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The issues raised in my film, FANG: An Epic Journey, are sufficiently complex to warrant framing by
specialists. To that end, I invited a group of colleagues with different backgrounds to discuss the
questions FANG raised (or failed to raise) for use as an introduction for a wider public. I introduced the
question "Who owns African art?" Of course, the debate is inconclusive because that issue and most of
the others raised here can never be definitively resolved. The answers attach to beliefs more often than
to facts.

It is my hope that this discussion, and the film it accompanies, will help individuals reexamine and clarify
their own convictions. More deeply, this project may help the reader uncover and perhaps reach a new
understanding of the reasoning—through political, intellectual, autobiographical and other layers of
belief—that led to the positions he or she already holds.

Susan Vogel

This life history of an art object is a work of fiction, but everything in it is based on real events.
No single object followed this entire path, but many different African objects followed parts of it. Most of
the human characters in the film are based on actual people, and our hero is a polymer resin cast of an
authentic Fang figure in a private collection.

Two identical, hollow, pale gray casts were painstakingly made for filming by the master mold maker of
the Metropolitan Museum, then painted their respective colors. The original sculpture today is brownish
black and lacks both its back post and phallus. In both areas traces of cutting are evident. The darkened
cast is identical to the original, but in making the other version we had to surmise the form of the missing
parts based on similar figures (see Fang, 1991, p. 54-55). Because scenes in the film were not shot in
the order of the story, the black version had to be repeatedly cut apart and glued together.
The rubber trader in the first scene is based on Gunther Tessmann (1884-1969), a German ethnologist,
explorer, collector and author who traveled in Cameroon and Gabon between 1904 and 1917, collecting
many Fang objects for the museum in Lubeck. Tessmann is the author of many articles and the definitive
work, Die Pangwe, (1913). An interesting short biography by Philippe Laburthe-Tolra addresses his work and
his somewhat tortured personality. He was one of many Europeans, marginalized at home—in his case as a
homosexual—who preferred life in Africa away from his countrymen.

The second scene evokes a store for rubber automobile accessories where the teenage Paul Guillaume
worked as a clerk in 1911. There he first encountered African art and met some of the leading buyers and
sellers of the day. At the time, African objects brought back by sailors or traders were sold inexpensively in
curio shops, cafes, and flea markets.
Georges Braque's studio (above), photographed in 1911, formed the basis for the artist's
studio set in the next scene. Beginning in 1906-07, avant garde artists in Paris began to
collect African objects and to integrate some of the formal ideas into their work. They
generally had fanciful ideas about these objects, having almost no knowledge of—and
little interest in—the African
artists who had made them or the ideas the objects expressed.
By 1914 Paul Guillaume had become an art dealer of the most advanced contemporary art, and African
art. He was one of the earliest and to this day one of the most influential dealers in the African field.
Objects that can be shown to have passed through his hands have added value today. He was the main
formative influence on Alfred Barnes, persuading him to acquire important African and modern artworks
now the Barnes Foundation Museum, near Philadelphia. An eloquent advocate, Guillaume also co-
authored a book on African art and helped convince the art world that African objects were truly art. There
is no evidence that he personally altered works of art in the way shown in the film, though objects were
routinely "cleaned," mounted on bases, and labeled by dealers and collectors who felt no compunction
about "improving" them.

The "Revue Negre" poster from 1926 shows the American performer Josephine Baker—who helped fueled
the rage for Black culture in Paris of the twenties. It is by the graphic artist Paul Colin.

