On June 7, 2018, at 11:00 am, a press conference, organized by the private Angolan Sindika Dokolo Foundation, was held in an elegant hotel on the Grand Sablon Square in Brussels. The objective of this gathering was to publicize and celebrate the return of six objects to the National Museum of Dundo in northeastern Angola, from where they are said to have “gone missing.” The pieces included a marvelous Chokwe Mwana Pwo mask (Fig. 1) and a chief's chair (Fig. 2), as well as a Chokwe pipe (Fig. 3), in addition to Shinji objects, namely a Chihongo wooden mask, a small stool, and a caryatid bowl (Figs. 4–6). This restitution ceremony is the third, following two in 2016, in Luanda at the Presidential Palace and subsequently in Paris at the Angolan Embassy; afterward, the pieces were displayed at the Iron Palace in Luanda.
Up to now, eleven objects in total have been returned to Angola of the sixty identified as having been part of the Dundo collection. To continue the search, a website will be created to facilitate identification of these migrant pieces at home and abroad. All this was initiated by a figure whose name has crossed the pages of this journal before: the Congolese-born Angolan businessman and collector of historical and contemporary art Sindika Dokolo. The work has been done mainly in conjunction with Didier Claes, one of the key African art dealers in Brussels. Dokolo's wealth has allowed him to successfully retrieve stolen pieces from collectors by backing up friendly persuasion with substantial payments (up to €50,000 for one object) that may or may not correspond to current market value.
Surprisingly (at least to me) this press conference was scheduled during the well-known annual Brussels Tribal Art Fair (formerly known as BRUNEAF), a commercial event where dealers, collectors, and museum curators from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond descend upon private art galleries to inspect and negotiate acquisition of the year's novelties on overt display or in more discreet spaces. The date may have been chosen to maximize participation, drawing a mix of attendees from the private and public sectors and providing visibility to the organizers of the event. The honored guests and speakers included the Angolan ambassador in Belgium, Georges Chikoti; the director of the National Archives of Angola, Alexandra Aparicio; and Prince Lambert Kandala Tshiyaze representing traditional Chokwe authority. Also invited were diplomats of the cultural sector from the embassies in Brussels of the Democratic Republic of Congo and of Cameroon. The Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren was represented by Director Guido Gryseels, as well as the curator of its ethnography department, Julien Volper; also attending were the director of the UNESCO office in Brussels, Paolo Fontani, and his project mananger, Oriol Freixa Matalonga; chief of the art sector of the Belgian Federal Police, Lucas Verhaegen; representatives of major auction houses, such as Marguerite de Sabran for Sotheby's and Bruno Classens for Christie's; and a great many journalists and European collectors and dealers. Tribute was paid to the immense contribution of the late Marie-Louise Bastin, a leading Belgian scholar of the arts of Angola, although no details were provided to enlighten the less informed about her actual work on the Dundo collection and Angolan arts more widely. At the end of the presentation it was emphasized, especially by Didier Claes, that this was not only a “voluntary restitution” but also a “nonjudicial” one, and that public museum collections and the commercial art market were not in jeopardy. Only a limited number of questions were subsequently taken, and then the gathering politely drew to a close. In the days that followed, a press release announced that the meeting had been a success, as two additional pieces had been handed over to the Foundation from private holdings, a Chokwe/Lwena figure and an anthropomorphic Chokwe pipe.
I may have failed to entirely understand the underlying workings of this scenario. As it seems, dealers were taking a stand against the illicit art trade—which can only be applauded—but the disappearance of objects from their places of origin or from African museums would not happen in the first place if a commercial art market for these objects did not exist. One factor that may have precipitated the implementation of this project now is President Emmanuel Macron's stand on restitution and his firm intent to return African objects in French museums to their countries of origin within the next five years,1 such as the treasures from the Palace of Abomey that were plundered during the colonial enterprise.2 Some of Macron's predecessors, like Jacques Chirac, identified with the passion for collecting world arts, which he shared with his friend the late collector/dealer Jacques Kerchache; this eventually led to the construction of the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac (Price 2007). Macron is forging his own, opposite agenda in keeping with his independent political stance. There is perhaps also a desire to initiate more extensive dialogs with southern leaders, especially in the context of the current migrant crises in Europe.
