Sene­gal re­claims colonised art for its gallery

Pretoria News Weekend - - OPINION - AP AP

DAKAR, Sene­gal: The Mu­seum of Black Civil­i­sa­tions in Sene­gal opened this month amid a global con­ver­sa­tion about the own­er­ship and legacy of African art. The cul­ture min­is­ter isn’t shy: he wants the thou­sands of pieces of cher­ished her­itage taken from the con­ti­nent over the cen­turies to come home.

“It’s en­tirely log­i­cal that Africans should get back their art­works,” Ab­dou Latif Coulibaly said. “These works were taken in con­di­tions that were per­haps le­git­i­mate at the time but il­le­git­i­mate to­day.”

Last month, a re­port com­mis­sioned by French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron rec­om­mended that French mu­se­ums give back works taken without con­sent if African coun­tries re­quest them.

Macron has stressed the “un­de­ni­able crimes of Eu­ro­pean coloni­sa­tion,” adding: “I can­not ac­cept that a large part of African her­itage is in France.”

The new mu­seum in Dakar is the lat­est sign that wel­com­ing spa­ces across the con­ti­nent are be­ing pre­pared.

The mu­seum, with its fo­cus on Africa and the di­as­pora, is decades in the mak­ing.

The idea was con­ceived when Sene­gal’s first pres­i­dent, poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, hosted the World Black Fes­ti­val of Arts in 1966.

At the mu­seum’s vi­brant open­ing, sculp­tors from Los Angeles, singers from Cameroon and pro­fes­sors from Eu­rope and the Amer­i­cas came to cel­e­brate, some in tears.

“This mo­ment is historic,” Sene­galese Pres­i­dent Macky Sall said. “It is part of the con­ti­nu­ity of his­tory.”

Per­haps re­flect­ing the ten­u­ous hold African na­tions still have on their own legacy ob­jects, the mu­seum will not have a per­ma­nent col­lec­tion.

Fill­ing the enor­mous cir­cu­lar struc­ture, one of the largest of its kind on the con­ti­nent, is com­pli­cated by the fact that count­less arte­facts have been dis­persed around the world.

Both the in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion, African Civil­i­sa­tions: Con­tin­u­ous Cre­ation of Hu­man­ity, and the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor take a far longer view than the re­cent cen­turies of coloni­sa­tion and tur­moil.

Cur­rent works high­light the con­ti­nent as the “cra­dle of civil­i­sa­tion” and the echoes found among mil­lions of peo­ple in the di­as­pora to­day.

“Coloni­sa­tion? That’s just two cen­turies,” cu­ra­tor Ha­mady Bo­coum said, say­ing proof of African civil­i­sa­tion was at least 7 000 years old, ref­er­enc­ing a skull dis­cov­ered in present-day Chad.

Like oth­ers, Bo­coum is ea­ger to see arte­facts re­turn for good. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes 50 pieces on loan from France, in­clud­ing more than a dozen from the Quai Branly Mu­seum in Paris.

More than 5 000 pieces in the Quai Branly come from Sene­gal alone, Bo­coum said.

“When we see the in­ven­tory of the Sene­galese ob­jects that are found in France, we’re go­ing to ask for cer­tain of those ob­jects,” Bo­coum said. “For the mo­ment, we have not yet started ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

He brushed off con­cerns that African in­sti­tu­tions might be un­able to care for their own her­itage, point­ing to the new mu­seum’s hu­mid­i­fied, air-con­di­tioned stor­age space.

The his­tory of some of the ob­jects in the open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion is grim.

Point­ing to the sabre of El Hadj Umar Tall, a 19th-cen­tury West African thinker who fought against French colo­nial­ism, Bo­coum de­scribed how French troops fight­ing him stripped lo­cal women of their elab­o­rate jew­ellery by cut­ting off their ears.

Con­tem­po­rary works in the ex­hi­bi­tion touch on both tri­umph and tragedy.

There are black-and-white pho­to­graphs of African night­clubs in the 1960s shot by fa­mous Malian pho­tog­ra­pher Mal­ick Sidibe, and a stark mu­ral by Haitian artist Philippe Do­dard de­pict­ing African re­li­gions and the so-called “Mid­dle Pas­sage”, per­tain­ing to the slave trade.

Works by Yrneh Gabon Brown, based in Los Angeles, ref­er­ence slav­ery and con­tem­po­rary race re­la­tions in Amer­ica. “Some­times I feel like a motherless child,” Brown said. “And here, as a mem­ber of Africa’s English-speak­ing di­as­pora, I am proud, reaf­firmed.”

France, whose pres­i­dent in re­cent weeks has pledged to re­turn 26 pieces to Benin, is just one of many coun­tries lend­ing works for the new mu­seum’s open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion. Bo­coum now is work­ing with dozens of in­sti­tu­tions around the world to plan ex­hibits.

“This mu­seum is cel­e­brat­ing the re­silience of black peo­ple,” pro­fes­sor Linda Carty, who teaches African Amer­i­can stud­ies at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity, said at its open­ing. “This is a forced recog­ni­tion of how much black peo­ple have brought to the world. We were first. That’s been taken away from us, and we now have re­claimed it.” | Ritchie is a me­dia con­sul­tant. He is a for­mer jour­nal­ist and news­pa­per ed­i­tor.

AN EX­HIBIT at the Mu­seum of Black Civil­i­sa­tions, which was opened in Dakar, Sene­gal. |

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