The "abstract" gallery display in this scene replicates the 1914 installation in New York which was the first
exhibition anywhere of African art "shown solely from the point of view of art." It was organized by Marius de
Zayas, designed by Edward Steichen, and held at "291," (below) the gallery on Fifth Avenue established by
Alfred Steiglitz and the Photo-Secession group. Paul Guillaume, whose own gallery opened in Paris the
same year, lent objects to that exhibition. Installation design for African art has remained remarkably close
to this model for nearly a century.
Our German professor is based upon Julius Lips who was professor and Director of the Ra
utenstraucht-Joest ethnographic museum in Cologne when Hitler came to power. According to Nazi
doctrine, African art was "degenerate" along with modern and Jewish art. Though Lips was not Jewish,
his research and collection of photographs of artworks by Africans and other "lower races" depicting
Europeans was considered "an insult to Hitler" and "a crime against the race." He was hounded from
his post and fled to New York in 1934 where he joined the faculty of Columbia University. His book,

Savage Hits Back or the White Man Through Native Eyes opens with a moving account of these
events, followed by sometimes hilarious sculptures portraying exotic white people.

African sculptures were sometimes cut to enhance their resemblance to high art: the back post might
be removed from a Fang figure; a staff surmounted by a figure might be transformed into a figure on
a base. Large objects were also cut to facilitate transportation. This is the only event in the film not
based on a known case.

I doubt that Man Ray, the American Dadaist artist, ever met Julius Lips, but he did photograph African
objects and he visited Hamburg in 1933. His portrait of Nancy Cunnard, and the photograph "Noir et
Blanche" seen in the film were both taken in 1926.
The New York book party in the next scene is an imagined event hosted by Nancy Cunnard who was
an ardent supporter of Black causes and edited the massive anthology Negro (1934) which she also
published. She was friendly with many members of the European avant-garde and was photographed
by Man Ray wearing an armful of African ivory bracelets. (Her speech is abstracted from her writing).
For her living room we took the liberty of shooting in the beautiful room in New York designed by the
architect Alvar Aalto in the early 1960s with his poetic abstract of a Finnish forest.

Making a speech in this scene is the educator, writer and philosopher Alain Locke (1886-1954) whose
book, The Negro in An: a Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, was
published in 1940. Locke was the first African-American Rhodes scholar in 1907 (and the only one
until the 1960s!). Locke, who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, first encountered African
art in Germany in 1910-11 and became an early collector and writer on African art and its relationship
to African-American art. He taught at Howard University most of his life and left his collection to the
University Museum when he died. For the purposes of the film, in the opening and final scenes, he is
shown alive and still writing in the recent past.
The closing scene was shot in the Brooklyn Museum where their extraordinary Mvai (Gabon) Fang
figure can be seen. In real life, however, the Fang figure from which the cast was made is going to join
the collection of the Yale Art Gallery.



Lips, Julius E.
The Savage Hits Back or the White Man Through Native
Eyes, New Haven, 1937.

Paudrat, Jean-Louis
"From Africa," in "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: the
Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, 1984,
pp. 124-175. (information on Guillaume and African art in Paris).

Laburthe-Tolra, Philippe
"Les fragments du ciel aux cultes du mal; Considerations
a propos de Die Pangwe de G. Tessmann" in Fang,
1991, p. 11-79.

Ph. Laburthe-Tolra and Ch. Falgayrettes-Leveau
Fang, Paris, 1991

Tessmann, Gunther
Die Pangwe, Berlin, 1913.
A Conversation
Produced and edited by Susan Vogel
Round table discussion held in New York, 2000.







BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: The film showed a scientist, an anguished artist in a vexed relationship, a
couple concerned with fertility, intellectuals, the object as a curio, as a lamp—it covers lot of bases.
The art market is a big category, and we see lots of transitions here, but I don't know what to make of

ALISA LA GAMMA: One thing that is lacking here is the complete history —the original Fang context
in which it served. The film doesn't take into account the original source of inspiration for carving the
sculpture, the world of ideas and beliefs that were part of its reason for being.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: The film is not about Africa and doesn't try to be. Nothing in it shows the
original source. The problem is for people who are concerned with Africa and want to know about
Africa, not just to validate the piece, but because they care about that. How do you reconcile
concerns with the source with the life history of the piece in the Western art world, which is what the
film is actually about.

JEAN FRITTS: It shows how little is known. Thousands and thousands of pieces came out of Africa
with no information. Some were made for sale to Europeans—there is not much detailed information
about the early period, who traded and why. But there certainly was a demand in Europe.