The issue of restitution is neither new nor of concern only to African and former colonial countries, as we all know. It is unquestionably thorny and pitted with many gray, controversial areas, which is why it keeps percolating and resurfacing. Recent events, however, may have propelled it into another sphere. What particularly struck me during the Sablon press conference was the total absence of contextualization. The six objects were on display in glass cases like trophies, but no photographs were provided of the Dundo Museum or its contents, neither now nor in the past, nor, for that matter, since the recent restitution ceremonies in Luanda and Paris. There was no didactic support or PowerPoint to provide information on the Chokwe and other peoples of the region, their cultures, or the very specific history of the Dundo Museum and its collection. Even the pieces displayed were not discussed or documented. We were simply informed by Mr. Dokolo that the museum structure in Dundo is in good condition (i.e., able to accommodate the pieces properly), although when he visited it with Mr. Claes, they found that it housed only reproductions. These may not be entirely negligible: They could be workshop productions that were created with encouragement from Diamang (Companhia de Diamantes de Angola), the diamond company that founded the museum in the 1940s (Collier 2016: 47, 94, Fig. 14). In the absence of historical, ethnographic, and other data, I had the impression that we were exposed to a selective verbal rendition of a situational view at the expense of alternative, unexposed realities.
The Dundo Museum was not a small, local outpost but rather a major enterprise masterminded by Diamang to control human and natural resources in the best interests of colonial ideology and, of course, the company. Starting with 496 objects amassed by José Redinha, who became the museum's director in 1942, the collection grew to some 7,000 objects in the 1940s (Porto 1999: 772) and had further doubled by 1974 (Collier 2016: 233). This rapid increase was the result of fairly heavy-handed purchasing tactics, with pressure exerted on workers to collect (Belivacqua 2018). But the museum also collected pieces in Europe and broadened its selection to include objects from other parts of Africa (Bevilacqua 2018). In addition to the ethnography section, there were departments of folklore, archeology, geology, and biology, as well as a historical archive (Porto 1999: 70). De Vilhena (1955: 41, 42) reported the existence of a library of 900 volumes, as well as 23 volumes on cultural studies published by the company—one of them Bastin's Chokwe study (1961)—and some 1000 gramophone recordings of songs and instrumental music from more remote areas in the region. On Diamang's vast grounds, a “native village” was erected where artisans lived and worked “on display” to visitors, and yearly festival cycles were held to ensure that “traditions” were upheld and remained unchanging (Porto 1999: 769–70, 778, 780).
Although such familiar orchestration is tainted by unpleasant colonial doings that some may have wished to reconfigure, the vast collection of the Dundo Museum has nonetheless been receiving attention and is highly sought after. But what happened to it? It is said to have been subject to theft during the civil war. Someone—or numerous people—was surely responsible for the collection's safekeeping and/or disappearance. In fact, just before independence in 1975, upon the outbreak of conflict, most of the pieces in the collection were destined for transfer to Luanda, since they had become a part of the national patrimony. During my three years residing in Luanda (2000–2003), I frequented the National Museum of Anthropology there and was acquainted with the conditions in that institution and its display collection at that time. However, I was never granted permission to visit its main reserves, where I had hoped to see some of the very pieces in question. I have not been able to return to Luanda, but I assume that, since the war years, the institution and its staff have received funding for renovation, security, training, payment of salaries, and programs relevant and of interest to the local population.
At the press conference, Mr. Dokolo assured us of the impressive advancements and economic growth of Luanda, a city thriving on diamonds and immense off-shore oil wealth—the resources that brought prosperity and endless military conflict Angola. Indeed images on the internet highlight the implantation of high-rise buildings, flashy hotels, and all the trappings of what has become one of the most prohibitively expensive metropolises in the world. In contrast to this contemporaneity, Luanda is characterized by a vast array of architectural gems—residential, ecclesiastic, and military, dating from the sixteenth century onwards. Some of these have been restored but others remain vestiges of the colonial era, the Marxist-Leninist period, and almost three decades of post-independence civil war. They are prominent reminders of a painful history of foreign dominance, a massive slave trade, and all the ills of imported communist and democratic ideologies. It is not surprising that there is a need to look to the future and build skyscrapers.
