Oct 31, 2008

An Orwellian Universe: Resource Wars in the Congo

In an article in the Huffington Post, Johann Hari writes eloquently about the resource wars taking place in the Congo, the role of multinational corporations who foment, fund, and sustain these wars, and the link between the genocide of Congolese peoples and the "armies of business" funded by multinationals to seize the metals that make twenty-first century society zing and bling. The resource wars in Congo, Hari writes, are about first world consumption and the ruthless manner in which Africans are killed to sustain Western consumer societies. I searched further and found another post by Georginanne Nienaber (who took thepicture above in Kivu in 2007) on the horrific experiences of Congo women who are raped, shot in their private parts, and generally terrorized by the relentless sweep of conflict. The ongoing conflict in the Congo, Hari concludes, is the deadliest war since Hitler's armies marched across Europe in World War Two.

Reading these articles. I was struck by the horrific mention that more than six million Congolese have perished since 1997 due to the above-mentioned resource wars. Genocide in the Congo, it seemed, has a long and catastrophic history. In 2001, while constructing the syllabus for a class on African art history focusing on the mass pillage of African natural and cultural resources by European colonial powers, I stumbled upon Adam Hochschild's book (King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998). One fact struck me forcefully in the horrifying tale of genocide recounted on its pages--the assertion that Leopold II of Belgium's misrule of the Congo resulted in the murder and death of 10 million Congo peoples in forty years between 1880 and 1920. Surely the author was wrong. In a 20th Century world in which the deaths of six million victims of the Holocaust (mostly Jews but also including homosexuals, Africans, gypsies, individuals of diminished mental capacities and other segments of conquered populations deemed "undesirable" by the genocidal Nazi death machine) remains the high-water mark in narratives of humanity's capacity for evil, surely the death of 10 million Africans ought to count as an unbearable outrage. Why didn't it and why didn't I, a scholar of Africa history, know of this fact before I read Hochschild's book?

I will pause here to state categorically that I am not trying to rewrite the history of the Holocaust or make light of Jewish suffering during this catastrophic historical event. I refer to it because the Holocaust has become a benchmark for defining genocide in all spheres of Western discourse. I do not study the Holocaust but I do study human intercultural relationships. The excellent work done by Holocaust scholars to define the strategic and systematic genocide applied to its victims provides a very important framework for dealing with matters of genocide in intercultural discourses. In this regard, the Holocaust is indeed a moment of great importance to global analysis of conflict and it is relevant to any subsequent discussions of genocide.

In that regard, it seems to me that if the death of six million people is clearly genocide, the death of 10 million must equally count as genocide. I have not however heard that Belgium ever accepted culpability for the genocide carried out by their King Leopold against the Congo (see Hochschild’s grim account of the death toll in chapter 15 of his book). I know however that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium has the largest collection of Central African art in any Western museum much of which was "collected" in the forty years of Leopold’s genocidal stewardship of Congo. The lack of accountability for the deaths of that many Congolese struck me as heinously cold and comparable to the relentless loss of life in the Congo right through its period of colonial rule by France subsequent to Leopold’s genocide, its independence from France in 1960, the rise and death of Patrice Lumumba (my father—then a young non-commissioned officer in the Nigerian police force--served as a member of the Nigerian contingent on the UN stabilization Force in the Congo during this conflict), its misrule by Mobutu Sese Seko, and its long history of very uncivil wars that persist right to this day. Narratives of each historical period list millions of lives lost in the Congo with each new conflict and at some point, I started wondering just how many people lived in the Congo and how much loss of life it has sustained in the 20th Century alone. I decided to try a cursory calculation based on news accounts of each conflict. Leopold’s genocide took place from 1880 to 1920 and, according to Hochschild, left 10 million Congolese dead. French colonial rule (including Congolese who fought for France in the two world wars and deaths during the independence struggle: over 2 million dead. From 1960 to end of Mobutu’s reign in 1997: 1.5 million dead. Deaths from various resource wars in the Congo from 1998 to 2008: 6 million dead (a very conservative estimate).

This means that roughly 20 million Congolese have lost their lives since 1880 and most of those deaths occurred between 1920 and 2008.

