Give it back: Africa’s treasures need to come home

We are largely ignorant of this continent’s great works of art yet they are worthy of a place alongside famous European masterpieces

24 September 2017 - 00:02 By NADINE DREYER
‘Appropriate II’, by Tsoku Maela looks at the relationship between tourists armed with smartphones and the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who practise their craft to make a living. “There is a very thin line between appreciation and appropriation,” says the artist.
‘Appropriate II’, by Tsoku Maela looks at the relationship between tourists armed with smartphones and the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who practise their craft to make a living. “There is a very thin line between appreciation and appropriation,” says the artist.
Image: Christopher Moller Gallery

There's that grumpy old grouch who got a fat crick in the neck from painting a certain chapel in Rome.

And his rival, the Renaissance jack of all trades whose most famous portrait captured a comely madam with a mysterious smile.

Don't forget the New York poseur who clinched his 15 minutes of fame by reproducing a can of soup. We know all three artists, but closer to home our cultural knowledge goes pear-shaped. Imagine an Italian school kid unable to recite the story of Italy's famous artists?

Yet even though she is one of our most famous personalities, our appreciation of Esther Mahlangu, the poster gogo for Ndebele art, doesn't go beyond recognising the dazzling geometric style of which she is the foremost proponent. Do we ever ask: where did this tradition of Ndebele wall art originate? A style as South African as pap or biltong.

The explosion of this wall painting starts during a period of great pain, subjugation and conquest. In 1883 the Ndebele nation was defeated in war by the Boers. After they surrendered they were divided up and forced to work as indentured labourers on Boer farms. To retain their identity the women painted their houses to show that "the Ndebele are living here".

We think of this tradition as immutable, but Esther's grandmother would have used ochre and clay to create her wall art. Mothers and daughters started experimenting with bright paint colours when these became available. The traditional motifs of their wall art speak to the viewer. The razor blade symbolises a rite of passage. A light bulb demonstrates aspiration; having electricity in the home. The "U-fly" is an aeroplane.

Esther Mahlangu

A large artwork was recently revealed in New York to honour Esther Mahlangu. Her first overseas trip was to France. "I had never been on an aeroplane, I didn't know how far I was going - I was just told I'm going to paint." She offered her French hosts a taste of pap. They hesitated - but then asked for more.

Mahlangu was the first Ndebele artist to fly in a "U-fly" when she was invited to France in the 1980s.

We imagine Ndebele wall art as permanent, yet the tradition is vanishing by the day. You only need drive around the villages of the former KwaNdebele homeland to experience this. Houses that were once unique works of art, gleaming against the dusty veld, get covered over with plaster. Who has the time to maintain a tradition when the struggle to survive gets harder by the day? When the old ways symbolise poverty and there is no incentive to continue them?

This government's disgraceful neglect of a tradition virtually synonymous with South Africa is a great betrayal.

Mahlangu's greatest achievement during her travels around the world has been drawing attention to the phenomenal creativity of her people. The truth is that when she passes on, Ndebele culture will go with her, relegated to postcards and trinkets for the tourist market.

VERY ENTERTAINING

Cape Town-based artist Tsoku Maela questions the benefits to ordinary people of all this exposure: "The brands she has collaborated with will do very little for the everyday Ndebele person and will not engage with the culture - only the patterns that represent it."

Are all South Africa's traditions destined to be honed down to dancing in loincloths for tourists?

'The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N'zombo Before the Great Extinction (Act II)', 2017, by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda. The artist explores distorted perceptions of Africa: the 'outside perspective' that sees the continent as something 'monstrous', and the 'inside' post-colonial populist view that Africa is a 'paradise lost'. Kia Henda won the 2017 Frieze Artist Award - the first African artist to receive the accolade. His exhibition opens at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town on October 7.
'The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N'zombo Before the Great Extinction (Act II)', 2017, by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda. The artist explores distorted perceptions of Africa: the 'outside perspective' that sees the continent as something 'monstrous', and the 'inside' post-colonial populist view that Africa is a 'paradise lost'. Kia Henda won the 2017 Frieze Artist Award - the first African artist to receive the accolade. His exhibition opens at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town on October 7.
Image: Supplied

In his latest work, Maela looks at the relationship between performing locals and tourists searching for the "true Africa".

"It's all very entertaining," he writes. "However, on the receiving end of that gaze are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who use their craft to make a living. A craft that draws inspiration, in style and aesthetic, from their sacred traditions.

"There is a very thin line between appreciation and appropriation."

Heritage on the African continent is inevitably linked with brutality and conquest.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren in Brussels, is crammed with artefacts from the Congo and is one of the world's greatest collections of African art, a direct legacy of Belgium's colonial past.

