From paintings and tribal masks to jewelry and textiles, the artistic ability and integrity of the African people is of the highest level. The creation of art is not just something that is done for fun or profit – it is deeply rooted in thousands of years of culture and serves as personal therapy and a way for them to communicate with the Gods.
There is a great demand by the art collectors and dealers of the world, both legitimate and criminal, to acquire authentic African art for profit and pleasure. The criminals are inflicting tremendous damage on Africa, committing cultural theft by stealing art from all over the continent, and also creating counterfeit African art in places as far away as China.
The tradition of African art is one of the purest forms of creativity left in the world. It is a rich tradition that should be cherished and protected.
African art as a whole consists of the contribution of works by many tribes throughout history. Once thought of as raw and primitive by the Western world, the 20th century has shined a light on its enduring qualities. Today, African art is hailed by art connoisseurs as highly evolved and truly meaningful.
Some historians believe that art in Africa can be traced back to around 500 B.C., when small villages in Nigeria were unveiling different types of sculptures made from terracotta. Traditionally, the main material used to create African art was wood as it was readily available and already being used in daily life. African tribes made everything from carvings and dolls to cookware and masks. Objects of art were generally meant for practical purposes, not decorative. The more elaborate the work, the higher the standing the artist would have in the community. Even with art that was considered an everyday object, the artist would always weave some meaning that had social or cultural context into it. Human and animal figures were common, as were the conveying of spiritual beliefs and morals. Human figures often portrayed a composed demeanor, suggesting dignity, respect and elegance. Artwork generally had a luster and luminosity to it – the theory being that rough surfaces were equal to unattractiveness.
In more recent times, artists like Picasso and Matisse have been hugely influenced by both the complexity and abstract qualities of African art. Many of their own works reflect their time studying the intricacies of African works. The fact that African art is so prominent on the radar of the international art community has made it susceptible to crime and corruption. Today, there are few items that fall under the category of authentic African art that are not in high demand.
From Sculptures to Statuettes
The high value and demand for African art has made it a must-have for collectors throughout the world. Some collectors will do anything to get their hands on what they want and because of that, the theft of African art has become a major problem.
A museum in Dundo, in the northeastern province of Lunda-Norte in Angola, was robbed of a highly valuable 16th century tribal mask known as Mwana Pwo. The Lunda-Cokwe people used the mask for ritual practices. Also stolen were numerous recordings containing the promising results of a new anthropological find. To date, none of the items have been recovered. A stone statue that was stolen from the country of Burkina Faso and ended up on The International Council of Museums’ “One Hundred Missing Objects” list was found in a private collection in Germany. It has since been returned to the community from which it was stolen. Numerous Swahili artifacts that were to be given to the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments were stolen from the house of a doctor. One of the pieces was a rare lute that was made famous by poet and musician, Kijumwa Masihi. None of the items have been recovered. At a Christie’s auction in Paris, a gold-mounted cap and sandals inscribed with shamanic text from Ghana were stolen just before the viewing started. French authorities are still investigating the case.
While outright theft of African objects is one of the most popular forms of cultural theft, there is another form that is gaining momentum.
Chinese “African Art”
China is known for many things: acupuncture, kung fu, long-standing dynasties, communism, wantan mee noodles and a host of other stuff. These days, they are also known for something a little outside of their box – African art.
Thanks to globalization, entire factories in Shanghai, Beijing and many other cities throughout China are dedicated to making replicas of African art. They buy their materials for next to nothing, hire cheap labor and pump out masks, sculptures, jewelry and many other pieces whose ideas were originated in Africa. They sell them at a fraction of the cost of what an African artist would sell them for. And they make it very difficult for the true artist to compete and make a living. The Chinese are effectively stealing African identity and it is very difficult for Africans to do anything about it. International copyright and intellectual property laws are difficult and expensive to enforce. And most African artists do not have access to legal help that can protect their designs.
To combat the problem, many African artists are now trying to stay one step ahead of the knock-offs as far as their designs go. Ultimately, they have to leave it in the hands of consumers to make sure they are buying the real deal and not a fake.
Respect for Culture
Stealing African art shows a great disrespect for the African people and their cultures. Whether it is an outright theft of a piece of true African art, or a copy of an African design for sale and profit, it is ultimately a cultural theft that damages the integrity of the art and its intention.