ALISA LA GAMMA: I have always thought that the reason so many Cameroon and Gabon reliquaries
in Western collections were detached from [the boxes of ancestral remains]— even in early
ethnographic museum collections—is that the really precious element of the unit was preserved in
situ by the Fang owners, and the more replaceable element was traded. So the Western collector,
who is interested only in the artifact, is satisfied, and the indigenous patrons, who know [the figure] is
not of the highest value or priority, are satisfied too.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: But in a way they weren't. There was at that time a real market for human

ALISA LA GAMMA: I think you would see more of these boxes and crania in museums if they had
been transferred in huge quantities. These items, isolated from the reliquary containers, were being
traded as part of larger trading networks—this is part of the record.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: Not in the Native American [trade] where there was a higher market in human
remains at that time than there was for this material as art. We can see how they get separated, and
one becomes art while the other becomes ethnography. But there was a real lust for collecting skulls
at that time.

ALISA LA GAMMA: In Fang culture the sacred component was the container with the relics. The
figure that surmounted it was a guardian figure but it was not of the sacred order of the human relics.
The Fang were not naive in these transactions; they guarded what they could not duplicate. The
[sculpture] could be duplicated. In the trade they were not removed together.

ERIC ROBERTS: We see the transformation of the object in the film— often the African owners took
items off, or dealers in
Africa, took off what was not palatable—encrustations— to make the piece more valuable on the
market. We know the original owners safeguarded precious objects —the carving is easily replaced
but metal and other attachments weren't and they were taken off when the wood was sold.

Pieces were transformed by everybody all the way down the line. The market caters to Western
tastes and needs. Each object has an incredible story behind it—the transformation and the
connections people made between the original sacred grove and the object in a collection.

ALISA LA GAMMA: The choice of a Fang object is interesting because these are one of the genres
most valorized in the art world. These were among the earliest pieces to come out, collected by the
French avant-garde. They were mesmerized by the way the human form was abstracted—by the very
dynamic abstract solutions to the human form. The history of how the Western avant-garde collected
these has become part of our own art history.

The way we value these Fang objects more than Nigerian ones—Yoruba art for example—isn't
capricious. There is a premium placed on rarity in the art market, and there are fewer of these Fang
sculptures than Yoruba ones. Fang [figures] stopped being created in the 1930s and 40s. We have a
limited corpus, and that contributes to their value in the art market.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: We're getting back to giving priority to the source as opposed to
recognizing that these objects have lives that extend well beyond the source—and that their life [in
the West] may be much longer than the time they existed before they were collected.

What—or who—makes an object a work of art? What gives it value?

ROWLAND ABIODUN: There are problems here. How the idol becomes art—who is responsible for
the appellation "art?" who are these authorities? It goes farther. It seems as if by some unspoken
agreement in the market there has not only been a mis-representation of this object, a mis-use of this
object; a commoditization, but a total elimination of how the makers or users thought of it. This is a
very big problem.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: I know this is an unpopular idea, but de-contextualizing makes it possible to
receive these objects as art in Western contexts. De-contextualizing is very powerful. If one says that
what is important about these objects is their source, where they come from, what they were made
for, what they meant in their original context, and one believes that without communicating this we do
violence to the object, then, unfortunately in a Western situation, they are relegated to ethnography.
Because we don't take that position for other objects, and when we do, we treat them as

What's happening, rather, is that by collecting and displaying these objects in [art] collections and
museums we are paying them the highest mark of respect that our society can pay them. And we are
acknowledging that they have a history, and that they played an important role in the history of
Western art and modern art in addition to their history in their source culture. There are two histories
here, at least, maybe more.