When European states started carving up Africa among themselves towards the end of the 19th century, Belgium's King Leopold II, feeling left out, grabbed the vast Central African territory and named it the Congo Free State.

Even to his peers, Leopold was an execrable personality. His cousin, Queen Victoria, described him as "unfit, idle and unpromising an heir apparent as ever was known". Later, he didn't bother to deny charges in a London court that he had sex with child prostitutes.

He claimed the Congo, 60 times the size of Belgium, as his personal colony. It has been described as the largest private estate ever acquired by a single man.

Between 1885 and 1908 Leopold ruled the territory as a camp of slave labourers where mutilation was commonly used to subdue the population. Numerous images of Congolese with severed hands bear witness to this atrocity.

History is revised

The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has more than 250,000 objects in its collection. Previously when entering, visitors were greeted by statues of Europeans in gilded robes cradling naked African children, above plaques extolling Belgium for bringing “civilisation”, “security” and “wellbeing” to the Congo. Renovations are under way to remove the stigma of the “last colonial museum”.

The brutality was relentless. In one missive, a colonial officer suggests neck chains be made from lighter metal so captives could be marched along at a quicker pace. A villager describes being on a forced march during which officers threw her sister's baby into the veld to die so that her hands would be free to carry goods stolen from another village.

Such was Leopold's cruelty that when asked about the practice of mutilation, he commented: "Cut off hands - that's idiotic. I'd cut off all the rest of them, but not hands. That's the one thing I need in the Congo."

Who was the heart, and who the darkness?

The pieces in the Royal Museum for Central Africa remain tangible evidence of this era: forcibly removed by soldiers, confiscated by missionaries as pagan idols or traded for cheap trinkets. A century later a large chunk of the Congo's heritage, including artistic masterpieces, remains in a foreign museum.

On a more positive note, there have been moves to repatriate what many consider Africa's "Elgin Marbles", the treasures known as the Benin Bronzes.

The Elgin Marbles landed up in the British Museum after Lord Elgin shipped them from the Parthenon in Greece to Britain in the early 1800s.

One of thousands of plaques in the oba's palace in Benin. In the late 1890s, astounded European art critics could hardly believe such technically accomplished sculptures were created by African artists.
One of thousands of plaques in the oba's palace in Benin. In the late 1890s, astounded European art critics could hardly believe such technically accomplished sculptures were created by African artists.
Image: Supplied

The Benin Bronzes are more than 1,000 commemorative plaques that adorned the palace of the kingdom of Benin and were crafted with unrivalled skill.

"When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art - the welding of the two," Wole Soyinka said. "I think immediately of a cohesive, ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self-esteem."

The kingdom of Benin dates back to the 11th century and was one of the oldest and most admired states in West Africa. "With its mathematical layout and earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China, Benin City was one of the best planned cities in the world when London was a place of thievery and murder," says the Guardian newspaper in a series on cities around the world.

EQUAL TO THE VERY FINEST

Professor Felix von Luschan, a director at the Berlin Ethnological Museum in the early 1900s, said of the Benin Bronzes: "These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique. Benvenuto Cellini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement."

In 1897 Benin was destroyed by the British in retaliation for the killing of a British delegation on its way to the city against the wishes of the oba, or ruler. British traders had demanded customs duties from Benin and the delegation was on its way to lay down the law.

'The Queen Mother', one of the sculptures known collectively as the Benin Bronzes, looted by the British after destroying the city of Benin.
'The Queen Mother', one of the sculptures known collectively as the Benin Bronzes, looted by the British after destroying the city of Benin.
Image: Supplied

Thousands of Benin treasures were shipped off to Britain. The British public were astounded at their quality. "We thus find the Benin savages using with familiarity and success a complicated method which satisfied the fastidious eye of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance," said one viewer.

The best pieces ended up in the royal collection, in the possession of Mrs Windsor of Buckingham Palace.

Last year students of Cambridge University woke up to the fact that a cockerel that had long stood in a student dining room in Jesus College was one of the Benin Bronzes. An art expert described the cockerel as an artistic masterpiece that had been inappropriately displayed in the hall "as a kind of heraldic mascot". Students demanded it be repatriated to Nigeria. Newspapers speculated that their action had been prompted by the #RhodesMustFall movement at Oxford.

In another development, the British Museum announced in August that it would take part in a European summit to discuss the return of art seized from Benin.

We might be more intimate with the prolific bard from Stratford-upon-Avon and that musical sprog from Salzburg, but now is the time for #GiveItBack.

Here's to some navel-gazing.