it don’t exist, or that Africans never cared that much about it, or (the ultimate argument: less spoken these days, but said out loud often enough in the past) that Africans were too savage to produce art anyway.

If these ideas seem designed to produce outrage, Savoy’s book is all the more effective because of its almost yogic calm. She chronicles, letter by polite letter, request by reasonable request, the consistent efforts of Africans to reclaim their cultural heritage from the “Year of Africa,” 1960, when 18 former colonies became independent, to the present day. She shows how nation after nation, government after government, has tried to reclaim objects—even as temporary loans to exhibitions—and how European governments and museums have consistently stonewalled them.

It’s an especially interesting book because of the author’s background. Though French, Savoy teaches in Berlin and seems to have written this book in German. The perspective, for much of the book, is the German perspective, showing how German museums have conspired to keep their looted art.

This is illuminating because Germany was not among the leading colonial powers. Compared to Britain, France, Belgium, or Portugal, its involvement was relatively minor, and ended with World War I. Yet German museums have huge and excellent African collections, many of which were acquired through dealers, rather than through pointing guns at people’s heads. This places them at a certain remove. But they defended their collections in the same way, and often with the same words, that institutions that acquired their objects by straightforward looting defended theirs.

(In the 1960s, many German museum administrators were, of course, former Nazis. Many of them knew absolutely nothing about Africa—had never even set foot there. But they nonetheless knew that Europe was a better place for African art than Africa.

Savoy leaves this unsaid, but the idea that Germany, responsible for the destruction of art and culture on a scale undreamed of by even the most bloodthirsty African warlord, is a better place for art and culture than the places that actually made these objects is … rich. It’s shocking to hear people like the Stuttgart museum director Friedrich Kußmaul, a Nazi party member and former Wehrmacht solider, making this argument.)

When I was in Berlin this week, I went to the Gemäldegalerie. This was almost unbearably exciting, since I haven’t been to a museum in almost a year, and it was all the more exciting to have the greatest museum between Paris and St. Petersburg almost entirely to myself. I didn’t have to crop the above picture to remove the madding crowds. There were no madding crowds. There was nobody.

On the column on the left of the picture is a story you often find in German museums. A picture, in this case by the Amersfoort Caravaggist Matthias Stom, had been stolen from a Jewish collection, finally restituted to its owners, then purchased back, through a legitimate dealer in London, for the museum. This story is recounted on the column.

This is a nice story.

A wrong was righted.

It’s the kind of story that gets put on a big self-congratulatory text in two languages right in the middle of a gallery, so nobody can miss it. What’s less nice is how long this story has gone on. The theft of Jewish art took place on such a huge scale, and so many of the legitimate owners were either murdered or scattered to the four winds, that it was inevitable that some tainted art would slip through.

Yet anyone who knows anything about the looting of Jewish art knows how dishonest museums and governments have been about the provenance of the art in their collections. In 1976, Dr. Stephan Waetzoldt, director of the Preußischer Kulturbesitz, which owns the Gemäldegalerie and many other Berlin museums, stated that there were no illegally acquired objects in the possession of the foundation.

Forty years later: oops!

What changed? The political circumstances.

Governments change; staff members retire; there are always complicating factors. But in the roughly sixty years since African nations gained their independence, what hasn’t changed are the lies.

Is anyone publishing this book in a language other than German? I don’t know. But if you read German, buy it here.

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