I have left out Congolese deaths resulting from European traffic in kidnapped Africans that fueled the Trans-Atlantic slave trade during which the Congo (at that historical period, a Christian African nation with ambassadors in Europe and the Vatican) lost more than seven million of its citizens to slavery. Of these at least three million died in the wars to capture slaves and four million made the transatlantic crossing to the “New World” where their descendants subsist in various guises. Hochschild’s premise holds true across the board: these deaths are directly attributable to the greed of Western and African interests waging resource wars in the Congo, a veritable rape of the country by multinational corporations. We must remember in this regard that King Leopold II governed his Congo fiefdom as a corporation in which all power resided in him as its CEO. The slave trade itself gave birth to the first significant multinational corporations and was run strictly as a business by corporations funded by banks, insured by insurance houses, an traded on the nascent stock markets, very much as US prison stocks are now traded on Wall Street.

The main questions raised by this grim litany of losses is why the death of 19 million Africans in the last century alone does not cause global or at last Western outrage? And this is where Orwell comes in: all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Orwell’s diabolical axiom means that loss of African lives is somehow taken as being less significant that the loss of Western lives. Helix711, responding to Hari’s article in the Huffington Post, clarifies the matter in a poignant manner:
I really think that the first world sees the cost of a human life as being less in Africa. That's an old tradition, anyway. It might not be because the people are black though. Bear with me here: I think it's because people in modernized societies implicitly assume that people in less modernized societies are somehow less important, less valuable.

For me, this is the main reason why I hope that Obama wins the presidency of the United States. Let me state clearly here that I think Obama is just another politician: a master tactician for sure and very clearly a brilliant orator but nevertheless, he is simply a politician who has mastered and enhanced American political propaganda. He is not a messiah and if he wins, he will quickly be ridiculed by the same adulating crowds for not effecting sweeping political changes (as another messianic figure discovered a long time ago, anytime you set yourself up as a savior, sooner or later people will nail you to a cross to prove your claim). However, if Obama's government displays even a fraction the qualities evident in his mastery of political campaigning, it will go down in history as a very significant presidency.

Were I in a position to do so, I would demand only one thing from an Obama government—that he does something to elevate the value of African lives in global discourses. In the past five hundred years, the Western world has built a global economy on the free labor of Africans (and other oppressed people worldwide) while also denying Africans any share of or mobility in this economy, even going as far as defining Africans as less than human. In the USA, President Bill Clinton “apologized for slavery” with the implication that an apology was sufficient remuneration for the ongoing devastation wrought in African American communities by a past system of oppression and a contemporary social order that automatically excludes blacks from the tangible benefits of American citizenship (If you doubt this fact, check out ANGOLA PRISON, supposedly the largest penitentiary in the USA, located on a former slave plantation once named “Angola”: the current prison population of over 5000 inmates is almost 90% black, replicating widespread and continued enslavement of African Americans through legally sanctioned incarceration of the prison-industrial system). In South Africa, the Apartheid system negotiated a “get-out-of-jail-free” agreement for companies that used South African blacks as slave labor for over 50 years. Instead of a true accounting of the heinous crimes of the Apartheid government, the supposedly free South African state substituted a comical “Truth and Reconciliation commission” that essentially turned Apartheid era black suffering into a form of global theater of the absurd. Black South African victims of apartheid got apologies while the country’s mining conglomerates and other multinational escaped intact with all their apartheid era profits and without any serious accountability for their genocide against black South Africans. (Consider that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man of peace, was recently quoted as saying that maybe the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was too forgiving). Britain is even now, aided largely by the misguided policies of the tyrant Robert Mugabe, destroying Zimbabwe through international sanctions. No one in Britain has ever taken responsibility for the slaughter of Africans in all its colonial conquests, or for inciting the problems that now cause Zimbabwe to implode—the colonially sanctioned dispossession of Africans of their lands and resources without compensation, which denies the rights of Africans to their own bodies, lands, and natural resources.

Yes. All these horrors happened in historical time and it is unfair to ask white people alive today to bear the burden of their ancestor’s mistakes or be punished for their errors. But if this holds as an argument for not demanding Belgian culpability for the crimes of King Leopold, surely it ought to demand also that no African person should be condemned to what Giorgio Agamben described as “bare life” merely on account of being black. But blackness has often correlated to a completely diminished life in what my people call "Enu Oyibo"--the world brought about by the Western ascendancy. And what galls me is that in each of the instances described above, the global community had a chance to answer a very important question—what is the value of an African life—and in each instance, they either answered that it is valueless, is worth an apology, or worth an absurd theater of recriminations.

