First clarification must be made as to what African Masters are being referred to here. Please note that these are not African slave Masters, Head Masters or Master Sergeants! The Masters referred to here are those great African artists/craftsmen of many centuries ago, whose “classical” works of art have claimed so much attention that they are now objects of world-tour. True to that, the pieces were on display in major art institutions in the US during 2010. They have been a great marvel at the British Museum (BM) in London, which is today the proud custodian of these priceless pieces.
For over three decades, Africans scholars as well as civil societies concerned with African heritage both on and outside of the continent have been part of a chorus that is continually clamoring for the return of precious pieces such as the Face of Idia, the ivory mask of Queen Idia of the then Benin Empire among other great works of art by African masters on grounds that the pieces were said to have been looted, trafficked, seized or simply bartered for item(s) far below their true value. Research has also shown that some of the pieces in question were given as gifts to some of the collectors that presently possess them today, “a case in point was in 1973 when General Yakubu Gowon, the then Nigerian head of state, took an antique brass head of a Benin King from the National Museum in Lagos and presented it as a gift to the Queen of England on her state visit [to that nation]” (New African magazine, May 2010 issue).
When an item is given as a gift, it becomes the legitimate property of the one who receives that gift, however, often at times friends or relatives of the generous giver will frown when they consider the item is too precious to be given as a gift! Sometimes also, displeasure is made known when an item is believed to have been sold for a price far below its true value. A friend from la Cote d’Ivoire confirmed this during a candid conversation, to the point of drawing parallel between the above and the current crisis in that country: years ago, some not-so-wealthy Ivoirians sold their lands in order to educate their children, once educated, the children discovered that their desperate parents were ‘cheated’ on the land deal, now, they want these lands back! Similar scenario is unfolding all over Liberia.
While for the most part there is no clear reliable knowledge as to whether these works of art by African Masters were legally obtained or not, the debate and call for their return to their countries of origins continues to grow daily, gaining new audiences and forums every time, yet, Africans have not come to a point to award credit to the artists behind the pieces or intellectual properties. Giving credit to writers, musicians and artists for their intellectual works is a very important issue in the creative world today. Even if these masters whose works have claimed world attention and debate at the same time are not known by name, because perhaps sufficient research has not been made in that direction, the synergies of African scholars and heritage civil societies are geared toward bringing the pieces back! Oh, that’s nice; interest is in the pieces and not the people that created the pieces.
In Europe and the Americas, people who did such incredible works are referred to today as “Masters”. I am sure our African scholars have seen the word before. If, on the other hand, we do not want to be repetitive, using the same words, why can’t a befitting name be coined for those artists?
If a befitting name cannot be found today to describe past African artists, it is very unlikely that a name will be found for present day artists on the continent. Where does this leave us then? Will we not find ourselves singing a new song after another two centuries from today? Many may say no, but the answer is yes!
Today a demand is made for works of art whose creators we do not know, at the same time ignoring the present works created by the African artist just next door, sometimes even ignoring his very existence and atelier. A typical example is the 2008 scenario in Liberia, where an entire cultural village that came to life in the 60s was demolished in favor of a modern resort center just outside the capital Monrovia (see Daily Observer Vol. 12 No. 66 ‘“Minister [of culture] Misled Me” – President [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] on Kendeja Riot’ & Vol.12 No 70 ‘Bropleh [Minister of Culture] to Face Legislative Inquest – on Kendeja School Project’).
If solid structures are not put in place now to safeguard present works of art being created on the continent by African artists and craftsmen, what will be done with the 600 pieces currently being exhibited by the British Museum, not to mention the 200,000 pieces in the Museum’s warehouse if it was brought back on the continent? What about the 580 pieces in the Ethnology Museum in Berlin; or 400 pieces in the Field Museum, Chicago; and the Art Institute of Chicago that has 20 pieces?
Thanks to countries such as France, Italy and Germany for returning some of these artifacts to Nigeria, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. From all indications, it is known that very good care is being taken of the pieces. Why? It is because the countries concerned missed those precious pieces for a very long time, and one would only develop love for something that one misses, in this case, these priceless artifacts created by African masters many, many years ago? Another big thanks to Germany again for retuning the “Stone Alligator” piece to Liberia! But for now, let the rest of the pieces remain where they have been all along. Their current homes, where they have been over the past decades, are now their ‘natural habitat’.
(Editor’s note: this article was first published in 2010, following that publication, a cultural network – ARTerial Network – based in in Cape Town, South Africa asked for permission to post it on its website: www.arterialnetwork.org