Dec 31, 2010

IM MEMORIAM: ALHAJI CHIEF DR. SIKIRU ANYIDE BARRISTER


Alhaji Chief (Dr.) Sikiru Ayinde Ololade Olayinka Balogun Barrister, popularly known as Chief Sikiru Anyide Barrister (a.k.a. Barry Wonder), was laid to rest at his "Fuji Chambers' residence in Lagos yesterday December 30, 2010. The great Nigerian pop musician and inventor of the popular music genre--Fuji-passed away on December 16 in London after a brief illness. The Ibadan native who went on to global fame was one of the truly significant figures of African popular music in his lifetime. His passing diminishes us greatly and as someone born in the same city—Ibadan—where he was born, his death highlights the increasing loss of learned interlocutors of Ijinle Yoruba (the essence of Yoruba culture) in this context.

African popular music was the first truly global African art form, in the sense of its deep penetration into all spheres and the deep appreciation of audiences across the globe. Central figures of this musical renaissance (to name a few) range from megastars such as Fela, now a household name with a major New York-Broadway play in his honor; King Sunny Ade, the guitar wizard and bandleader; Sade, our very own Diva; the incomparable Ndlovu Miriam Makeba; the dean and doyen of Congolese (Zaire) pop music—Tabu Ley and Mbilia Bel, to the younger generation of African rap music stars in Nigeria, South Africa and other contexts. These artistes play to full houses all across the world and their music pushes against the generally negative image of Africa in the global arena.

I grew up listening to all these musicians and also to very deep genres of Yoruba music in Ibadan, the city of my childhood, in the rapidly changing neighborhood of Oke Ado. Shopkeepers kept up a din of popular music blasting out of loudspeakers facing the street and shops selling music albums (which mostly composed of pirated cassette tapes of important musical acts) advertised their suspect ware with great fanfare. You could hear the newer popular music genres competing with traditional Ewi (poetry) chants but more importantly, listen to the emerging combination of traditional Yoruba music with contemporary music that formed the basis of music by important singers such as Apalamaestro Haruna Ishola, Waka Queen Salawa Abeni, the Chief Commander of Cool Ebenezer Obey, highlife guru I. K. Dairo, and of course, the songmaster himself Sunny Ade.

Anyide Barrister came out of this mix as a young go-getter in the 1970s as an exponent of a form of popular music derived from Were, Sakara, Juju, Apala, Gudugudu and Yoruba praise poems. According to a biography of the artiste,
Chief Doctor Sikiru Ayinde Barrister (born: Sikiru Ayinde) has played an essential role in the evolution of the music of his homeland. The leader of a 25-piece band, the Supreme Fuji Commanders, and a smaller group, the Africa Musical International Ambassadors, Barrister has continued to be one of the leading purveyors of fuji, an exciting, amplified dance music combining juju, apala, and traditional Yoruba blues that he introduced in the late-'70s. Barrister has been singing most of his life. By the age of ten, he had mastered a complex, Yoruban vocal style that was traditionally performed during the holy month of Ramadan. Although he briefly attended a Muslim school, Yaba Polytechnic, in 1961, financial difficulties prevented him from continuing. Leaving school, he found employment as a stenographer. During the Civil War that swept through Nigeria between 1967 and 1970, he served in the Army. Signed by the Nigeria-based Africa Songs, Ltd. label, Barrister recorded many groundbreaking singles during the 1970s and '80s. With his heartfelt vocals set to a rhythmic mix of talking drums, claves, bells, shekere, drum set, and Hawaiian-style guitar, he laid the foundation for fuji, which he named after Mt. Fuji, the Japanese mountain of love. The style has been described as "juju without the guitars" and a "percussion conversation."

Like all families in the area, my parents collected many albums of music from these notable artistes and used these for the myriad social gatherings and parties that were and remain a staple of Yoruba life. You really haven’t partied until you attend a Yoruba social gathering, which are convened to celebrate important events such as birth, funerals and every milestone of life in-between. Quite often, these parties were organized on a large scale, the most popular format being to close off a street at both intersections, throw awnings over the enclosed space and have the party right there. These kinds of parties usually took place at night.

The prevalence of music everywhere in my youth meant I was very attracted to the burgeoning genre of Yoruba pop music. It was literally the soundtrack of my childhood and I have carried the songs inside me since then, playing the few albums I had over and over again until I had all the lyrics memorized. Discovering all these musicians and their songs on YouTube was like stumbling across a very old friend, and this makes YouTube one of the most important technologies of our time. I have since renewed my acquaintance with several of these musical genres and learned of many more musical acts that I remembered dimly.

