“African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums.” French President Macron
A couple months ago I did something I NEVER do. I saw a movie three times! The Black super hero hit, “Black Panther”, was released in January, earning a whopping 1.34 Billion USD. Accomplished actors, outstanding wardrobe and dynamic storylines were the fabric of the fictitious yet advanced African state, Wakanda. Atlanta Black Star’s David Love writes, “…”Black Panther” broached the subject of the theft of African cultural artifacts by European museums … character Erik “Killmonger” Stevens took a “war hammer” from a British Museum and asked the curator, “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they just take it … like they took everything else?” Those questions propelled the movie into an action packed film and food for thought on the current demand for the return of the stolen African artifacts, including the looted Maqdala Treasures. Amongst the stolen goods are numerous and invaluable art pieces, crowns, Tabots, manuscripts and a lock of Emperor Tewodros’ hair.
Benin’s President Patrice Talon requested the return of thousands of artifacts stolen by the former French colonizer between 1892 to 1894. This may have prompted French President Macron’s statement, “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France.” However, the UK’s response is quite different. Ghana’s Asante ceremonial stools, swords, masks, rings and other precious items; considered the ‘largest collection of gold from Africa;’ sits in British museums with no plans for return. And while former Minister of Culture, Hirut Woldemariam, states, “We will use whatever legal and diplomatic instruments we have at hand to secure their return,” London is only interested in “lending” the artifacts to Ethiopia. WHAT?!
So despite UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which should provide for “the transfer to cultural assets to their countries of origin or for their restitution in case of illegal appropriation;” it’s a No-Go for Africa. But is this deeper than politics, diplomacy and history. Yes, it’s about power and money. The coiffeurs of conquest, filling the British institutions and Europe for that matter, are proof of their pride in a history of domination and colonization. And where money is concerned, the Arts Council England notes, “…every £1 ($1.31) the arts and the culture industry pays in salaries generates an additional £2.01 ($2.61) in the greater economy, “attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses revitalizing places; and developing talent.” So there we go, their motivation, rationale and most of all, benefits to the Brits is clear.
Help is on the horizon and advocates, academicians and artists have been at the helm for some time actually. Prof. Richard Pankhurst, Prof. Endrias Eshete and Ras Teges King amongst others formed AFROMET, over a decade ago to retrieve the priceless treasures looted during the British war on Ethiopia in 1867-68. They were subsequently successful in getting the return of a looted Tabot from the Scottish Episcopal Church of St. John in Edinburgh and have inspired others such as UK based Ethiopian schoolboy, Gabriel Berhanu Kassayie. Gabriel launched a campaign with his classmates, delivering a petition to the PM at Downing Street, trying to convince the British Government to return the invaluable treasures.
Recently, right here in Addis Ababa, a group of youth in Kazanches enjoyed a presentation on Maqdala that was just extraordinary. The art pieces in the collection, alone, were exquisite. Beyond the priceless historical and spiritual significance, the treasures are valued in the millions of dollars says Maqdala power point presenter, Ras Tages. The presentation was comprehensive and Tages shared that the Ethiopian Ministry of Education has given the green light for it to be shared with students in an effort to inform a budding generation on their heritage. Who knows, they may be motivated to follow Gabriel’s example of activism. The youth in Kazanches all signed the petition for the return of what is theirs and promised to spread the word. They even expressed interest to meet at Tewodros Square with fellow students to escort the petition to the British Embassy, when that time comes.
Renowned Ethiopian-born UK based author, Lemn Sisay proclaimed, “There is plenty of evidence of British soldiers raiding and looting Africa.” And Ras Teges urges, “…artists, singers, musicians and students must support the Maqdala campaign by writing lyrics for songs that can raise public awareness. ” So calling all artists, activists, academicians and lovers of Ethiopian art and history, it is your turn to advocate and activate your own artistic crusade to help usher in a new age for the return of African art and artifacts.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She is also the Liaison to the African Union for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.