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Meet the Businessman Leading the Fight to Bring African Art Back Home

by Mark Hay

August 11, 2015
BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region. Image by Ndoto ya Afrika via Flickr

This July, Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman currently in exile in Angola, announced that he plans to use his substantial means to launch a big new initiative for the African art world.

If you’re getting ready to roll your eyes, that’s understandable. “Big new arts initiatives” often turn out to be underwhelming cash infusions into scholarships, foundations, or exhibits, trussed up by hyperbolic PR machines. But Dokolo’s not just sinking his money into an African wing at an established museum or funding already up-and-coming stars on the continent. Instead, he intends to push for all African art installed in Western institutions under dubious conditions (often looted by colonial regimes) to be the repatriated back to Africa. Using its own team of art dealers and researchers, Dokolo’s initiative will scour museum archives and records to search out candidate works for repatriation. The project will then assemble cases for the return of these objects, so that the work can start circulating Africa’s own museums and arts installations.

Dokolo’s repatriation initiative stems from some truly honorable intentions. Even if African art is well preserved and circulated in Western museums, he points out that it’s usually presented as background or inspiration for modern European art rather than honored on its own merits. And circulating far from its point of origin, it cannot serve to inspire young African artists to build on their own cultural traditions. Unfortunately the difficulties facing major repatriation efforts like this, along with some dissent from within the African art world, suggest that Dokolo’s big push will likely fail. But even if it does, he’ll likely manage to repatriate a fair number of artworks to countries that don’t have significant reclamation efforts of their own, in the process stirring up a larger and longer-lasting conversation that could help future, wider African repatriation efforts.

There should be a lot of support for Dokolo’s movement, given the widespread (if abstract) acceptance of repatriation in the modern world. Over the past few decades, waves of independence and economic development across the post-colonial world have empowered nations looted of their artistic culture to compile compelling cases against the shady business involved in arts acquisitions. By 1970, the evidence was strong enough for the United Nations to officially discourage acquisitions of dubious objects and encourage the return of works with poor documentation or disputed origins when a suitable case was filed. Ever since, a series of treaties and ethical codes between nations and amongst museums, respectively, have reinforced this norm. And in recent years, celebrities like Amal Alamuddin-Clooney, who came out in defense Greece’s longstanding attempt to recover the Elgin Marbles (friezes lifted off of the Parthenon by a British earl in 1801 and shipped to the British Museum), have given repatriation efforts a boost in the popular consciousness. These days, some museum curators even welcome repatriation as a good excuse to replace long-running exhibitions and break out forgotten gems from collections in storage.

Sindika Dokolo. Image by Cassenoisettes via Wikimedia Commons

However, despite a few major repatriations to countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Peru, the vast bulk of successful repatriation claims come from the great bastions of Classical Western art: Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Italy, and Turkey. These countries account for not just the most repatriations, but a good deal of the most commonly discussed repatriation debates as well.

This isn’t because most ill-begotten artworks come from those nations. Although no one has a real sense of how many masterpieces were stolen, looted, or purchased unintentionally from dubious dealers, the Archaeological Institute of America suspects that up to 90 percent of non-native artworks, especially ancient pieces, may be repatriation candidates. But repatriation cases are hard to make, given the often-scanty evidence surrounding an object’s acquisition, and international treaties on the subject often have very few teeth. Successful nations usually have some kind of leverage to put behind their claims, like threats to pull excavation permits or ban loans from museums to a resisting country. And sometimes aggrieved nations use that leverage to force the return of goods that were probably properly acquired, running the risk of irking and thus potentially biasing some curators against the claims of less politically endowed nations.

Repatriation claims are especially hard to make in sub-Saharan Africa because of the difficulty in identifying the provenance of objects sold to Western museums and collectors. In 2007, two wooden totems of the Mijikenda people on the Kenyan coast were returned to the village of Chalani in a rare instance of African repatriation, proving that successful claims can be made in the region. But the story behind that repatriation effort, which took years, massive investments, and required tracking down people who could recognize and recall the loss of specific totems from amongst semi-nomadic societies, highlights the difficulties faced by countries whose goods were likely looted in less organized and documented ways.

The difficulty of filing successful claims out of Africa has also been complicated in recent years by the wanton destruction of cultural relics by militant groups, not just in Syria and Iraq, but in Mali and Somalia. Some curators (notably those at the almost entirely looted British Museum) have used this destruction to argue that repatriation should not allow artworks to return to environments ill equipped to protect or maintain them. Claiming that ancient relics are a global heritage, which can be viewed online by the entire world in the modern era, these curators argue that nationalistic aspirations have to take a backseat to what is best for the health and safety of artifacts. If nations of origin want to see an object in person, these curators say, they can prove their security and then receive it as a loan from the world’s truly safe arts repositories.

15th - 16th century ivory carvings from West Africa. Image by John Atherton via Flickr

But repatriation supporters claim these arguments are silly, given that artworks saved in Europe during WWII were often promptly returned to post-war nations despite the lack of definite security there. And there’s no real guarantee that an artwork won’t be stolen, defaced, or looted in any museum. Militant destruction has just, many believe, given conservative curators ammo to promote their outdated agendas without seeming bigoted. Still, the ammo is effective in the eyes of the public. And given chronic insecurity in countries like the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Nigeria, and the underdeveloped art funding regimens and museum infrastructure in many other nations, it puts an effective damper on many repatriation claims, even the particularly strong ones, like those that Dokolo and his team may wish to file.

If Dokolo had the support of the entire African art world, he might have a shot at overcoming the murkiness of these African acquisitions, the comparative lack of leverage behind most sub-Saharan claims, and the modern paranoia about repatriation beyond the Classical world. But while Dokolo has the support of some idealists, and the wealthy nation of Angola (the president of which is his wife’s father), he’s also got a fair number of foes, who argue that this one prolific arts collector, who likely has limited experience beyond certain nations and traditions, should not become the voice and arbiter for an incredibly diverse continent’s visual heritage. Plus, Dokolo’s efforts, if not well coordinated, risk stepping on the toes of local (if less than successful to date) repatriation efforts in Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria, all with their own agendas and approaches.

Dokolo’s going to give this initiative his all. Beyond basic repatriation claims, he’s going to offer to buy back artworks at the prices they sold for. If collectors and museums don’t sell, then he’s threatening to tie them up in legal hell. An incredibly wealthy man (the son of the founder of the Bank of Kinshasa, husband of Africa’s richest woman, scion of Angola, and a successful businessman himself), he has the resources to carry through on those promises for many works of art. But the forces arrayed against him are likely too great to overcome via one initiative.

However even if he doesn’t succeed in repatriating every illicit work of African art from the West, if he raises half of the hell he’s promised, he’ll open a new chapter in longstanding debates on repatriation. His struggles will point out the disparities in repatriation claims, the challenges facing nations like those he’ll try to represent, and the location and presentation of African art around the world. Even if he only repatriates a few objects, these conversations may give a boost to other nations, strengthening weak or launching new repatriation efforts or drawing more funding into arts initiatives. That’ll be a major victory, even if the effort itself falls short.

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Meet the Businessman Leading the Fight to Bring African Art Back Home