Sikiru Anyide Barrister will forever be one of my favorite musicians. Although many younger acts have since mutated the Fuji genre he founded into much more scintillating styles of music (for example Shina Peters and Kollington Anyila), I consider Barrister to be peerless in every respect. He was a truly globally aware musician with a very complex cultural background. He worked as a stenographer in his youth and served in the Nigerian army. Barrister spoke flawless Hausa language, was extremely learned in Ewi and indigenous Yoruba panegyrics, and as a devout Muslim, quite learned in Arabic and Koranic verses. He sang sometimes in English (I didn’t much care for such songs: they were vastly inferior to the extraordinary flow of his high-speed Yoruba versemaking), and has performed all over the world to adoring audiences. It is hard not to dance when barrister launches into his fast-paced songs but to get the best sense of his depth as an artist, you need to listen to his slower paced early music when he was still very much channeling extremely cogent Yoruba philosophy.

All things come to an end. Barrister once produced an album-track titled “Agbara Iku” (the Power of Death). He was mourning the death of the great Nigerian soccer player Mudashiru Lawal, of the famed Ibadan Shooting Stars Football Club but you could hear him singing of the inevitability of death for all humans, himself included: “…Ki’se ba se pe to, ki’se ‘yen lo se koko, Oun t’agbe’le Aiye se iyen lo se pataki” (it is not how long we live that is of essence, but how well we do in the span of life we had that’s important). As he noted, there is no stopping death who speaks all languages and doesn’t care for human vanity. The great leveler finally came calling for Alhaji Chief Dr. Sikiru Anyide Barrister. We can take comfort in the versemaker's exemplary achievements and also in knowing that he has ascended to the great concert hall in the sky. Akanbi Opo, Omo Agbajelola Salami ni Ibadan, orun re o!

The attached videos showcases two styles of Sikiru Anyide Barrister's music: one from earlier in his career when he mostly adapted a pop music form derived from indigenous Yoruba musical genres, and the other from his later Fuji genre of music, a fast paced dancehall style invented for urban Lagos but which has since emerged in global space in tandem with the expanding Diaspora of Yoruba and Nigerian peoples.



Dec 26, 2010

Give Me What is Mine (apologies Burning Spear)

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post regarding the Benin mask of Idia, and joined the African Cultural Patrimony campaign on Facebook. Sotheby’s issued a terse public statement yesterday canceling their planned sale of the Benin Iyoba Idia mask (the statement suggests that the consignees withdrew the artwork, which to me suggests that Sotheby’s itself is not necessarily concerned about its criminal involvement in the trafficking of stolen cultural patrimony. Would they have gone ahead with the sale if the consignees decided to brazen it out?). In that regard, it seems the massive public outrage of Nigerians and other supporters succeeded in preventing an overt sale of the artwork. Of course, the consignees could simply sell it in private but any museum or private collector that now buys the artwork is knowingly purchasing a contested object. For those who do, we will no doubt see legal challenges to several institutions that hold Benin cultural patrimony in due time.

My post on H-NET attracted responses from Jonathan Fineman and Alexander Soifer. Having never heard of Alexander Soifer before reading his response to my posting on on H-Net, I found rather uninformed the obvious ignorance of his statement that “Cultural Patrimony” debates represent the view of “those who shout loudest the contemporary politically correct slogans”. Demands for restitution of cultural patrimony form the basis of some of the most progressive human rights legislation of the 20th century, especially with regard to the issue of looted Holocaust art. The Nigerian government has been demanding the return of Benin art from Western museums for over fifty years. Far from being politically correct, “demands for restitution and repatriation” are in fact political hot topics, capable of destroying careers. Ungodly sums of money are at stake here and the struggle over ownership of cultural patrimony currently operates as a zero-sum game in which there can only be winners and losers. My goal in engaging this issue, especially regarding looted African cultural patrimony, is to mediate contending claims of both the African creators of these artworks and the Western institutions that currently hold them. However, when these Western institutions act as brazenly as Sotheby’s acted in this instance, it suggests a disregard for the African viewpoint that is as clear as a slap in the face. Moreover, Soifer misses the point of my analysis: while the Nigerian government may claim the Benin works as part of its national patrimony, I have always argued that they are looted private property that rightfully belongs to the reigning king of Benin. Oba Erediauwa has formally demanded that Western museums and collectors return the Benin bronzes. I have written about these demands at length on this blog and have even started an academic journal –Critical Interventions—specifically to engage the issue: the journal inaugurated a formal discourse on the aesthetics, politics and economics of African cultural patrimony as it affects African ownership of the intellectual property rights of its indigenous systems of knowledge and cultural practices. Interestingly enough, the current issue of the journal is in production on the subject of “Who Owns African Cultural Patrimony”.