To have Obama, an African American, hold the most powerful leadership position on earth has the potential to change the global perception that African lives are valueless. In this powerful position, maybe he will have enough courage to demand that Africans be given a better stake in the global economy as a means of revaluing and improving African lives. We gave the world its humanity: surely it is not too much to ask that the world stops demeaning ours.

Oct 28, 2008

Nigeria's Brain Gain

Haven't blogged in a while: sort of a "waiting to exhale" orientation suffuses everything now, waiting for the election to conclude and produce the hoped for outcome of an Obama presidency, which will cap a historic moment in American electoral history. USA immigration rules forbid non-American citizens from participating in the electoral process and in this context, I cannot really blog on the subject of the presidential election since this can, in subsequent applications for citizenship, he held against one as evidence of illegal participation in American politics. That said, I am following the election keenly and also ruminating on the fact that I've been blogging for more than one year at this date. I'll update the blog more regularly after the election when I can comment on the result with a bit more freedom. Close now, but all is not yet Uhuru. Here's hoping that all the trends run true.

In the meantime, here's an important news items concerning a return migration to the homeland by Nigerians in the Diaspora. This is welcome news and I have already seen the impact of such return migration during my own visits to Nigeria--three trips in the past ten months.

Oct 12, 2008

Skoto Gallery Presents Donald Locke

Announcement from Skoto Gallery:
Skoto Gallery is pleased to present “Master Works/Recent Works”, an exhibition of drawing and mixed media sculpture by the Guyanese-born artist Donald Locke. This will be his second solo show at the gallery. The reception is on Thursday, October 16th, 6-8pm.

Born 1930 in Stewartville, Demerara County, Guyana, South America, Donald Locke currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia; and has been active on the international scene since the early 1950s. He studied at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, England 1954-1957 on a British Council Scholarship. In 1964, he graduated with honors from University of Edinburgh in Scotland with a master degree in art. After returning home to Guyana to work and teach for some time, he returned to Europe where he lived and practiced his art until being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979. Locke has been the recipient of several other prestigious awards, and he represented Guyana at the Twelfth Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971 and The World Black Festival of Arts, Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.

Like many artists and writers of his generation who came of age during the forties; fifties and sixties; a period of anti-colonialist movements in India, Africa and the Caribbean, Donald Locke has developed a critical framework to engage with issues of history, identity and authenticity. His work confronts tradition while absorbing the formal tenets of modernism. He challenges the assumption that if an artist is at a distance from the metropolitan centers and uses the vocabulary of Western modernism, that the work automatically lacks “authenticity”. This stubborn neo-colonial mindset presupposes that modernism is a purely Western invention, conveniently forgetting that the West itself is also a product of exchange and mixture with other cultures.

Donald Locke’s intention is not to seize stylistic innovation directly from the past, but to revive in modernist terms, an indigenous culture to help forge a post colonial identity. Revolution, transformation and idealization are born from radical elimination, and the foundation of new culture, must lie in demolition or reconfiguration of the past. He is a painter, sculptor, potter and writer of immense reputation, whose work mines the microcosm of his culture for symbols that can be universally understood.

His work is in several private and public collections around the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Guyana National Collection, Georgetown, Guyana, South America; and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.

Oct 8, 2008

Racial Profiling on Blogger???

For the past two months, Blogger, the platform I blog on, has identified my blog as a spam blog and forced me to enter multiple word verification items before my posts are uploaded. Initially, the verifications worked after one entry (the wavy letters are easy to read once you get the hang of it. However, over the past two weeks, I have had to enter these word verifications three times before any of my blog posts commands are executed. I have sent a total of ten requests and an email to Blogger and Google requesting this encumberance be removed. Ironically, I get their bot-authored response that they are looking into this matter and will respond soon. I will be shifting my blogging to a Wordpress platform very soon but I wanted to point out that this marking of my blog as a spam-blog coincides too neatly with the first of my recent posts on my travels in Nigeria. I have also heard from some fellow bloggers with African content that their blogs are equally affected. This makes me wonder whether Blogger is blanket blocking blogs that have African content. If this is the case, it would constitute a form of racial profiling with very disturbing overtones. Of course, Blogger is a free platform and they have the right to do whatever they want. However, what kind of platform is it when you cannot get a simple matter like this resolved in two months? This does not bode well for a world in which Google has major control of one's computing through its so-called "Cloud" platform. Already, it is almost next to impossible to get the company to attend to the most minor matters. I'll be switching my blog platforms for sure. In the meantime, if you are similarly affected by blogger's spambot verification system, send me a comment. Also, if you read this post, please forward it.

