western museums are not entitled to africa’s shit

December 14, 2018
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French President Emmanuele Macron had an interview with center-right publication Le Figaro, stating in no uncertain terms that the colonization of Algeria constituted violent acts that would be considered “crimes against humanity” today, reported Financial Times. What Macron doesn’t understand is that colonization has always been a crime against humanity that affected Algerians as well as other predominantly Black French colonies that he failed to mention (because a predominantly Arab Algeria is the only former French colony that deserves an apology, I guess).

The cherry on top of Macron’s tone-deaf admission is that this crime against African people is only worthy of justice amounting to France repatriating 26 looted Benin Bronzes, looted from modern-day Nigeria. The French President’s statement caused a stir in the art community, opening up a precedent that worried the British Museum, which also houses Benin Bronzes as well as 76,000 other African artifacts, the majority of which were looted during colonization. As Macron blindly stumbles around the conversation of retribution, the British Museum is sticking to its finders-keepers policy, although there are talks of their own Benin Bronzes being leased to the continent. How kind.

Tiffany Jenkins of The Guardian towed the British Museum message by writing a dubious piece justifying why Western museums should keep their “treasures.” Sigh. Jenkin’s argument hinges on the fact that the Bronzes, created in the 13th century, were made from gold bought from Portuguese traders in exchange for ivory, pepper and (gasp) slaves. Jenkin’s assertion was, “Perhaps the descendants of the Benin king should apologize for slavery before they are approved as morally worthy owners of the artifacts.” A British reporter talking about “moral worthiness” in a conversation about colonization elicited a laugh so guttural and deep, it took care of my sit-ups for the week.

We can have a discussion about the role of African monarchs in the selling of slaves, and we will. What I will say is that Jenkins should take several seats before using that half-baked reasoning to justify the very trade that launched the British Empire into the gluttonous monster we know it to be. There would be no Africans displaced across the diaspora without the demand for slaves that built the West. Africans might be culpable, honey, but the guilt is all on y’all. I’d respect her stance more if she didn’t offer a roundabout way of saying “We ain’t giving back shit” instead of blaming Black people for slavery. Sis? The caucasity?

“With victimization as the moral basis for the ownership of artifacts, there could be no end to competitive claim-making.” What a way to admit that Africans were victims of a heinous crime while removing accountability from the British monarchy. Well done, Tiffany. I’m sure your Queen would be proud. The kicker is her assertion: “Turning the past into a morality play, in which grandstanding politicians and academics act as saviors, can have deleterious consequences for the way we understand it.” Calling the quest for retributive justice for slavery a “morality play” is proof that the British monarchy has done a stupendous job in insulating the British public from the disastrous impact of British colonization. Here is a writer who shows zero remorse for slavery or her country’s role in it and we’re supposed to take her seriously about what to do with African artifacts. We’re good, love. Enjoy.

The delusion of grandeur that equates the British pillaging half the planet with a grand planetary treasure hunt is an attitude that the British have used to justify their global conquest, separating its story-like fervor from its violent ramifications. History is not simple, especially when the victors tell it from an ahistorical perspective. “It’s easy to launch a press conference and condemn colonialism, after all; what’s harder is tackling contemporary social problems,” says a writer speaking of colonial actions with modern-day impact. Labeling Africa as some wasteland that wound up that way is exactly how the West absolves itself and I am here to say, no fucking more.

Returning African artifacts to Africa so that millions of people can flock to our shores — instead of Western museums — could solve a few contemporary problems through the profits received from the art and the possibility of growing tourism. People love Blackness, so why not go to the source for it? The issue is that people love Blackness but hate Black people. The West loves African artifacts but not the civilizations that created these masterpieces. Because Black and master don’t mix, right?

The Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal, marks a shift to the grand-scale appreciation of Black art. According to Al Jazeera, it will span 14,000 square meters, with the ability to house 17,000 exhibits, placing it in the league of the National Museum of African American History in Washington. Focusing on Black history outside subjugation is the foundation of decolonization, through the prioritization of Black creation through the Black lens. This is a way for Africans (on the continent and throughout the diaspora) to see themselves through African eyes. It’s a dialogue; across the diaspora and even with the West, aimed at recognizing the contributions of Black people in a way that will benefit Africans and not the museums of the West. In short, it’s a message to those museums. We want our shit back.