Soifer’s other questions are a grab bag of the usual objections generally raised by people opposed to discussion of the cultural patrimony issue. These questions have been answered at length elsewhere (See Kwame Opoku’s rebuttals to these objections here and elsewhere online) but briefly: What gives Nigeria the right to the Kingdom of Benin is the same thing that gives any modern state rights over its constituent subjects and regions. If Britain can exercise claims over archaeological sites within its territory and France over the Lascaux caves, there is no reason Nigeria should not exercise a claim to antiquities found within its national borders. If Nigerian courts were to decide the issue of the Benin bronzes, they will undoubtedly rule in favor of returning them to Nigeria, in the same manner that British courts largely rule in favor of Britain. This merely demonstrates the inadequacy of current legal structures because it does not allow for interpretations outside of those established through British jurisprudence. We need a new way of dealing with African cultural patrimony issues that respects the rights of Africans to their bodies and resources.

How far back should we go to resolve cultural patrimony issues? As far back as is needed: the issue here is not mere repatriation of artworks, but ownership of the economic value and equity created by these artworks as a result of their current and future financial value. There is also the important issue of ownership of the intellectual property rights of these artworks, which should accrue to the Benin people by right. In other words, we need to go as far back enough as is necessary to obviate the loss of value and equity arising from the relocation of the bronze artworks from Benin to the West. Otherwise, we condemn Africans to a permanent underclass status and conversely support a clearly demonic order in which Western countries claim natural right of might to control and exploit the African continent. I don’t see how one can defend the status quo given the atrocities visited upon Africa in the past few centuries. This history is still largely unaccounted for.

Which laws should prevail? So far, Africans have argued for their basic human rights in courts based on Western laws. If human rights laws are international, perhaps we should subject Western brigandage in Africa to African laws. The traditional penalty for invading the privacy of the Oba of Benin was death. This is why the original British envoys to Benin were killed: they had been warned not to enter the kingdom but were outraged that a mere African king should dictate to her majesty’s emissaries. By Benin law, anyone except the King or high priests who touches the ancestral altars automatically received a death sentence. Would anyone support the right of the Benin king to enforce this hallowed traditional law by condemning to death the curators and dealers who handle the Benin bronzes in various contexts? Of course not, but you keep hearing arguments that we should respect Western claims to African cultural patrimony merely because the artworks are currently located in Western museums and institutions. Moreover, Western courts have consistently failed Africans. Remember that Slavery, Apartheid, Jim Crow laws, and a host of other odious legislation that rendered Africans subhuman were once very legal in most Western countries. However, Africans are asked to continue to plead for their human rights in Western courts based on laws that supported their dispossession in the first place. This is like asking a victim to submit to a court controlled by relatives of his attacker. It is unjust and as Augustine of Hippo stated, an unjust law is no law at all.

Finally, Soifer raises the linchpin of all anti-repatriation arguments: if the artworks are returned to Africa, they will merely be stolen by Africans and resold to Western collectors. Maybe, but that is no reason to refuse to negotiate the return of the artworks. In a world in which all sorts of things are being trafficked, there can be no guarantee that repatriated African artworks will not be stolen. However, if scholars stop validating stolen artworks by refusing to write about them, and museums refuse to exhibit them, it might mitigate the allure of these artworks for art thieves and the disreputable dealers and collectors who traffic in stolen African cultural patrimony. But then this is the usual strategy of holding Africans to impossible standards: art theft is a global problem. Soifer should explain to me what measures of protection he suggests to stem the ongoing theft of art in Western museums and private collections. Interpol estimates about 34,000 stolen artworks are still missing, despite the gabililions of dollars spent on museum security everywhere (see the various art-loss registers online).