Similarly, although not equally, there may be ambivalent attitudes to the African objects we venerate as “art works.” They may not all be desirable or even meaningful mementos of the past to some Angolans and other Africans who have embraced alternative religions, prophetic paths, interests, and hopes. During forty-one years of armed conflict, from the fight for independence from Portugal beginning in 1961 to the death in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi—rebel leader of the UNITA movement that opposed the ruling MPLA party of the then President José Eduardo Dos Santos (Hodges 2001: 7–19)3—widespread population displacements occurred, to either urban centers or nearby countries (Hodges 2001: 22, 23). The reality is that there are now generations of Angolans with severed roots and no connections to their rural origins and traditions. Mr. Dokolo believes that the consequences of this tragic history can be reshaped through pride in Angolan heritage and aesthetic achievement that parallels “universal” standards of art and culture.
Even assuming that appreciation of the category of “art” and cultural heritage can be stimulated by means of public art campaigns, such as the billboard displays used during the first Luanda art triennial in 2006, will that be enough to create interest in the Dundo Museum or any similar regional institution? Will Luandans identify with this national heritage and want, or even be able, to venture far off to the northeast of the country to see it? Or is the collection intended just for local inhabitants and the remaining descendants of the proprietors, whoever they may be or have been (individuals of varied status, lineages, clans, village communities, members of different associations, the Chokwe and other Angolan peoples in the region, or the national government)? This becomes even more complex in view of the fact that the Chokwe population is not homogeneous and is well implanted beyond Angolan borders in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Zambia. In fact, the Chokwe dignitary present at the Sablon press conference was not from Angola but from DRC.
The Chokwe, although intertwined with the Lunda and many other peoples they assimilated through trade and conquest, have received pride of place in association with the Dundo Museum. That is certainly in large part due to the research of José Redinha and Marie-Louise Bastin, who propelled them into the sphere of international recognition. Although Chokwe creativity is unquestionably of exceptional merit, having impacted culturally related peoples such as the Lwena, Songo, and Ovimbundu, they have been selectively instrumentalized to represent prime national capital. Motifs from their sand drawings, house paintings, and wood carvings as well as images of various maskers have become familiar national emblems.
Be that as it may, it is truly hoped that the objects repatriated to Angola from Brussels will reach Dundo, to serve the intended purpose of rehabilitating collective national identity. In a recent African Arts article, Joseph Nevadomsky exposed the circumstances of the repatriation of the Mijikenda vigango memorial wood posts to Kenya. While the return was a heroic, lengthy endeavor, the vigango that were intended to go back to their owners remain in crates in the cargo shed at customs, and what is more, authorities are demanding payment of US$47,000 in tariffs for their importation into Kenya (Nevadomsky 2018: 67).
Many moons ago I witnessed a similar situation. At the demand of President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre (now DRC), the Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (then the Royal Museum of Central Africa) agreed to repatriate objects from its vast collection. A doctoral student at the time, busy in the basement reserves, I was nonetheless aware of preparations for this return of objects that the Institute des Musées du Zaïre (IMNZ) requested. The second shipment of crates went off in 1977, as did I. Upon arrival at the IMNZ in Kinshasa, I saw the crates from Tervuren. Eight months later when I returned from the field, they were still there, unopened. Subsequently, the collection, housed in what was Mobutu's garden on Mount Ngaliema, was apparently ravaged and, as Sarah Van Buerden states, “… financially valuable objects disappeared from the storerooms and found their way into the black hole of the illegal economy, at times with insider help” (2015: 256).
Some of these repatriations may have served short-term strategic concerns and various political agendas. Still, whatever the fate of the objects, there are other considerations that cannot be dismissed so easily. It should be acknowledged that nations have the right to define what they value as their cultural heritage beyond the directives of universalist, international criteria. If African peoples decide to burn or sell their material, should the West intervene to police matters? Who are we to decide how they should construct the memories of their past? Who are we to impose homogenizing standards of beauty, value, heritage—and art? Claiming repeatedly that museums in Africa do not have the proper environmental conditions to receive objects from Europe is quite simply offensive to many Africans and, in the final analysis, it is none of the West's business to intervene in the making of those decisions. Would it not be possible to envisage African art collections on public display in both African countries and abroad, in the northern and southern hemispheres, as suggested by President Macron, so as to allow wide-ranging viewer experiences and due respect to the cultures and nations concerned?
There are many divergent ideas, untouched issues and questions embedded in this text. They all await further discussion and debate.
Press conference held in Paris with President Macron and President Patrice Talon of the Republic of Benin (March 5, 2018).
Talk delivered at the University of Ouagadougu, Burkina Faso, in the presence of President Roch Kaboré (November 28, 2017).
UNITA is the União Nacional para a Independěcia Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). MPLA is the Movimento Popular de Libertaçã de Angola (People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola).