THE ART OF RECONCILIATION

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“…relativism over past standards should not preclude museums from being “above reproach” with regard to their recent and historic holdings.” Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Museum of Modern Art.

In an environment with such limited news published on art of Africa, I like to share, rather than re-invent the wheel. This important article published in ARTNEWS and available online at artnews.com by Robin Scher provides an in depth article about the Metropolitan Museum of Art near scandal, in which an exhibition closed after only seven months on display which almost half a million visitors viewed. Why? The Met “discovered” the “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin had been looted from Egypt, according to Scher, “The museum had acquired the ornate golden coffin from the first century B.C. two years ago for €3.5 million (around $3.9 million) from Christophe Kunicki, a Parisian art dealer who supplied fake provenance records including a forged Egyptian export license dated 1971. … an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, however, it appeared that the coffin had been stolen from its homeland in 2011. In response to the finding, the Met agreed to turn the artifact over to the Egyptian government. But the question of how such a tainted treasure could work its way through the hallowed museum’s acquisition process remained. Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement at the time. Max Hollein, the Met director then just a few months on the job, said, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow.” Hollein vowed that the Met would learn from the incident and that he would personally be “leading a review” of the acquisition program in order “to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.” Seriously? Scher goes on to say, this “…was not the first of its kind in the United States, and it won’t be the last”.
Ugochukwu-Smooth chimes in saying, “Reconciling the present with the past is difficult but necessary. Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi—a Nigerian-born curator joining the Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture in July after working as a curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College—said that relativism over past standards should not preclude museums from being “above reproach” with regard to their recent and historic holdings. “Given that the institutional history of the museum is fraught, a more ethical approach should stem from an acknowledgment that museums were part of the colonial ideology of conquest, domination, and attempts to hijack or re-write the narratives of so-called subject peoples to serve political, economic, and intellectual agendas,” Nzewi added. By recognizing realities of the past, museums will be better equipped to revisit and dissect their collections via “a well-thought-out and deliberate process of sifting through holdings and tracing the trajectories of individual objects.”
So what does this mean for Ethiopian and all African art…looted? African Heads of State, Museums and/or Ministries of Culture may want to begin consider implementing special task forces that do their own due diligence and establish points of contacts responsible for receiving said art, with all the reparations which should come with the return. Such reparations may include updating museums, training professionals, providing technology and security support, or allow platforms for curricula which include pedagogy to develop new approaches to protect, promote and preserve art of Africa. We must prepare for the return of what is ours and ensure we do our part to provide the next generation, especially while the crisis of conscience or fear of the public relations backlash is trending. Scher closes with the following referencing the Fowler Museum, “Through … current Mellon-funded research initiative—which includes an advisory committee drawn from local and regional scholars as well as community stakeholders—the museum’s director and curators said they hope to continue learning and, in the process, help answer a question hanging heavy on their minds: “What does it mean to have a collection of sub-Saharan African art formed by a British industrialist in Los Angeles in the 21st century?” My question is what does it mean to Africa to have our collections abroad, illegally and/or immorally, in the 21st century? Wake up.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.