Jonathan Fine’s response was more significant, in that it shows some knowledge of the legal issues involved. The legal status of the Benin bronzes and the legality of trading in these contested commodities have never been adjudicated in a court of law. For the past three years, I have searched for a law firm in the USA willing to take on a test case on this issue to no avail. Obviously the cost of bringing such a case is far beyond personal means but I am confident in due time that a legal case will be made. For now, current laws protect Western collectors of these artworks whose “ownership” rests on assumptions that they acquired the artworks legally. They did not, and there is no case here that the legal owner of the artworks did not make an effort to recover them. All the Benin kings since Ovonramwen have called for return of the artworks to no avail.

I also disagree with Fine’s suggestion that “cultural patrimony” is the wrong lens through which we can view the issue. I have argued for the issue of stolen Benin bronzes as a case of clear theft of property. Since the British never formally declared war on Benin in 1897, we cannot view the subsequent looting of the King’s palace as “spoils of war”. I believe a legal case can be made that most of the other African artworks “collected” during colonial control of African countries were expropriated by coercion and plunder: colonized populations are victims of aggression and cannot be said to have acquiesced in the transfer of their artworks even if they sold them to the collector themselves. The reason is that transactions of this sort that occur under duress are ipso facto illegal. By dealing with this issue as a cultural patrimony issue, we draw attention to the mass plunder of African cultural resources in the same manner that its natural and human resources were plundered for the economic gain of various Western countries. In this regard, I have started a series of posts to the African Cultural Patrimony Facebook page to demonstrate the human cost of how various European colonizers collected artworks from various parts of Africa (click on “Photo Albums” here). This narrative is usually written out of our analysis of the artworks but they are relevant because the processes involved are quite traumatic. The point is that the colonial destruction of indigenous African cultures was a systemic protocol designed to render indigenous cultures bereft of life and liberty. Tons of artworks were destroyed and the remaining relocated to Western collections.

On the specific issue of the Benin bronzes, there can be no legal transfer of the stolen artworks objects while the rightful owners of the stolen objects are actively calling for their restitution. The Benin bronzes are not an amorphous product of “African art”. They are private property, bought by and paid for by the Benin kings through massive expenditure of national treasure, and constitute the wealth of the kingdom. These bronzes were commissioned for specific historical events, the artists who produced them were paid for their work, and the artworks were used in very prescribed manner and also as a store of value. The looting and dispersal of the Benin bronzes deprived the Benin king of his private property and deprives his descendants of equity in this stolen property. It deprives Benin people of any chance to benefit in any economic, political social or cultural manner from the value produced by these artworks and further denies them equal access to these artworks. Aside from what they see in images of the artworks in Western museums, young Benin people have no way of benefiting from the products of their ancestors. The artworks generate income for the various museums that hold them but this is not in any way shared with the Benin king of his heirs.

The rallying cry for the African cultural patrimony campaign is “equal access to the artworks and equal value for the producers of the artworks”. This is because the location of Benin cultural patrimony in Western museums and private collections prevents the emergence of objects on equal value in Benin or other parts of Africa. Usually, scholars are quick to deride newer Benin bronze artworks as “fakes” which helps to sustain and increase the value of those Benin bronzes that can be traced back to the 1897 plunder of Benin. In this manner, the initial act of theft and vandalism is used as the primary context for validating the originality of Benin bronze arts in different auctions and museums. The bronze objects produced in Benin since the invasion are therefore prevented from gaining value mainly by being derided as products located outside the corpus of Benin art. More importantly, the claim that Western institutions that hold these artworks are “universal museums” holding the objects in trust for “mankind” is pure bumkum. The fact that Britain passed laws explicitly forbidding repatriation of artworks from the British museum shows that it regards the collection as an indispensable aspect of its imperial history. While the collection is accessible to international audiences that have the requisite access to global travel, it is not accessible to 99.999% of Africans who are unable to travel freely across international borders. As a matter of fact, there is no Western nation (including the USA) that will grant a Benin person a visa merely to visit the British museum for the purposes of viewing the bronzes, which enforces an active denial of access to the artworks to Benin peoples.

There are more practical matters at stake here and some of them are listed below.
FINANCIAL: The African cultural patrimony issue is as much a financial issue as any other. The possession of stolen Benin bronzes has financially enriched various Western museums. The current campaign that stopped Sotheby’s proposed sale of the Benin Idia mask also highlights this fact: it was expected the auction would fetch as much as 4.5 million British pounds. Recognizing the financial aspect of this issue shifts discussion about stolen African cultural patrimony away from abstract moral arguments about right and wrong to the more important argument about the financial impoverishment of Africans resulting from long-term Western looting of African resources. The estimated value of stolen African cultural patrimony in Western museums and private collections is worth several billions of dollars. This rises considerably if the economic benefit of holding stolen African cultural patrimony is factored into the discussion, i.e. the boost in tourism from viewing these artworks for instance, as well as the economic value from their sale, insurance, exhibition, publication and collection.

