September 19, 1999
A Bully Pulpit for Africa's Lost Icons
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
NITED NATIONS -- A quarter of a century ago, a 35-year-old
African guerrilla leader with a B.A. from Temple University was
lobbying the United Nations to help his nation, Namibia, gain
independence. He was struck by an eloquent plea in the General
Assembly for the return of African art that had found its way into
museums and private collections abroad.
This year, that former rebel, Theo-Ben Gurirab, now foreign
minister of Namibia, is back in New York as president of the
General Assembly's 54th session. He plans to use his post to revive
the campaign for the restoration of Africa's cultural heritage.
"I think that now is the time, as we are searching our souls,
as we are reflecting about our common humanity, speaking in terms
of the new millennium," he said at a news conference last week.
Africa, he said, needs "not only apology and forgiveness, but
that these priceless African cultural treasures -- artworks, icons,
relics -- be returned to their rightful owners."
Over the last decade, European museums -- including the British
Museum and galleries in Paris -- have occasionally found themselves
embroiled in controversy over displays of art that African nations
The most famous pieces are a collection of sculptures, the Benin
Bronzes (actually made of brass), which were produced in an ancient
kingdom that is now part of Nigeria but borders the modern nation
They were confiscated by a British military force in 1897. But
many other African works of art, often religious art, have been
looted for sale -- sometimes by colonial overlords, sometimes by
Africans after independence.
The world hears much more about missing art and artifacts from
great Asian civilizations, ancient Greece or the Mediterranean.
Gurirab hopes to rectify this.
Moreover, he said, the African art that has found its way into
the galleries of former European colonial powers and the homes of
the rich in North America, Europe and elsewhere has deep cultural
The works "form an integral part of defining our identity and
personality as family, as African family," he said. "We talk to
them. They talk to us. We touch them at certain moments of our
lives, from birth through life to death. It is through them that
the living spirits of our people, of our history, of our culture
interact and interface with us."
"They are not there, hence the void in our minds and in our
hearts," he said of many missing pieces. "We continue to cry for
them to come back home, to complete that cultural, spiritual