What about those items exported with all relevant documentation, in good faith, prior to the anthropologists’ claims being made, and that now exist as it were, in limbo – their future still to be decided. This includes pieces held by museums and private collectors.
In 2013, The conference of Repatriation and restitution at De Paul University in Chicago, proposed that artworks legally have a right to: a continued existence, conservation and the preservation of historical documentation. On the issue of repatriation, James Cuno argued that: repatriation is an expression of justice. So, viewed as a human rights issue, Nigeria adopts a vociferous approach to repatriation. However the complexity of this issue enlarges again when:
In 2016, the phrase “Blood antiquities” was coined in Eastern Europe, fuelled by rumours investigated by Journalist Inigo Gilmore, that ISIS funds terrorist activities in the region through the sale of historic art. But examples of the rampant demolition of Syria’s temples may prove otherwise, arguably destruction proving an easier, quicker option to exterminate the identity and fibre of a people. A similar issue, cited in Mali regarding the Timbuktou manuscripts raise concerns that Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Queda in Mali threaten the existence of cultural heritage, thereby raising red flags for the security of repatriated artwork to West Africa. In effect, as well- meaning as repatriation is, If they are returned and consequently smashed, who according to the De Paul conference, would then be accountable?
In an attempt to stop the traffic in historic art, the European council aims to criminalize the trafficking of cultural property in 2018. This will undoubtedly change the way art is perceived, collected and handled. This is a complex issue, considering the history of the industry and the multitude of knock on effects- as internationally antiquarians lose their occupation, income, contribution to taxes and ultimately universities and academics a large body of expertize and material for research. This affects numerous other businesses and customs and import duties, to name a few
The trade in antiquities was possibly established 2000 years ago, with an interest in relics from the holy land. So where does one draw the line firstly with regard to defining cultural artefacts, their age and the nature and context of the word trafficking, as theoretically museums benefiting from exhibition attendance could be regarded as trafficking… If one extrapolates this argument further, will antiquities like the Turin shroud be repatriated to Israel, or the Vatican gather together the Aztec and Inca gold artefacts from their coffers and dispatch them to their countries of origin?.
If this prohibition were to apply to Africa, half a million people in West Africa alone, in various occupations related to the art trade would become unemployed facing an uncertain future and perhaps perpetuating the organizations one seeks to minimize. Some might argue that this embargo would be beneficial to stimulate the market in copies, which is the lesser of two evils. But is it? The increase in new production of wooden carvings implies deforestation of the ecology.
Besides touching on this multifaceted prism, I argue that the changing nature of societal patterns impacts on and requires reassessment of how we evaluate the location of art and the visual consumption of images. Perhaps suggesting the notion that artworks from extinct cultures now conceptually belong to the collective population, as the images of these icons, visually consumed daily and relayed instantaneously from mobile phones today, already do. Repatriation in this sense may be equated to closing the gate after the proverbial horse has bolted.
Another view might be that:
The Nok discourse includes the corpus of sculpture existing outside Nigeria. Not only as markers of an ancient civilization, but as classic works of art and how they visually intersect with the world today. Nok sculptures in Western museums are conserved in stable conditions and delight and educate millions of viewers living in the diaspora, who otherwise would never have been exposed to it. This sculpture acts as an endorsement for their roots, for Nigeria and its heritage. Museums also make these images increasingly available to everyone on line. According to Amini Kajunju in 2013, quoting worldbank statistics, 170 million Africans and those of African descent live in the West. They benefit from viewing art in these countries as do millions of others, indicated by available viewing statistics. Between 2015 –2016, 47 million people visited museums in the U.K. alone.
Nok collectors who assembled sculpture before restrictions, conduct tests for authenticity, by means of thermoluminescence and more recently Cat scans. Diligent research and art history contribute a wealth of information about Nok pieces. Attribution according to regional stylistic features, bolsters this research, implying that there is in existence, in virtual reality, a large body of data, technical and otherwise, that could be of academic import if this was collated. However, collectors are demonised and their voices are presently silent. Their items remain unseen and the data lost from a more inclusive approach.
Part of a mature artistic discourse about Nok terracotta could include some of the above. Critique through forums and educational institutions is to be encouraged. Views such as Patrick Darling are: ‘“The value of recorded knowledge of Nigeria’s post cultures should outweigh the value of the cultural objects themselves, for such knowledge Ieads to a better understanding and appreciation of Nigeria’s past.” Clearly this view is only one small facet of an ongoing debate and shows that much of the critique, discourse and nuances related to the merits of Nok sculpture, or what this implies about their culture, has been completely ignored, or still needs digesting.
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