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September 19, 1999

A Bully Pulpit for Africa's Lost Icons


UNITED 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 want returned.

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 of Benin.

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 significance.

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 space."

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