JEAN FRITTS: What you can say is that Art museums that previously did not show this art—for
whatever reason—have now decided to, and the impact is enormous. People who may not have
known that there is any kind of sculpture from Africa can actually walk into these institutions and see
it—I think there is a value to that, even if it is not a perfect kind of educational communication.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: Sieber said "Admiration in isolation leads to misunderstanding." African art has
fallen prey to tastes of the twentieth century and is vaguely misunderstood. We may not be aware of
it, but we are gradually trying to remove Africa from African art, and when that happens what will we
be left with? .... our opinions. In addition, what we say is influencing what is happening on the African
continent. Aesthetic norms are being dictated from outside of Africa

JEAN FRITTS: That's been going on for a long time.

ALISA LA GAMMA: Lots of objects in Western collections have been de-contextualized—paintings,
altar pieces. That is a fact. Objects not from Africa—altars—are displayed as fragments. Do we want
to see African art discriminated against? Not to be appreciated as part of this larger aesthetic

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: Objects in Western museum collections have been removed from contexts—
church objects, crucifixes and so forth. There are many parallels. But how are these African objects
removed from the source? Is it always through violence? Or was it sometimes voluntary?

ROWLAND ABIODUN: What I have in mind is the forcible removal of objects from Benin, Ashanti, and
the Belgian Congo. In all these places, not only were objects removed, there were extensive
massacres of the very people whose artworks were revered in Europe at high prices. There will never
be a snowball's chance in hell that these people will ever be paid back for any of this.

ALISA LA GAMMA: But these Fang pieces we're talking about were not removed through pillage.
Trade was happening in this region of Equatorial Africa over a hundred years. I worry about lumping
all these transfers together—it helps to be more nuanced and to look at things region by region.

Can a work of art have different—even contradictory—meanings that are nonetheless all

JEAN FRITTS: Maybe these objects can be appreciated on many levels. You have the level on which
the piece was made, the original intent—but the fact is these objects are all over the world, and
people appreciate them deeply in different ways and on different levels. Some are in museums with a
little label with the tribal name and a possible date and no information. Other museums show them in
a tribal context or as part of a bigger phenomenon. It can be both good and bad—the positive side is
that you can appreciate art from other cultures whether you have cultural knowledge or not. A lot of
context was never collected, so we will never know.

ERIC ROBERTS: African art has always been misunderstood. In the market, most people enjoy art—
they relate to it in their own terms, and they pay money for it. They don't really keep in mind what it is
used for. It's art. Picasso and Van Gogh's work is not connected to their biographies. People just
know it is a terrific piece and it gives them what they need—it could be just status, a collecting role
with their friends. Whatever.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: If you take as your standard how this object was originally used and
understood and shown and loved and aestheticized and [you] say that anything that departs from
that takes us down this slippery slope to damaging, basically to doing violence to the object— then
you're suggesting that to decontextualize these objects is in a sense to silence and make invisible the

ROWLAND ABIODUN: I believe that art should not be admired in isolation because that causes a lot
of misunderstanding—not just condescension. It is just creating an African art out of our own
imagination, not the one that comes from Africa.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: What I'm hearing is that, in the exhibiting of African art objects, the primary
responsibility is to the understandings of those who made and used them, and that anything that runs
counter—or doesn't take full account of that—is doing damage. And I'm wondering if curators and
scholars and museum professionals and collectors and dealers would hold to that restriction.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: It is just a matter of fairness in the end—and of fair representation, to make
sure that we do the minimal distortion or damage. This is a work in progress—something that we
have to work on, museums, collectors, art historians, art dealers, the market, everybody—we have to
have this constant conversation—even about the best way the works are exhibited in museum halls.

ERIC ROBERTS: We have a new negative Africa—not Tarzan Africa, but Africa of horrible diseases,
atrocities, wars. I would love to see the creativity of the African peoples joined to the arts that are
being portrayed.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: So if I understand you, you're saying there is a conflict between aesthetics
and education. That is to say, that to exhibit these objects the way one would exhibit art—any art—is
to compromise the educational opportunity that these objects offer in a situation of extreme duress.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: And you are saying that you want people to think about Africa in a way that
has some relationship to what Africa is today, not just Africa in the west.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: So maybe what we need is ethnographic exhibitions, not art exhibitions.




