Reclaiming Africa’s stolen heritage, writes UJ’s Dr David Monyae

Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), penned an opinion piece entitled “Reclaiming Africa’s stolen heritage” published on IOL news, 17 July 2019.

The first Industrial Revolution coincided with the phenomenon of colonialism, which undoubtedly left visible scars on Africans and their civilization. Art, in its various forms, was one demonstration of African advancement.

By its nature, colonialism denied the colonised anything that hinted at them possessing a mind that could rival that of the coloniser. This partly explains the looting of African artefacts that up to now are still immured in museums of erstwhile colonisers.

Another facet of this looting was the religious element, the spread of which in Africa coincided with a spike in slavery and colonial activity. Dismissing African art as heathenry, European missionaries had no qualms about destroying African artefacts that they could not understand, while commandeering those they found attractive.

Many African countries have experienced being forced to adopt European names, as African names were thought not to accord with Christian nomenclature.

Wresting African art was not merely looting material things; it sought to deny Africa’s place in the annals of art. Even more deeply, it almost obliterated an accumulation of African knowledge, thus engendering an invented lacuna in the continuity of African epistemology.

Artefacts are vessels of interconnectedness of all forms of African life. A few concrete examples could be adduced to emphasise the scale and manner of divesting Africa of its artefacts.

In extreme cases, Europeans made away with human body parts that they kept as trophies.

Hintsa, the son of Khawuta, was decapitated on May 12, 1835, during the 9th Frontier War, at the age of 45. The British soldiers took his head to Britain as a grotesque war trophy.

In 1868, the British seized Ethiopian artefacts, among them an 18th century gold crown and royal wedding dress that were put in the custody of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

Condescending arguments have been made by Europeans, some of them opining that Africa is riddled with conflict and violence and hence cannot be relied on to preserve the valuable assets. Others have argued that the artefacts could only be “loaned” to Africa.

Amid such shameless arrogance, it is encouraging that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, whether driven by guilty gnawing at his conscience or by a genuine realisation of the injustice to Africa, has promised to make returning African artefacts to Africa a priority.

But lest this episode be one among countless episodes that were about Africa, but driven by the outside world, the responsibility resides with Africans not only to reclaim the stolen artefacts but to realise just how valuable they are to African identity.

The agitation for decolonising school curricula should also include the return of artefacts, which are a crucial component of African epistemology. In order to give Africa’s case the authority it deserves, it would help if the AU could be forceful in correcting a blatant injustice.

For as long as the said artefacts remain in European custody, there will be a gap in the continuum of African culture and knowledge. Repatriation will not be easy, and there will not be a shortage of chauvinists who have ordained for themselves the role of keeping artefacts for a seemingly incapable continent.

Continued holding of these important cultural materials casts a blight on European claims to seeking reparation for injustices done during colonialism. Yes, Africa has gained political independence, but as long as a crucial part of its history remains in the hands of former colonisers, the vestiges of colonial domination linger and a part of Africa is still at the mercy of those who once conquered and ruled the continent.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

dr david monyae
Dr David Monyae
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