Monday, July 20, 2009

The onslaught on our African past

One of the biggest ironies of our time is that the very Europeans who denigrated Africa as the very heart of darkness, without a past, found possession of African art objects as evidence of high-minded civilization. In Western European homes, offices and establishments, having an African art object, especially an original dating hundreds and thousands of years back, is the height of cultural sophistication. It is a form of schizophrenia that I think hasn't been paid enough attention in current psychiatric scholarship.

It's other half, equally meriting psychoanalysis, is the fervour with which Africans are destroying their own cultural objects and other evidence of how their ancestors lived, perceived and celebrated their existence. With our governments busy with the plunder of our national treasuries, indifferent to the meaning of our past, various Christian denominations of the pentecostal bent have been on a spree of destruction cloaked with the hypocritical cloak that characterizes their evangelism, burning up and smashing up artefacts of African material culture that have not been stolen by thieves selling to Western buyers or that were spared the looting of the colonial phase of European passage through Africa.

As often happens with things African, Nigeria presents some of the worst examples of the ongoing despoilation.

Some two years ago, the authorities in in Lagos state suddenly decided that art traders selling modern copies of ancient African sculptures that are often mixed with originals trafficked from the interior where they were plundered by thieves, constituted squatters that needed to be removed in order to go on with the usual land rackets for which the Lekki Peninsula corridor has become famous. What did they do? The mobilized bulldozers to the scene while the art dealers were away, smashed up their shops and crushed the items on sale with the chain wheels and the metal excavators of the bulldozers. They couldn't be bothered whatever the historical significance of the works or even their commercial value to those who trade in them. Items damaged included artworks that had travelled from different parts of Africa through traders to come and meet their mostly Western buyers by the Lekki beach in Lagos, like slaves of old, enroute to Europe and the Americas.

A few years ago the Christian envangelist pastor Uma Ukpai boasted that he and his followers over a few weeks in one December were able to destroy scores of shrines across Igboland in southeast Nigeria. What did these places of traditional worship consist of? Usually made of mud houses, with walls decorated by Uli writings and paintings, they often contained naturalist carvings of African figures, featuring the cubist styles that became the inspiration of Pablo Picasso and modern Western art. These shrines, which exuded the deep, close, communing relationship between the African of old and his environment, that saw the unity of all things whether plant, animal or inanimate, were destroyed by triumphal philistines of African extraction in the name of evangelism.

This particularly corrosive form of evangelism has bred individual variants of the "prayer-warrior" - note the belligerent tone of the name - who wouldn't brook any sight of any of the items that formed part of the spirituality of his ancestors, whether personal or communal. Among the Igbos of southeastern Nigeria, where a thwarted variety of Christianity harking back to puritn inquisition has taken hold, individual prayer-warriors regularly invite pastors of similar ilk to make bonfires of cultural and spiritual artefacts they inherited from their forebears. Frequently they also form savage bands that steal out in the middle of the night, especially during the Christmas season, to burn and destroy communally owned artefacts.

One instance of this madness was played out in the town of Achina in Anambra State in December 2008. One morning the town woke up to find that the ikoro had been destroyed, butchered and burnt by a group of prayer-warriors. The ikoro was a giant wooden gong, reputed to be at least 400 years old, which sat in its own house at the edge of the Oye, the town's market. It was an instrument of mass communication for which a specialist player was appointed by the town in the olden days. It's sounds could be decoded by most people in the village. And whenever there was an emergency, the job of the ikoro player was to mount it and beat out messages which could be heard and intepreted by town people whereever they may be in distant farms or streams. It was a means of communication and mobilization and wasn't even as a religious object, apart from the fact that in the traditional concept of the people every aspect of life was infused with some spirituality.

Anyway, the ikoro of Achina was destroyed. It had survived previous murder attempts, when the prayer-warriors had attacked before and fortunately were seen by other town people who resisited them and stopped them. After one unsuccessful attempt, one of the age-grades in the town had contributed money to build a fence around the ikoro and put a lock on the gate into where it was housed. Then the prayer-warriors adopted stealth and came like a thief in the night to destroy the ikoro.

With an indifferent government concerned only with the plunder of national resoruces and doing the bidding of their masters in Western capitals, it's no wonder that the common good has gone to the dogs. Even officially designated government museums, where artefacts are supposed to be preserved for posterity, over the years became conduits for wholesale plunder of Nigerian art and cultural objects. The result is that there is a tripple onslaught by state officials, art thieves and evangelists against articles of Africa's past material culture that show who we are, what we were and where we're coming from. And as the reggae singer Ziggy Marley asked: "Tomorrow people, where is your past? ...If you don't know your past, you don't know your future."