ERIC ROBERTS: She's from the Museum of Natural History!

JEAN FRITTS: But museums and collectors have put this art up on the level of art from every other
culture and I think that is incredibly important. You know the battle that went on over putting African
art in the Louvre—there it is on the same level as art from every culture. The same is true at the

ROWLAND ABIODUN: I would like to make a small remark on that—when you say putting the art on
the same level as that of other cultures—is this universal aesthetic a euphemism for Western

JEAN FRITTS: It's an approach. Museums are Western.

Is "African art" an artifact of Western culture now, divorced from Africa?

ROWLAND ABIODUN: The red flag went up as soon as I saw the Fang. My first question was why the
Fang? Alisa, you answered it very well: because of what was going on at the time. And the second
was—look at what they are doing to that object! What do we have left of that object? Do we still have
a Fang reliquary figure? That is a major question. Then what does the art market do to this situation?

ERIC ROBERTS: The art market is romancing it, and making the object its own, so that it can fulfill
the desire of the collector. Period! It always has. It's not complicated. I think it is somewhat amusing in
the film where the object is sitting in this very serious sober shrine that has nothing to do with the
clean elegant gallery or somebody's nice pristine Madison Avenue home.

It goes through all these changes and yet it's still considered authentic because it was sitting in a
shrine, though in the end of the film it is only half an object—the lower half is part of a lamp. It has all
kinds of associations that have nothing to do with the object itself and the people who originally made
it—who might at that time have been regarded as somewhat less than human.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: That shows how simplistic the notion of authenticity is. Once a piece enters
the market it is modified continually for all its different audiences.

JEAN FRITTS: There wouldn't be any market and these pieces wouldn't be in collections if there
weren't a desire. Whatever fantasy the collector may be working out, or whatever ideas the museum
may have about why you should chose this piece rather than that piece, or why you should even
have African art at all—unless you had a desire, they wouldn't be there.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: I agree. The demand is for certain kinds of work. Whose aesthetic is driving
the market? Who is defining what African art is? And is the economic situation in Africa playing a role?

JEAN FRITTS: The role of individual players is very significant. The market for the Fang was created
in relation to modernism but also because there were individual players at the time who were creating
a market—who sent people to Africa saying "go get these things."

ROWLAND ABIODUN: With the phallus removed.

What's wrong with physically changing a work of art? Could preserving one be wrong?

ROWLAND ABIODUN: There are parts of Africa, for example the Igbo [ethnic group in Nigeria], where
art was defined by [Herbert] Cole as a verb. Art is not a noun; it is something to be used, something
that is active, something to wear away. It's made, and it's supposed to disintegrate. It's processural:
the very process of disintegration itself is integral to art. Very much like a human body, it's supposed
to disintegrate—in Africa we allow nature to take its toll.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: Your point is interesting because we assume that a unique object is being
created, and that somehow if left to its own devices it would have been preserved in its original
locale. But as Alisa suggested, the reliquary figure might well have been replaced—and therefore the
work is bigger than the figure. What we have here as the figure is really only one material phase of
an object which, over time, would have been replaced anyway. So it is like a snapshot—only one
phase in the multiple manifestations of the thing.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: As early as the turn of the last century, many objects were made for sale.
Because Westerners have seen use as a mark of validity of an object, a lot of signs of use were
manipulated for the market—as we've seen in the film. This isn't rare. Sometimes these are
overlooked as long as someone can claim the piece was collected in 1902—and they can assume it
must have come from a context of use. But we have good evidence that even at that period, there
were substitute pieces and objects made for sale. Once pieces have that 100-year history, it's not
evident any more which pieces are good.

JEAN FRITTS: There is a bias in the marketplace towards objects that appear to have been used—a
feeling that something was actually used in a ritual or ceremony makes it more valuable financially.
But as we saw in this film, there is so much transformation—who knows?.

Who has benefited from the commodification of African objects? Have you?

