Thursday, August 09, 2012


The following is a shocking first person account from the New York Times By HOLLAND COTTER

DJENNE-DJENNO, one of the best-known archaeological sites in sub-Saharan Africa, spreads over several acres of rutted fields near the present city of Djenne in central Mali. The ruts are partly caused by erosion, but they’re also scars from decades of digging, by archaeologists in search of history and looters looking for art to sell.

When I was there last fall, a few archaeology students were in evidence. These days, with Mali in the throes of political chaos, it’s unlikely that anyone is doing much work at all at the site, though history and art are visible everywhere. Ancient pottery shards litter the ground. Here and there the mouths of large clay urns, of a kind once used for food storage or human burial, emerge from the earth’s surface, the vessels themselves still submerged.

The image of an abandoned battlefield comes to mind, but that’s only half-accurate. Physical assaults on Djenne-Djenno may be, at least temporarily, in abeyance. But ethical battles surrounding the ownership of, and right to control and dispose of, art from the past rage on in Africa, as in other parts of the world.

A few weeks ago the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, announced the acquisition of an American private collection of 32 exquisite bronze and ivory sculptures produced in what is now Nigeria between the 13th and 16th centuries. Within days the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments claimed, via an Internet statement, that the objects had been pillaged by the British military in the late 19th century and should be given back.

More chilling were reports last month of cultural property being destroyed in Timbuktu, Mali, some 200 miles north of Djenne. Islamist groups, affiliated with Al Qaeda, have singled out Sufism, a moderate, mystical form of Islam widespread in Mali, for attack. In Timbuktu, with its Koranic schools and manuscript libraries, they have begun leveling the tombs of Sufi saints, objects of popular devotion.

At least some of the complications surrounding the story of art found and lost has played out at Djenne-Djenno over the past 35 years. In 1977 the American archaeologists Roderick and Susan McIntosh, husband and wife at the time, began excavating the site and gradually revealed the traces of a sizable settlement. Its origins dated to the third century B.C., but by A.D. 450 it had produced a complex urban society, one that engaged in long-distance trade. The long-held assumption was that both developments came to Africa with the Arab arrival in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. With new knowledge the continent’s past suddenly deepened.

And the history of its art was expanded. In the upper strata of the excavation at Djenne-Djenno and at the many related neighboring sites in the Inner Niger Delta archaeologists found terra-cotta sculptures of human and animal figures: men riding horses or entwined by serpents, figures sitting or kneeling, their bodies covered with what looked like blisters or welts.

The revelation was finding the sculptures in situ, in their historical context, though the figures themselves were of a familiar type. Numbers of similar terra-cotta sculptures had already been showing up for sale, as tourist souvenirs in Africa and as fine-art collectibles in the West.

By the late 1960s the supply of wood sculptures that had defined the field for most collectors was growing thin. Malian terra-cottas became the new available “classical“ African art to collect.

To meet the demand Malian diggers, or teams of diggers, in the hire of middleman dealers, were trenching sites in the Djenne-Djenno area and pulling figures out of the ground, in the process destroying the historical record. The workers were paid a pittance for their labor, but in the 1970s Mali was gripped by famine; any money was better than none. The objects were subsequently sent out of Africa, to Western dealers and collectors, increasing in cash value as they went.

Technically, unauthorized trade in such art had been illegal since 1970, when Unesco drew up its Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. But the digging went on, and getting art out of the country — through porous borders, with a payment of bribes — was (and still is) easy.

Certain archaeologists, the McIntoshes among them, were aghast at the ruinous plundering and took action. They were convinced that any Western attention paid to Malian antiquities increased the market value and encouraged looting. With this in mind they proposed an information blackout on any and all “orphaned“ Inland Niger Delta objects, meaning any that had not been scientifically excavated — most of those in circulation.

They urged dealers abroad not to sell such objects, collectors not to buy them, museums not to exhibit them, art historians not to publish images of them or write about them, certainly not in seductively aesthetic terms. The main objective was to protect objects that were still in the ground by drawing attention away from this art. Noncompliance with their strictures was punished by public shaming, with its implied threat of professional ostracism.

A hard line had been drawn. On the other side of it stood the dealers, collectors and museum personnel, whose livelihood and identity depended on a continuous flow of art, wherever it came from. Also on that side, though ambivalently aligned with it, were art historians, who didn’t need to own objects but did require some contact with them in order to learn how they were made and to learn how to distinguish genuine ones from fakes. (A large percentage of Djenne-Djenno pieces on the market were, and are, fakes.)

Unsurprisingly, given the negative charge surrounding all but a limited number of sculptures, art historians began to turn their attention to theory-based critical studies. Today, decades later, the standoff among the various factions still, to some extent, holds. Archaeologists have gained a reputation as fanatical heroes, ethics geeks. And, it turns out, their anti-market position has been backed up with laws, a series of national and international treaties that limit the market and monitor art’s movements.

After my autumn visit to Djenne-Djenno I went on to the city of Mopti, about 50 miles to the north, where a local dealer in beads and antiquities showed me his choicest wares. There were three sculptures, each small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. Two were terra-cotta heads. One had a melancholy look, the other was fierce, scowling, a combatant. Genuine Nok, the dealer assured me, though naturally I had my doubts. And anyway I couldn’t even think of buying: Nok is contraband.

The third piece was stone, and a mystery. It looked rubbed into shape rather than carved, like a melting, featureless Willendorf Venus. Its flawless smooth surface felt calming to the hand. I couldn’t place it, relate it to any art I recognized, African or otherwise. Did he know where it came from? No. Or who might have made it? No. Its age? Don’t know. Price? Not for sale. Just beautiful. Yes.


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