DISCURSIVE/ACADEMIC: The study of Benin art has been skewed by the dispersal of Benin cultural patrimony which has had the effect of locating Benin studies in the West and depriving Benin people any chance to develop their own discursive platforms. There is a need to redirect Benin studies (and African art studies in general) to take greater cognizance of actual cultural developments in Benin/Africa rather than its current focus of studying the reception of Benin art in the West. In this regard, the British invasion denied the Benin kingdom a chance to define its own destiny.

HUMAN RIGHTS: The looting of Africa to sustain the West is now a human rights issue. The looting of the bronzes from Benin in 1897 was accompanied by genocide resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Benin people during the British invasion, and countless more as a result of the scorched earth policy that the British army put in place for six months while they were trying to apprehend Oba Ovonramwen. The invasion destroyed the economic foundations of the Benin kingdom, reduced its inhabitants to penury and forced it into the British colonial state of Nigeria. More importantly, the artworks from Benin were flagrantly sold without consideration of their status as stolen goods. Specifically, the ivory pendant mask of Queen Mother IDIA was taken from Oba Ovonramwen’s bedroom; the other three were taken from his regalia when he surrendered to the British.

CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF THE ARTWORKS: The Benin corpus is the most clearly articulated case of stolen African cultural patrimony extant. The artworks were safeguarded in the palace of the Benin kings for over 500 years (ivory sculptures are even older than the bronzes) before they were plundered. If the British invasion did not occur, it is quite believable that they would still be secured in the palace using strategies that kept them safe for centuries. In any case, it is significant because if we can’t prove the African ownership of this corpus in a case as clear-cut as this one, then proving other cases may be nigh impossible.

CULTURAL: The current Benin King is interested in building a museum in Benin to showcase Eight Centuries of Edo/Benin cultural development. A way of resolving the issue of repatriation is to design a system of circulation that will allow the artworks to be shown periodically in Benin. If the king secures their repatriation, they can be exhibited in the new museum. More importantly, any settlement reached would need to be crafted to include international oversight of managing the museum in Benin and allowing it to share in exhibitions of the artworks (under firm agreements) thus giving younger generations of Benin people a chance to benefit from the cultural products of their ancestors.

I don’t deny that a successful legal challenge to recover the Benin bronzes appears improbable at this time. What is vital is that we must end once and for all the comfortable disregard for African claims to their looted cultural patrimony and disdain for those who dare raise this issue. The demand for cultural patrimony repatriation and restitution is one of the principal issues of this age. To think otherwise is to be foolhardy.

"Exhibition Showcases The Art of Nollywood"

New York (CNN) -- A group of artists is bringing Nigerian movie making to a new audience with a New York exhibition paying tribute to the "Nollywood" film industry. The exhibition is called "Sharon Stone in Abuja," after a 2003 Nollywood film, and is taking place at Location One gallery in the Soho district of New York.... (read the full article here). See CNN video here.

Dec 23, 2010

Join "African Cultural Patrimony" on Facebook

I have created a Facebook page for advocacy on the issue of African Cultural Patrimony. All are invited to join and post relevant information.

SOTHEBY'S IS TRAFFICIKING IN STOLEN BENIN ARTWORKS

A colleague brought to my attention Sotheby’s impending sale of yet another piece of Benin cultural patrimony. I read the announcement of the sale and was struck by its brazenness. Sotheby's is trafficking in stolen goods and it is doing so without any concern for the fact of its brazen criminality. It is clear that the Benin artworks are a contested collection of cultural artifacts. The history of their plunder from Benin is not in doubt, and the Benin Kingdom has never at any time given up its claim to these artworks. There has been significant amount of words written about the history of the British plunder of Benin and why the artworks should be repatriated. How is it then that despite the constant requests for the repatriation of these artworks and their clear identification as stolen goods, they continue to be sold by firms such as Sotheby’s without any hesitation?

