“A famous American museum director, from a very well-known museum in New York, once wrote that he could not identify an image inserted in one of my articles (a Nok sculpture) because his museum did not have such a piece from that culture. The underlying argument, of course, is that African artefacts achieve recognizable status and importance only when they are in Western museums, whether looted or legally acquired. Most Western museums, however, have not hesitated to acquire a considerable number of African terra cotta. This appears to be the case of the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, which is now at the centre of a big dispute about the legality of its acquisitions of African terra cotta.”
In an article published in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, (2) Eric Huysecom, an archaeology professor at Geneva and Bamako, has condemned the continuing looting of African cultural heritage, directing attention, in particular to a current exhibition entitled "African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage", organized by the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, which is well-known for its collection of African, Asian, Oceanic and Pre-Colombian arts. (3) The protest article was also signed by Hamady Bocoum, Director, Cultural Heritage Department, Senegal, Oumarou Ide, Ministry of Culture, Niger, as well as many other experts from Europe and Africa.
As usual those accused of participation in the continued depletion of African cultural artefacts resort to all kinds of weak and dubious arguments, such as that they acquired the artefacts before their country ratified or implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). and that law is not retroactive. Although Switzerland ratified the Convention in 2003, the Swiss law implementing the Convention came into effect only in 2005. According to organisers of the exhibition, most of the 200 artefacts were collected between 1970 and 1988. As Prof. Huysecom stated, the terra cotta must have been illegally exported from Mali. They come from sites discovered after 1977 and appeared on the market in 1979. Mali’s decree banning exports of such artefacts dates from 1973 and it is extremely rare to come across such objects accidentally. With all due respect to the organizers, they know that Mali had issued a decree banning exports of terra cotta in 1973. Nigeria, Ghana, and Niger have similar regulations. But even in the absence of such laws, collectors have known or should have known that since the 1970 UNESCO Convention export of cultural artefacts are subject to controls in the country of origin. They cannot now pretend to be ignorant about the illegality and the immorality of their actions. They just do not care. They simply disregard the fact that ICOM has put the terra cotta and other artefacts from Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire on its Red List.(4) The initiative of Professor Husycom should be supported by all who care for the preservation of cultural heritage in general and the African cultural heritage in particular. It is often alleged that Africans do not have any concrete evidence of their cultural and historic past and yet what we have is being looted, with the aiding and abetting of those who pretend to admire our culture and the complicity of some Africans.
The Director of the Ethnography Museum, Geneva, Boris Wastiau, who is also criticised for helping to put together the catalogue of the exhibition and thus lending the exhibits a veneer of legality and legitimacy, is reported to have said that he sees museums as temporary holders of their collections. One can only 3 answer that so far no Western museum has considered itself as a temporary holder of the thousands of stolen or looted objects in their museums. On the contrary, they have been writing books and articles to justify their continued detention of looted cultural objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. (5)
Read it all here.
Nok is mentioned in Genesis as Noah's great Ancestor. Nok's daughters married Cain and Seth and named their first-born sons "Enoch" (Hebrew for Nok), according to Genesis 4 and 5.