The Sunday News
Pathisa Nyathi, Correspondent
MUSEUMS in various parts of Europe are replete with material objects that were looted from the African continent. There have been attempts to repatriate some of these priceless collections which constitute an important component of African cultural heritage. Efforts to repatriate the objects have not met much success. The Zimbabwe Birds were some of the artefacts that were whisked away without consultation, let alone consent from the owners of the objects. One Zimbabwe Bird was successfully repatriated but many still grace building outside of Zimbabwe.
Prior to colonisation there were several European men that criss-crossed the African content. These ranged from missionaries, concession seekers, mineral prospectors, traders and hunters, among several others. Quite many of the objects are still part of private collections which have not been deposited with private and public museums and archives. There was hardly full appreciation of cultural roles the objects played in African communities and private households. They were viewed as curious curios and mere material objects.
Such African crafts were, in the first instance, material objects and more importantly, they carried important intangible dimensions. These were not objects of art. As Chinua Achebe correctly observed, art for art’s sake is like deodorised dog shit. Art came buoyed on functional objects. For example, a royal sceptre primarily symbolised power and authority. The sceptre was liberally decorated with African symbolic motifs with meanings which had been transmitted down the generations.
Similarly, a chief’s stool was a functional object which also bore art. Here the design of the chair, indeed a design common to all African artefacts, was infused with an aesthetic sense as understood by Africans. This may be termed art within the context of functionality. On the other hand, art executed on a functional object did play a functional role. Art was used to transmit messages with important messages and meanings. In a nutshell, there was art in utility and conversely utility in art.
African objects that were looted meant that certain aspects of African culture were sometimes lost through theft. An object taken out of its cultural or socio-spiritual context has been rendered meaningless and lifeless. A good example is the African mask which is commonly used in Central Africa and right up to West Africa. There are many African masks that were looted as curious objects of a primitive people.
These were taken away from their cultural milieu. A mask has no unitary or isolated existence. Rather, its cultural milieu is displayed alongside a complex of other complementary aspects. What is a mask outside of a masquerade? A mask is unmasked in the absence of appropriate costumes. A mask outside of song is sterile. A mask without requisite movement is lifeless. Certainly, a mask without dance and movement is dead.
African definition of life is different from that in the western world. A mask has a life of its own. It is contextual aspects enumerated above what infuse life into it. The cultural context has people who have a worldview that gives life to a mask. It is beliefs that surround a mask that give it a life. Taking a mask away from its broad cosmological context is tantamount to killing it. Its meaning and significance are lost. Its sacredness has been removed from it.
Thus taking it to Europe where there are people who do not appreciate the life resident in a mask or indeed any other looted African object, amounts to desecration. The mask’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is not celebrated. It is existing in a lifeless state among a people who take it for a material object which is without a spiritual or intangible dimension. The mask is related to in a different way; as a material object minus its respect that Africa used to give it.
I remember very well in the mid sixties while attending the Salvation Army’s Mazowe Secondary School for boys. The school was located in a farming area where there were workers from Malawi. Over the weekends workers wore facial masks and went about singing and dancing across a crop field near the school. We called them zvigure. We students came from cultures that did not embrace facial masks. Besides, we had embraced a Christian faith that despised zvigure.
Misguided as we were, we sought to remove the mask from the zvigure. It was childish ignorance and intolerance of other people’s cultures.
It was stupid fun when viewed in retrospect. In terms of lack of respect, we were no different from keepers of African objects in European households, museums and archives.
One day in a chit chat with Clifford Zulu, a curator in the National Gallery in Bulawayo, it was brought to my attention that when African curators visit European museums they behave in uncharacteristic manner. They do not show any respect for the African cultural objects.
When offered hand gloves, they are quick to fiddle and meddle around with curated objects. Perhaps it is a question of, if you cannot beat them, you join them.
At the same time we may appreciate that the cultural objects were rendered lifeless the very moment they got into the hands and custody of looters. They were uprooted and thus lost they life which is sustained through a people’s worldview and beliefs. These, in a cultural context, render meaning, value and, above all, give life to an object.
It is thus a tragedy when such objects euphemistically go to the guillotine out of which they emerge lifeless. Africa would do well to canvass and lobby for the return of the items stashed in European building. Africa needs to speak with one voice in order to raise hopes for the repatriation of an important part of their cultural heritage.
In many instances some of the cultural objects have their cultural significance and meaning lost in the quagmire of sands of history. The context for the items was lost a long time ago. There do not exist cultural narratives relating to the objects, in terms of their utility and more importantly with regard to associated ICH.
It would, in the circumstances, be prudent for those concerned, such as anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists and more importantly, ethnographers to embark upon collaborative researches so as to unravel the lost usages, meanings and the underlying ICH. At least we would salvage something out of our lost cultures. Bringing the items back to life may no longer be possible. The cosmological pillars that supported associated cultural practices have been eaten away by ravenous ants powered by exotic cultures which Africa has embraced and cherishes with abandon.