ERIC ROBERTS: Something that is often overlooked: Africans themselves were active dealers and
participants in these economic exchanges. From the time the first Europeans set foot in Africa, there
has always been this kind of exchange—the Afro-Portuguese ivories were [traded in the sixteenth
century]. Remember that at the beginning of an object, there was a sale. It was paid for,
commissioned. Some pieces were stolen, looted, taken forcibly in war—but given the entrepreneurial
spirit of Africa, the normal way a piece would leave is by exchange for goods.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: I have no problem with the Afro-Portuguese trade or other works that were part
of legitimate intercultural exchanges. Here it goes beyond the physical mutilation we saw—sawing off
and maiming those works, making it totally impossible to reconstruct those works. People have the
same response to these works—they don't need information or training. It's just love at first sight.
With this kind of excuse, we have a free-for-all field with no chance of discerning anything like the
aesthetics that actually informed their creators.

ERIC ROBERTS: I don't differ with Rowland, especially his last comments. He is concerned that the
art not be separated from the people—not only as a political thing but also as a social fact. Coming
from the African diaspora, from Jamaica, and growing up in the US, I also share this concern. One
sees objects that are world treasures, on a level with any other kind of art—but the people who
created them are put in another category, they are forgotten.

This has been a trend all along. When Frobenius discovered Ife bronzes and terracottas [in 1913],
for example, people said they must be from some other continent [Atlantis], He himself was confused
that black hands, African hands could have created such great master¬pieces. European artists, who
thought that this primitive art was so wonderful, something they could use for their own reasons
completely disregarded the context from which it was taken.

We have a situation in Africa where the continent is continually misunderstood because of temporary
states of exceptional chaos, suffering, and lack of security that overshadow and distort the fact that
you are dealing with a people who have been extremely creative. African people made world class
masterpieces and these masterpieces are being separated in the public eye from the people who
actually exist.

JEAN FRITTS: The reason there is this big divide is that art presented as great masterpieces was
made way in the past. What is the continuum in Africa—or even in our appreciation of African art—
between now and work that may have been collected in 1906? Maybe what we really should be
showing and talking about is work made in Africa right now.

ERIC ROBERTS: We do have contemporary artists who are being neglected who are extraordinarily
creative. The fact is, though, that dealers—Gogosian and others—are selling some of these artists
on the international level; the Smithsonian, the Museum for African Art, and the American Museum of
Natural History are showing them. Contemporary artists have a lot to say about their situation.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: They're more difficult for the Western world to deal with because they don't
put Africa in its place. They don't conform to the way a lot of people think about Africa—they raise
questions about what Africa is today. I think the classic 100 year old works allow people to go on with
certain views about Africa that subdue it, categorize it in a certain way and are very unthreatening.

Who does African art belong to?

ERIC ROBERTS: Many people say they are temporary custodians—or it belongs to who purchased it;
it belongs in places that are secure. Many African museums and institutions are made not secure
because of politics and funding problems—so it becomes an intellectual exercise as far as who it
belongs to, even if it is archaeological.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: The concept of the museum, the concept of art dealing, the concept of
collecting, the concept of preservation of art for eternity—these things are there, you know, but there
are moral questions we have to answer.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: I see two different issues: who does African art belong to as a large
category, and as individual pieces —and they are not the same question. Part of what we're getting
at is that if you let objects belong only to people who made and used them, nothing could ever move.
Are there transactions that you would consider legitimate ways for objects that originate in Africa to

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: Trade existed in the nineteenth century within Africa between leaders—art
was moved, traded, bought, exchanged, used as gifts in diplomacy. Sometimes art was exchanged
because it had power. Objects moved from one group to another so that carvers were not
necessarily part of an isolated culture that had exclusive ownership—however you define ownership.
What is "ownership" is as difficult as 'what is art?"

Can a nation benefit by giving up important objects from its cultural patrimony?

ROWLAND ABIODUN: In Nigeria, why should we go to the museum? In Ife, there is a festival every
day of the year. You can see all these things being paraded, students can actively participate, they
can see things in shrines. The idea of arresting the object in a museum was not the most popular
one. The history of museums itself is not the finest—the places where the conquered displayed the
booty of the conquered. Even though they have become a very lofty thing now, we cannot easily
brush off that history.

