African Art’s Emerging Global Popularity Is a Double-Edged Sword

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Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka), 19th century Kongo peoples; Yombe group (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
After Sotheby’s coltish debut African art sale in London last week, Princeton art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu wrote an op-ed for the New York Times comparing African art to a gentrifying urban neighborhood that displaces the original residents.
Okeke-Agulu’s concern is that Africa is only now beginning to get a few museums. Though he does acknowledge that the presence of African collectors who might eventually found or contribute to museums, Okeke-Agulu points out that Africa’s greatest art has been repeatedly looted by foreigners:

During the colonial era, bands of looters — missionaries, scholars, security forces and fortune hunters — fanned out across the continent and, by force or guile, carted away vast quantities of Africa’s artistic heritage. Many of these masterpieces of ancient and traditional African sculpture now reside in major private and public collections in the West, with little chance of ever returning to Africa.

Similarly, Kongo minkisi, nail-studded sculptures used to seal covenants, hunt evildoers and heal the sick, were originally involved in the ritual lives of the powerful and of ordinary people. But now they are housed in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such work is counted among the world’s great art. But most Africans have virtually no chance to appreciate or reconnect with these important expressions of their cultural histories.

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