Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Africa's art returns. Just don't use the word 'loot'

The future Museum of Returned African Art in Benin intends to exhibit a small share of the countless artistic pieces that have `disappeared' from the region over the past 200 years


The British Museum in London exhibits the Benin Bronzes. More than 100 years after a British force torched the capital of the old kingdom of Benin and carted off the bronzes, a campaign is being launched for a museum to lure back some of Africa's lost heritage.


More than 100 years after a British force torched the capital of the old kingdom of Benin and carted off the exquisite Benin Bronzes, an international campaign is being launched for a museum to lure back some of sub-Saharan Africa's lost artistic heritage.

Based in Benin, once the gateway of the slave trade and now one of Africa's most democratic countries, the future Museum of Returned African Art would exhibit a small share of the countless artistic jewels that have disappeared from the region over the past 150 to 200 years.

"We are not accusing anyone of anything and we are not using words like `looting' or anything like that," said Juha Vakkuri, a Finnish author of several works on Africa who chairs African Art Returns, a group he set up to found the museum.

Through acquisitions of new works and by cooperating with the world's great museums, missionary societies, and private collectors, he hopes to amass a sufficient quantity of works of African art to fill the museum by its completion in 2009 in Grand-Popo, Benin.

The campaign, waged through the Internet, international media and the global network of museums, has as its first goal the acquisition by 2008 of 500 works of art, which would be stored in Finland until displayed.

Private sponsors and the Finnish government are set to finance the US$120,000 operating budget for next year. In future years, the annual budget rises to around US$450,000, half from Nordic governments and half from private sources. The scheme also counts on an acquisition budget of about US$110,000.

Vakkuri, speaking in an interview in Paris while in the initial stages of fund-raising, said he would not be asking top museums to surrender the central works of their African collections.

Instead, institutions may be asked at first to help with training of African museum staff and curators.

Later, they may be asked to produce virtual exhibitions of their collections for display within the museum.

Finally, exhibitions of foreign museums' African collections, long-term loans of art and eventually "the million-dollar question" of property transfers are envisaged.

The central challenge will be gaining trust, Vakkuri said.

Curators must be convinced that the Museum of Returned African Art has the security and technological sophistication to house significant works of art safely and to return them in an undamaged state.

A working group of Finnish and African architects is now being assembled to design the building, Vakkuri said.

In Europe, the enemy of African works of art is the dry museum rooms where some extraordinary wooden pieces are literally cracking apart. In Africa, the museum will have to shut out humidity, which could ruin ancient works of art in metal.

"Now it is time to build a museum in Africa where the pieces will survive," Vakkuri said.

"It is extremely important if one thinks in democratic terms that those Africans who cannot afford to go to Europe or to America have a chance to see their own cultural heritage in Africa." For that reason, the museum will also organize touring exhibitions within Africa.

It is also question of pride for a continent that lost some of its greatest works to pillage, theft and the illicit art trade.

Debate still rages, for example, about the Benin Bronzes, considered by many to be a case that mirrors the Elgin Marbles, the extraordinary collection of marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Greece by the orders of Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, and still housed in the British Museum.

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