ALISA LA GAMMA: Would you rather there be no important works of African art represented in art
museums the way we have art from Asia, from other parts of the world? Do you find it problematic
that Africa is represented honorably in other company?

ROWLAND ABIODUN: No, that's not the issue. A lot of things are changing—would I rather fly from
Nigeria than walk or come on horseback? Of course I like to fly. Once it has started, once everybody
is in the game, you would be the loser if you didn't join in. However, if we are all participating in this
game of collecting and everything, there must be fairness at every level.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: Standards of collecting change—we wouldn't go out and collect the way that
was seen as OK in the last century. But that doesn't mean that you dismiss all collecting of African art
over time, because a lot of it was very legitimately traded. So standards change. In China you go to
painted caves, and you see big pieces of walls hacked out by Western collectors. You see other
paintings where the eyes have been destroyed by later [Chinese] people who didn't have the same

ERIC ROBERTS: I'd like to add another thing about who owns African art because it is often
neglected: the fact that in Africa collectors do exist. This has been true for about 20 years. They are
quite active but again at a disadvantage because of the security situation, or the situation in Nigeria
where you have signs saying to buy or sell an antiquity is a crime—yet they do exist.
They're buying and have a great pride in what they own—whether it's authentic or inauthentic—again
those terms are fraught with controversy. If you ask them who owns African art they say, 'we do
because this is our heritage, this is something that we find to be satisfying'— for whatever reasons.
And we cannot question them—there are many reasons why people collect. They should play a role
in our understanding of what's really going on but their voices have not been taken into account.

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: Also in Africa today, in a lot of cases, objects are not used in the same way
[as they are here], and African people on the whole do not think of these things as art or use them
for decoration or as aesthetic objects. So they have a completely different life here from what they
would have in Africa today.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: The situation is complicated by the fact that the economic stress in Africa
might not permit them to have the luxury of collecting and keeping—even maintaining objects in
museums—as we do here. Think of the case of those people whose plane crashed in the Andes and
the only way to survive was cannibalism. This is not some¬thing people want to do, but the situation
caused them to do it. This may look like a wild analogy but it's not. If you have to choose between
sending your children to medical school or getting your house repaired...

ERIC ROBERTS: ... or getting medicine...

ROWLAND ABIODUN: ...getting medicine, and you have your shrine there with objects, and people
say—hey I'll give you $500 just get everything out—you will do it.

ALISA LA GAMMA: Yes—but I think we tend not to give enough credit to the resilience of cultures that
are still active in a lot of contexts. It's always dangerous when you're making generalizations, but I did
my research relatively recently in [the Ogowe River area] Gabon where the iconic sculptural form that
I was focused on was no longer invariably used in a performative context.
Now local families were commissioning artifacts and hanging them on the wall—very much a reaction
to generations of witnessing the way artifacts are treated in the West. It oversimplifies to say
everything has been taken out of its place of origin and there is nothing to fill that gap. A reaction
occurs—a development of new ways of experiencing art, some retentions, new traditions...

ROWLAND ABIODUN: You're perfectly right. I'm still corresponding with traditional artists and they are
creating works for festivals. But there is still this economic pressure on people to force them to give
up these things—all over Africa. Find out how much people earn per year.

ALISA LA GAMMA: That's the same kind of pressure that affects peasants in Italy who are digging up
their backyards.

ERIC ROBERTS: About the question of who owns African art, you remind me of something new, that I
haven't seen before. In Nigeria, kingdoms and traditional governments that are still quite powerful
have asserted themselves in actually marketing and playing a role in which objects leave the area.