Obituary: Iba N'Diaye

Susan Vogel, Professor of African Art and Architecture at Columbia University posted the following announcement to H-AFRARTS. Iba N'Diaye was one of the most accomplished modern African (and in many ways, modern French) artists of the 20th Century. May his soul rest in peace:

I am grieved to announce the death of Iba N’Diaye, my friend of many decades, in Paris, October 5th, at the age of 80. He was among the most talented and prolific artists of the first generation, which included Thomas Mukarobgwa, San Ntiro, and Ben Enwonwu, all born around 1920. Unlike the others of his generation, Iba N’Diaye lived most of his life in Europe, and considered art of the whole world his domain.

Born in Saint Louis, Senegal in 1928, he came to France in the late 1940s. There he received training at the Beaux-Arts Academy of Montpelier, concentrating in architecture; in Paris at the studios of Zadkine and others (in sculpture), and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere in painting (1949-1958) where he maintained a studio for decades. At the dawn of independence, he returned to Senegal to become founder and director of the Département Arts Plastiques at the E.A.S. where he taught from 1959-1967. After that, his principal residence was in Paris. His work was enriched by contact with classical African art and an affinity for museums that he shared closely with his wife, Francine N’Diaye whom he met as a teenager. She was for many years in charge of the African collections at the Musée de l’Homme.

A more extended appreciation will appear at a later date.

Susan Vogel
Professor of African Art and Architecture
Department of Art History and Archaeology
Columbia University

Oct 7, 2008

JOB: Chief Curator/Curator of African Art, Fowler Museum UCLA

The Fowler Museum of the University of California Los Angeles announces its search for a Chief Curator/Curator of African Art.

Chief Curator/Curator of African Art
Fowler Museum at UCLA
October 2008

The Fowler Museum at UCLA seeks an experienced, energetic, creative and team-oriented Chief Curator/Curator of African Art who has management responsibilities over the curatorial functions of the Museum, including the development and implementation of its exhibition program and the management of its collections using innovative approaches. The Chief Curator is also a specialist in the arts of Africa and its Diasporas, past and present, and has direct responsibility over the museum's programming and collections in this area. This position reports to the Director of the Museum and will participate directly in the Fowler's leadership team and in its next phase of strategic planning and envisioning the future...

Summary of Responsibilities:
The Chief Curator/Curator of African Art will: 1) provide oversight and leadership for the curatorial and collections departments of the museum, participate in decisions regarding exhibitions and acquisitions, and be responsible for overseeing content development for all exhibitions; 2) will oversee the marketing and coordination of traveling exhibitions; and 3) will ensure proper management of the collections. The position also serves as a spokesperson for the museum on all issues related to exhibitions and collections...

Ph.D. or equivalent in an African art history or related field. At least five years of progressively responsible curatorial and administrative experience. Extensive knowledge of African Art and a demonstrated record of scholarship, exhibitions and publications. Skill in supervising curatorial, registrarial and conservation staff. Strong writing and oral communication skills. Working knowledge of legal and ethical aspects of collecting, preserving, borrowing, and exhibiting. Ability to work cooperatively and collaboratively with museum staff and museum colleagues in planning and development of exhibitions and publications. Interest in and commitment to projects beyond one's field of expertise. Skill in initiating relationships with potential donors, interest groups in the community, and other sources of support for the museum. Knowledge of sources of funding for research and exhibitions, with demonstrated ability to pursue and secure such funding. Continued employment contingent upon completion of satisfactory background investigation...

Application Instructions
Please send cover letter, resume, and one writing sample by email to Rsalazar@arts.ucla.edu or by mail to Roberto Salazar, Fowler Museum, Box 951549, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1549.

Oct 6, 2008

NY Times: "A Collection of Tribal Art Is Embroiled in a Modern Family Feud"

The New York Times reports on a story about contending claims to a collection of New Guinean "Tribal Arts" (sic). The story is interesting for what it says about the astronomical financial value placed on these objects and the problematic collaboration between museums and private collectors that serves largely to leverage and promote the value of specific art collections. Read the full story here.

Oct 1, 2008

US Africa command battles sceptics

An interesting report from the BBC:

A new unified United States military command for Africa is coming into full operation amid scepticism about US intentions.... US officials have said Africom does not signal a new grab for Africa, but there are considerable doubts among Africa's 53 countries (read the full story here).

October 1: Nigeria's Independence Day

Arise O Compatriots...