August 17, 2009

Call for Papers – Who owns Africa’s cultural patrimony

Posted at 1:03 pm in British Museum, Events, Similar cases

Submissions are invited for a special edition of Critical Interventions on Africa’s cultural heritage in the museums of the West.

Kwame Opoku (by email)

Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture – Fall 2010
By Kwame Opoku

Critical Interventions invites submissions for a special issue on the question of Africa’s cultural patrimony in Western museums, especially in the context of recent international debates about repatriation of historical artworks relocated from one culture to another through conquest, colonization or looting. In the first decade of the 21st Century, demands by various countries for repatriations of significant artworks and cultural objects have shaken up established ideas about the ownership and location of historical cultural objects. While many Western museums have been willing to reach agreements about repatriating or compensating for culturally important artworks in their collections claimed by other Western countries, there has been no acknowledgement of the right of Africans to ownership of African artworks looted from Africa during colonialism, which are now held in the so-called “Universal Museums” of the West. Aside from the fact that Western museums hold large quantities of looted African artworks (the case of the British Museum’s holding of the Benin bronzes being a canonical case in point), these museums also appear to claim ownership of the cultural patrimony of these objects by enforcing copyright claims to the artworks. Since African artworks emerged as part of complex knowledge systems in various indigenous African cultures, such claims deprive Africans of any share in the economic value produced by these objects as a result of their redefinition as a canon of artworks with discursive and financial value. Western countries also routinely deny Africans access to these artworks through enforced localization (no Western country will grant an African a visa merely to visit any museum in Europe or America), which invalidates their claim of housing the artworks in “universal museums”.

To paraphrase Ivan Karp (1991) demands for recognition of Africa’s ownership of its cultural patrimony in Western museums assert the social, political, and economic claims of African producers in the larger world and challenge the right of established Western institutions to control representation of African cultures. In this regard, the proposed issue of Critical Interventions posits a fundamental question: who owns Africa’s cultural patrimony and why are African claims to their looted cultural objects held in Western museums denied in contemporary discourses of repatriation and reparations?

We seek papers that posit or contest African ownership of its cultural patrimony in the dual contexts of the relationship between African artworks in their contemporary locations (Western museums, Western private collections, the art historical construction of meanings), and the history of their origins as part of communities of objects, whose use in religious, ritual, secular, and social space formed part of knowledge systems and cultural heritage of particular African peoples. We particularly encourage submissions that interrogate the commodification of African cultural patrimony and cultural identities in the context of global capital, and examine the representational, legal, political, and cultural positions that support or deny African claims to ownership of historical art objects as relevant aspects of contemporary African cultural patrimony.

Please send 300 word abstracts and CV to the editors: Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie ( and John Peffer ( by December 10, 2009.

Critical Interventions is a peer-reviewed journal of advanced research and writing on African art history and visual culture. Submission and subscription information can be found at .

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1 Comment »

  1. SUNDAY AREMU said,

    10.15.09 at 6:11 am

    Thank you for your submissions on African art. Coming at this critical time of our wholesome conquest as a people, its pursuit would no doubt be quite informative. As an artist based here in Chicago, i felt elated to hear comments and responses at last year’s exhibition of works from Benin in Nigeria.
    Critically speaking, too much of Africa has gone underneath the facade of “poverty, corruption and AIDS”. In the west, the intellectual clouts we once possessed have all been punctured by our failed leaders. The truth is, even if we have to stage a campaign for the reparations of these artifacts, we have collectively lost our bargaining platforms. It is so sad to see countries like India, Brazil, Peru and Argentina being inducted into the club of developing countries while Africa has sunk deeper into the folds of under-developed and failed countries.The promises once held by our intellectuals all over the World have been overshadowed by our inability to chart a progressive course back home. Today, one is aptly evaluated as a person and not as an attachment of an African country. Apart from the intellectual exercise this course would generate, the West, our Lord and feeders at all times, would never take us seriously! Why? Because the very next day after the discourse, an African President/Head of State with bags of stolen money will dine and wine with this same people and in the course of this, scuttle your efforts.
    Infact, they are just the sworn enemies of the very African spirits whose manifestations are the very artifacts we are talking about.

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