The Benin art corpus is known by everyone to have been stolen from Benin in 1897, and ironically, their history of being plundered is the main prop used to affirm their authenticity in all the sales of these artworks for over 100 years. The legal issue here is quite simple: is it ever possible to have legal ownership of a stolen good? In other words, if an artwork or piece of property is clearly identified as a stolen item, can anyone other than the known owner of that stolen item ever have a valid legal claim to it? Western institutions that hold African cultural patrimony seem to believe they can legally own stolen goods and so far haven't shown any willingness to examine their shameful actions in this regard.

The Sotheby's announcement makes a point of stating that the mask and five other Benin objects will be sold by descendants of Sir Henry Gallway, who participated in the looting of Benin city in 1897. All the Benin objects identified in the proposed sale are clearly identified as belonging to Benin kings who did not cede their title to the artworks to anyone (the coerced abdication of the Benin throne enforced by the invading British would be illegal in any court today: in 1991, the USA went to war to prevent Iraq from annexing Kuwait based on such principles). There is also no doubt that all Benin artworks in any museum of institution in the world belongs to His Highness, Oba Erediauwa, great grandson of Oba Ovonramwen and the reigning kind of Benin. Despite all this facts, the descendants of a known British thief and vandal who stole the Idia mask from Benin stand to make between 3.5 and 4.5 million British pounds on the sale of an artwork commissioned and paid for by a Benin king (Esigie), which was a representation of his mother (Iyoba Idia) was used as part of the royal regalia of an existing kingdom, while it is clear no single penny will accrue to the Benin king or his descendants from the sale of this item of cultural heritage.

The Benin kingdom and other wellwishers have mounted various legal challenges to the ownership and sales of Benin artworks by various Western institutions. So far, all these challenges have been dismissed without being given a proper hearing. I have reviewed some of these challenges and the possibility of bringing a new legal challenge through American courts and found that it is quite impossible to challenge these matters in court. The legal process here is very expensive and the barriers to getting your day in court are often too high to bear. Moreover, Africans are forced to prove their claims in courts constituted primarily to legally dispossess them of claims to their lives, bodies and natural resources. In the meantime, Western institutions continue to profit from African life and labor. Think about it: millions of Africans were sold into slavery and African land and natural resources were plundered to finance the Western ascendancy of the past five hundred years. Today, African resources continue to support Western development while the continent remains the poorest on the planet. The plunder of cultural resources deprives Africans of their history and of the economic value and equity of their cultural patrimony: all these flow into the coffers of Western institutions without bringing a single economic benefit to the African contexts of their production.

Leaving aside the ongoing looting of the continent and continued use of its inhabitants as guinea pigs by various Western corporations, I think the greatest error that has been made in scholarly studies of African artworks and cultural patrimony is the pervasive idea that African artworks are products of nebulous “community action”. Artworks from Africa are always stripped of their links to particular individuals and economic contexts by their identification as the product of a group ethos. The Benin people did not create the artworks in question here: the pectoral masks of Iyoba Idia were created by specific Benin kings as part of the state’s political and economic obligations. It was stolen from the bedroom of Oba Ovonramwen in 1897. For over six hundred years, Benin kings spent huge portions of the national wealth supporting the creation of lavish artworks and sustaining the specialized guilds that made these artworks. You can still see descendants of the guilds in Benin. African artworks were commissioned by various individuals and institutions, paid for in very real economic terms, and then incorporated into the cultural equity of the individuals and institutions that commissioned them. These artworks are not random creations: they were part of complex systems of knowledge management and economic exchange. Their plunder left their owners significantly poorer. It is tragic that the descendants of the thieves who stole these artworks from Africa should so brazenly benefit from their plunder when the descendants of the Africans who created the artworks receive no share at all in their economic value.

Some commentators have suggested that Africans should try to buy back their stolen artworks when these come to public auction. I consider such suggestions preposterous since it allows the vandals who plundered Africa to benefit from their plunder twice over. When Britain and other colonial powers pay restitution to Africa for the rape of the continent,then I will entertain such suggestions. In the absence of any real compensation for centuries of plunder and genocide against Africans, raising this issue at all is clearly a racist form of responsibility avoidance.

