Cultural artefacts piracy and our stolen heritage

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THERE are tales of grave, art and artefacts robbers who stole original artefacts and pieces of art from unsuspecting indigenous communities as well as museums.
However, one question comes to mind on why they invade and steal pieces of wood, stone or clothing.
Curators of museums say these pieces of art are worth millions of dollars on the black market.
This is the tragedy facing African art that is being pirated to Western countries, robbing us of our cultures, identities and heritage.
During some colonial wars in Africa, the white soldiers took everything they could lay their hands on and stashed these cultural artefacts in private galleries and homes for resale or for souvenirs.
African art history has played a significant role in shaping the culture and history of the world.
The belief that Africa is the cradle of civilisation is virtually unshakeable.
The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time.
In Zimbabwe, several works of art have been discovered, notably the Zimbabwe Bird, now part of our national symbol, clay pots and wooden plates and stools, now safely stored in our museums.
Others have been shipped by colonialists and are decorating foreign galleries across the globe.
Other artefacts include the Mkwati walking stick and stools, among other artefacts that were stolen and displayed in museums and galleries in Western countries.
However, although items such as the Zimbabwe Bird and other artefacts were subsequently returned to Zimbabwe, researchers and treasure hunters say a huge assortment of other artefacts remain unaccounted for and holed up in Western galleries and homes where they are used as a sad reminder of colonialism and used to exploit our cultural heritage while portraying us as an inferior people.
To date, the country remains under threat from cultural artefacts piracy as hordes of European tourists continue to buy cultural artefacts important to our communities and culture.
In the Zambezi Valley, there has been a scramble for BaTonga indigenous arts and crafts in the form of the BaTonga doors used on stilted huts, traditional fishing baskets, the ngoma buntimbe ceremonial drums used during special ceremonies and funerals, the ndombonda smoking gourds, decorated herbal gourds, spears, the nyele musical pipes and other artefacts now found at the BaTonga museum.
Elsewhere in the country, headrests, walking sticks and other assortments of artefacts are still being sought after by art and gallery owners whose insatiable appetite for tribal art is still growing by the day.
Rock art dotted on most African landscapes, hills and mountains is centuries old, while other artefacts such as shell beads fashioned for necklaces and bangles have been recovered in a cave in the furthest reach of the southern peninsula of South Africa that are 75 000 years old.
A study of African art history indicates the earliest sculpture forms found come from Nigeria and are dated around 500BC. However, the lack of archaeological excavations inhibits knowledge of the antiquity of African art and the sheer disposable nature of the raw materials used in the creation of art objects means that an untold wealth of pieces have disintegrated in time.
Compounding this, as these objects were not coveted as aesthetic accomplishments by the indigenous communities who created them, no effort was made to preserve them.
Often, their value was negligible once their function was performed.
The colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent.
A lot of African art was acquired for curio by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent.
Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved, as a result, African art history was not preserved or documented.
There has been a huge emphasis on Central African art history for two reasons; one being that the communities who resided there were the most sedentary of the tribes in Africa and second, that they produced figurative sculptures that Western collectors could most easily identify with as ‘art’.
The surge in interest in collecting African art, both tribal and contemporary, has forced scholars and investors, governments and institutions to re-examine the very essence of African art.
Collections that have been inhabiting deep, dark depths of museum vaults have been moved to the fore-front of African art history museums, galleries and auction houses to be observed and celebrated for the beautiful and fascinating field of art that it is.
According to African researchers studying art collections, they not only see how the art may be used to shed light on African art history and culture, but how the art can be used to help restore lost traditions and skills in the crafts of the cultures from where they originated.
Historically, some communities were non-sedentary and would have carried with them as little as possible, therefore, only useful objects would have been transported.
Africa, and indeed Zimbabwe, must have lost uncountable pieces of art on the wayside of migratory existence.
This smuggled art has had a greater influence on modern art and architecture of African and European art history.
Collectors have often used this art to improve the livelihood of their communities.
Art forms and artefacts from tribes such as the BaTonga, the Maasai and other lesser known indigenous tribes are used to demean these tribes as backward and resistant to modern trappings of life.
Zimbabwean artefacts are still used as a form of exploitation by Westerners who are encouraging the felling of century old mukwa and mahogany trees in state forests.
If wood carvers continue to use certain species of red mahogany trees for the curios they carve and export to overseas markets through South Africa, those trees will be wiped out within the next few years, environmentalists predict.
Several species of hardwood trees in the forests surrounding Zimbabwe’s Western border town of Victoria Falls are threatened with extinction due to excessive curio carving to supply a booming market in Western countries.
Cross-border traders who used to carry crotchet work such as bed covers, table cloths and food covers to South Africa are now taking carvings which have a ready market where these wooden items are used mostly for display.
Meanwhile, our artefacts continue to decorate offices in Western capitals oblivious of the fact that we face a very serious threat to our environment, cultural heritage and livelihoods as indigenous communities.

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