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Colonialism on display

Berlin holds one of the best collections of African art in the world but truth is, it is all stolen property. The excuse? The education and protection of world culture.

Image for Colonialism on display
Left: Queen Nefertiti, Amarna, Egypt, 14th century B.C. Right: Queen Mother Idia, Kingdom of Benin, 16th century

…Or how the fate of stolen art speaks volumes about our relationship to Africa.

“One cannot separate the fate of African art from the fate of African people, in other words from the fate of Africa itself.” Aimé Césaire, lecture on African art, Dakar, Senegal, 1966

Berlin is home to one of the best collections of African art in the world. The Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem boasts as many as 75,000 objects from the whole continent! Interestingly, the German colonists’ total disregard for Africans as human beings was matched by a conversely unique respect, fascination and appreciation for their art. During and after Prussian colonial rule, German ethnologists collected artistic, religious and ceremonial objects with compulsive fervour and characteristic thoroughness. By the early 20th century, the Ethnologisches Museum – then the Museum für Völkerkunde – was so flooded with African artefacts that it had to regularly dispatch the surplus to provincial museums. Today, if you want to see bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria) it’s not to Lagos you should go, but to Berlin. The museum has about 500 pieces, the world’s largest collection of Benin art, which the Germans acquired from the Brits after conquering and looting the capital city of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Meanwhile, as recounted by Dr. Kwame Opoku, the leading specialist on the subject, when Benin City sought to open its own art museum in 1968, it had to appeal to the world for loans or return of works taken by colonial powers. The museum was almost empty!

A treasure trove of looted art

Let’s face it – when we marvel at works of art like the exquisite 16th-century head of Queen Mother Idia (also known as Iyoba) at Berlin’s ethnological museum, it’s stolen property we’re looking at (either plundered firsthand, or auctioned from fellow colonialists, in this case the British). But curators of ethnological museums the world over, an otherwise erudite bunch, act as if they were totally ignorant of this simple fact, turning a deaf ear to the persistent demands for the restitution of artworks to their countries of origin. Like their English, French and US colleagues, the Germans have countered these demands with edifying hypocrisy: these objects were ‘gifts’ to the colonisers (!) or at any rate ‘acquired legally’ – they have ‘all the documents’ to prove it. We can count on the Germans for that. But are they really not aware of the violent context in which these objects were acquired?

To add ethnocentrism to hypocrisy, in 2002 the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin signed the infamous Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, by which they bestowed upon themselves the unique mission to educate the masses by protecting and sharing world culture. Returning looted objects was not on the agenda. Too bad the museum only ‘shares’ about 200 pieces with the public, while the remaining 74,800 are kept in storage.

“A sense of shame that should accompany the display of stolen/looted property of others seems to have completely disappeared from European consciousness,” observes Opoku.

A tale of two queens

There are more queens kept away from their homes. Take Nefertiti: she’s become as much of a Berlin icon as the TV Tower. She’s such a star that she’s been moved from her ‘ethnic’ home at the Egyptian Museum to the prime location of Neues Museum. When Egypt officially asked for her return to Cairo in 2011, Berliners polled on the street by the tabloid BZ opined that Nofretete, as she’s known here, belonged to Berlin as surely as Hertha BSC and curry on Wurst. I guess we should rejoice: it’s not every day that the masses get so passionate about ancient art. Unsurprisingly, the 3300-year-old Egyptian lady (a Berliner for 100 years only) was deemed too frail to travel to her native land, where she had been invited to appear in a Cairo exhibition this year. As pointed out by Dr. Opoku, “The commercial profit behind the German position is clear for every blind person to see. But what are the honest and serious justifications for keeping the Egyptian lady in Germany?” The same goes for keeping Queen Mother Idia of Benin in Berlin.

And why isn’t Queen Idia displayed in an art museum? Why do we need ethnological museums and their chiaroscuro lighting intended to convey the mysterious aura of ‘black art’? In 1953 Alain Resnais and Chris Marker asked exactly these questions in a poignant mini-doco called Statues Also Die. Sixty years later, what’s new? (Besides the fact Marker died in July.)

A museum of denial

Berlin, 2012: There is no sign that any of the Ethnologisches Museum’s African art will be returned to its legitimate heirs, and not so much as an explanatory sign to enlighten visitors about the conditions in which exhibits were acquired. The museum’s catalogue is a masterpiece of historical euphemisms and elliptic narrative, presenting the “colonial period” as the museum’s golden age, a time when “members of the colonial administration and the military were instructed to assemble collections”, “joint collecting expeditions” were launched and bids were made at auctions. Not a hint of wrong-doing. Our fruitless attempt to discuss the issue with an otherwise loquacious head of the museum’s African Department was symptomatic of the German position. Strangely, Berlin’s ‘ethnological art’ curators don’t like to look back these days. They prefer to look forward and they have big plans (which have so far been kept behind closed doors): the Humboldt Forum! Along with the rest of the colonial booty, Queen Mother Idia may soon be moved from her 20th-century home in Dahlem to a 21st-century mock Prussian palace named after a glorious pre-colonial explorer in the city centre. There’s no stopping progress!