All across the world today, many stolen artworks are being repatriated to their countries of origins. No one is asking the cultural owners of these artworks to pay for the privilege of retrieving their ancestors' properties. Therefore, the relevant issue is whether Africans have any legal rights to their lives, natural and cultural resources. At what point does the brazen dispossession of Africa become a significant political, economic and moral issue? The Sotheby's sale is part of a broad disregard for the very real impact of dispossession on the reality and fortunes of black Africans today. There is no justice here and it does not appear that black Africans or their descendants will be afforded any kind of legal justice in the prevailing context of white Western power. And yes, this is clearly a racial issue. Zahi Hawass has by and large stopped Western institutions from brazenly trafficking in Egyptian artifacts. He continues to negotiate the return of large numbers of looted Egyptian artworks back to Egypt. Most of these artworks were removed from Egypt more than 250 years ago. Italy has repatriated artworks to Libya. Western museums have repatriated artworks to South Africa. But so far, all requests for repatriation or reparation by black Africans have been dismissed without hearing. This is not surprising: African Americans have so far only received an apology for their centuries –long enslavement and, through their overwhelming imprisonment, they continue to fatten the coffers of modern-day slaveholders who run various prisons in the USA. There has never been any Western country held accountable for their actions in Africa, not even Belgium that oversaw the genocide of close to 10 million Congolese between 1880 and 1920. Sotheby's multi-million dollar sale of stolen Benin artwork would seem insignificant within such a list of atrocities against Africa but make no mistake, it is part of the same current of morally and ethically dubious actions unfolding without any regard at all for African concerns.

It is therefore time for all Africans who have the resources to contribute to a massive effort to bring the global legal system to bear on these institutions who traffic in stolen African cultural patrimony. There are already precedents: the Holocaust reparation legal challenge is a clear precedence; so is the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act. The issue of African cultural patrimony is an urgent human rights issue. Africans deserve equal access to and equal share of the economic value of artworks created by their ancestors. More importantly, they deserve to have a say in what happens to these artworks in the contemporary era. These artworks arrived in the West on a boat of plunder and bloodshed. Uncountable numbers of African lives were destroyed in the avaricious pursuit of colonization by Western powers. There needs to be an accounting for this history. Western institutions like Sotheby’s that broker the sale of these artworks should also cease and desist. They may not be legally liable for their actions today, but they will be legally liable at some time in the future.

Dec 3, 2010

Skoto Gallery exhibits Tesfaye Tessema

From SKOTO GALLERY:

Symphony in Colors
Tesfaye Tessema: Recent Paintings
December 9th, 2010 - January 22nd, 2011

"Skoto Gallery is pleased to present Symphony in Colors, an exhibition of recent paintings by the Ethiopian-born artist Tesfaye Tessema. This will be his third solo show at the gallery. Reception is on Thursday, December 9th, 6-8pm, the artist will be present.

Tesfaye Tessema’s recent paintings exploits strategies that combine the physicality of paint, whether thin or thick, with an awareness of the role abstraction play as a means of expressing universal human emotions. He employs expressive gestures, deep sensitivity to texture and a mastery of tonality and color that gives his pictures a kind of interior glow where sight, memory and emotion fuse into a texture of vibrations and pulsations that allows the viewer a freedom of imagination, interpretation and emotional response. The question of where the inside and outside worlds meet, the ambiguity of space and surface tension are formally resolved in his pictures by an emphasis on concept and process over end-product while maintaining rigorous affirmative critical propositions about discrete cultural and historical realities.

In Tesfaye Tessema’s pictures, the filter of personal experience of doing, of painting and making art, away from his Ethiopian homeland for over three decades is not just essential to the substance of his creative process, but also bears witness to his ability to embrace a continuum of cultural precedents and influences, creativity with an open-ended improvisational sensibility and an awareness of the crucial links between culture, politics and social agency. The selection in this exhibition evokes the expansive possibilities of life and art in a world of changing realities and ceaseless change, and for an artist who has found a way to look forward, to engage the future and to challenge the present Tesfaye Tessema’s work is a testament to the ability of art to express big ideas about humanity.

Tesfaye Tessema was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he studied at the School of Fine Arts before leaving for the United States in the early 1970s. He obtained an MFA in Fine Art at Howard University, Washington DC, where he was exposed to the richness and diversity of the art of Africa, especially the classical art of West Africa where myth, metaphors and legend abound. His extensive travels in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Mexico over the years have further broadened his perspectives on the commonality in socio-religious forms among various cultures. He has been included in numerous international survey including "Project Rolywholyobei - Circus from the Museum by John Cage", 1994, Guggeinheim Museum, New York and Radford University Art Museum, Radford, Va, 2008. His work is in several public and private collections".