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Call for Papers – Who owns Africa’s cultural patrimony

Submissions are invited for a special edition of Critical Interventions [1] 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 (ogbechie@arthistory.ucsb.edu) and John Peffer (j_peffer@yahoo.com) 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 http://www.criticalinterventions.com .