Stolen African art: Part One …the case of Great Zimbabwe


“Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers (there is a)…fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them…. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.” – Vicente Pegado, Captain and Portuguese Garrison of Sofala in 1531 describing Great Zimbabwe monuments.

SINCE ancient times, Europeans and American imperialists engaged in massive looting of African cultural artifacts and treasures.
Historians, anthropologists and archeologists research has shown that these colonialists stole many valuable and priceless artworks.
Not only was the wealth of African art stolen, a lot of archaeological sites were damaged.
These looters may not have fully understood or appreciated the value of African art.
But later on at the start of the 20th century, well-known European artists such as Derain, Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani became very interested in African art.
They visited the Trocadero museum in Paris to look at the unique African forms.
Picasso and the other new artists from the ‘School of Paris’ began to collect tribal sculptures and artifacts that were beginning to appear in great numbers in Paris as a result of French colonisation in Africa.
Picasso then incorporated the ceremonial masks of the Dogon tribe into his well known work like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, commenced in 1907 and completed in 1909.
African influence on his works can also be seen in the Gabon masks that he acquired and also seen in his white sculpture, ‘Head of a Woman’ done from 1929 to 1930.
In Part One of this column on stolen African art, we begin by examining the stolen art of Great Zimbabwe.
How did the destruction of our creative wealth disappear at Great Zimbabwe?
How did the Europeans find out about Great Zimbabwe in the first place?
Karl Mauch, a German geologist arrived at Great Zimbabwe monuments on Sunday 3 September 1871.
In his diaries, he noted that a Karanga tribesman took him there to show him ‘Dzimbahwe’, the scared city of stone where the local people claimed to hear drums played at night.
Mauch described the walls as beautifully curved undulating and bearing no mortar. He looked at the soapstone and iron relics and said only “a civilised white nation must once have lived there.”
Then he cut a piece of wood from a tree with red juices, (probably a Mubvamaropa tree) and concluded that this tree was unique and it could only have come from Lebanon with the Phoenicians.
After Karl Mauch’s findings, Cecil John Rhodes, the great colonialist, made a visit in 1890 and told the chiefs that he had come to look for the “the ancient temple which once upon a time belonged to whitemen.”
Rhodes then established the Ancient Ruins Company and financed James Theodore Bent from the British Association of Science.
In 1892, Bent published The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland in which he said items found within the Great Zimbabwe complex proved that the civilisation was not built by local Africans.
A few years later Richard Hall was hired to investigate the Great Zimbabwe site.
Hall asserted in his work, The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia that the civilisation was built by ‘more civilised races’ than the Africans.
Hall deliberately dug two metres deep and destroyed archeological evidence which pointed to the Shona people as builders of Great Zimbabwe.
Hall said he wanted to, “remove the filth and decadence of Kaffir occupation.”
In 1905, British archeologist David Randall-MacIver arrived at Great Zimbabwe and studied the mud dwellings within the stone enclosures.
Randall-MacIver was the first European researcher to say that the dwellings were “unquestionably African in every detail.”
As a result of this bold assertion, Randall – MacIver and other archeologists were banned from the Zimbabwe site by the colonial government.
Meanwhile, the looting continued from whoever arrived to explore and dig for gold and suspected treasures.
And 25 years later, British archeologists led by Gertrude Caton -Thompson came and spent two years at Great Zimbabwe.
Although a lot had been destroyed and stolen, Caton – Thompson found Persian bowls, Chinese celadon dishes, and Asian glassware.
These 12th to 15th century goods were evidence that there was a Shona and Indian Ocean trade link.
Gertrude Caton-Thompson also examined the pottery style, wall decoration and the Karanga linguistic data and concluded that the ruins were of Shona origin.
Great Zimbabwe remains the largest single prehistoric structure in Sub-Saharan Africa related to similar structures at Mapungubwe across the Limpopo on the South African side.
It was one of 300 known stone enclosure sites on the Zimbabwe Plateau and it the largest ancient stone construction south of the Sahara.
There was a lot of wealth and knowledge in the work of art and architecture at Great Zimbabwe that was destroyed during the early days of colonialism.
Today, the Zimbabwe artifacts are kept in museums, public offices and private collections all over the Western world.
It was tragic that much of our history as recorded by the creative work of the artifacts was lost and it will not be reconstituted.



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