I'm referring to archaeological objects. They think because these objects have value in the West, and
because they come from the ground, they can play a role—not in keeping the objects there—but a
role in marketing the objects.   And they're issuing documents to that effect. I was quite surprised to
see that. The momentum all over Africa is for democratic government and freedom in economic
activities, and this applies to the so-called art market. There is so little trust in the central
government, and we're talking about—at least as far as they are concerned—sizable amounts of

This came about as various Nigerian chiefs were sending their sons to Thailand to market the semi-
precious stones they found in the area—then the archaeological objects which are found in the
process of digging the stones are also marketed under their control.

They say they do not trust the central government, which may say these archaeological objects
should stay in the country. They say government does not provide us with adequate roads, hospitals,
etc., so we are looking to provide for ourselves.   This is something I just recently saw—I didn't know it
existed, but because of the movement of moneys coming into these areas they have decided to do
this. Even collecting wooden objects in these areas, you actually have to clear it with the chief.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: The question I am hearing is: who has the power to determine where and
when and how an object will move? And Rowland's objection is to an inequality of power, so that
those who make the objects are forced to relinquish them, perhaps under adverse conditions,
against their will—with violence, by force of circumstance.

But that is still a different issue from what I would call the inalienability of objects. That is, objects that
should never for whatever reasons be in the market. That no one should ever be compelled
relinquish—that are just outside the realm. Every society has a sense of such objects whether they
be human remains, or cult objects.

If an illegally exported object were returned to Africa, who should it go to? Could they sell
it? Alter it?

ENID SCHOLDKROUT: You also have to look at ownership over time and space. In Africa or in the
West? —that's too broad a brush, because within Africa, are you talking about a family? a clan? a
local chief? a country? The countries today may not be the countries that existed at the time the
pieces were collected, or may not be the same ones that claim ownership in the future.

ERIC ROBERTS: If you go to the typical African village, where they've decided to sell objects—we're
not even talking about human remains but African objects—quite small, less than 12 inches. Some
objects they're not going to sell because they still believe in these objects, they're still animists—and
some objects they will sell. But if you tell the chief, I'm sorry, you can't do that...

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: You shouldn't do it, it's not good for you...

ERIC ROBERTS: First, they want to know your motives. They do not trust anybody who says they are
coming with a high motive. And they do not trust—for good reason—the motivation of central
authorities because (especially in the West African context), there are always competing economic
concerns as to where the money is going. They are very familiar with what happens at the central
level where the pieces are supposed to be guarded for "patrimony."

This is a fact we don't like to talk about—but it's a problem which exists. For example, I have helped
at least three small governments in Africa look at their collections over the last 20 years and those
pieces are no longer there—because as soon as the value was known, the pieces left. It's just a fact
of life. We don't blame the people who work in these institutions because we know the severe
problems that they are under. Malaria is rampant, a very virulent form, people talk a lot about AIDS,
and for an African wage earner to die is a catastrophe for the family.

To approach a village or family and to say I'm sorry you can't sell this object—would be completely
out of context.  They can't understand what you're talking about because you're talking from the
luxury of the West where we have choices. They don't have those choices. That object may be the
only thing they have that is of value.

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: So what you're saying is that you can't win. You buy them—it's no good;
you don't buy them—it's no good.

ERIC ROBERTS: Say it again—who can't win?

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: Those who buy these objects. If a New York dealer goes and buys them,
then this is taking things that shouldn't be moved and...

ERIC ROBERTS: In the trade situation, it's a win win thing we have going here, because money
passes hands. In this larger perspective from abroad, we could say yes—they're losing this so-called
patrimony, they're losing this important thing that sustains the country. But even in the so-called
advanced countries—Nigeria, Zimbabwe—people, even up to the level of professors, have trouble
earning what they need. If they have control over objects, and they do not take care of their families,
their families will denounce them. They'll say—you are selfish—you have control over these objects,
we are suffering, and there is somebody here who wants to trade.

ROWLAND ABIODUN: The decision to sell is not always one that a chief would like to take under
normal circumstances, but it takes place anyway. You have to make a choice between living—and not

BARBARA K-GIMBLETT: There is something fundamentally immoral about valuating objects and
allowing people to die.

ERIC ROBERTS: I think the market is always going to exist.


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