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"Thought Straighterner" by Cuban art collective The Merger Photo: Ciku Kimeria

In Conversation: The Director of The Museum of Black Civilizations

Hamady Boucoum talks about the return of Africa's looted treasures and how the museum is subverting expectations

In his novel Foreign Gods, Inc., critically acclaimed Nigerian novelist, Okey Ndibe, tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery. Driven to this point of desperation by a series of unfortunate events in his life as a migrant, Ike hatches a plan to steal this statue that, in modern times, he believes, means little to his people—but one that could fetch him a pretty penny if it gets into the hands of collectors in the West.

I could not help but contrast this image with that of me walking into the new Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, flanked by busloads of Senegalese school children eager and excited to see artifacts from around their continent, in their own continent. The fact that African art did not have to leave the continent to be valued is perhaps the most vital aspect of this fabulous new museum.


The museum draws its architectural inspiration from the inner atriums of the homes in the Casamance region in the South of Senegal and the Great Zimbabwe. These houses consist of rooms built in a circle with a round and empty patio in the middle that is used for catching rainwater. This design creates a tunnel of light reaching the center of the building. In the center of the museum is a 40 feet tall steel baobab tree sculpture by Haitian artist, Edouard Duval-Carrié. Inside, the museum is broken down into four sections: The Cradle of Humanity, Continental African Civilizations, Globalization of Africa and Africa Now.

Hamady Bocoum in his office Photo: Ciku Kimeria

I meet Hamady Bocoum, the museum's director, in his office. He's a seasoned archeologist, researcher and erstwhile Director of the African Institute of Basic Research in Dakar and who speaks passionately about the issues. The work behind the museum, he tells me, began in the 1960s at the encouragement of Senegalese president, Léopold Sédar Senghor—in 2015 the plan was revived and it opened last year with the mandate of being for all people of African origin worldwide.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

You've said that in the creation of the museum you found it easier to articulate what it shouldn't be rather than what it should be. What is the museum not?

Some of the things we agreed on is firstly, that this would not be a museum on ethnology. Ethnology to us is about westerners looking at Africans—for example, the Masai people are a nomadic… the Hausa are…—rather than us looking at ourselves. The second thing was that this museum would not be an anthropological one. This is because anthropology is what was used to rationalize the concept of race—a concept that has had devastating effects for those outside the power structures, especially black people. Anthropology allowed the enslavement of black people to be legitimized. The third thing we agreed on was that this would not be a subaltern museum.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic describes subaltern in the postcolonial context as follows: "Western intellectuals relegate other, non-Western (African, Asian, Middle Eastern) forms of "knowing", of acquiring knowledge of the world, to the margins of intellectual discourse, by re-formulating these forms of knowing as myth and as folklore. To be heard and known, the subaltern must adopt Western ways of knowing, of thought, reasoning, and language."]

Our determination to not be a subaltern museum was the reason we did not model the museum on any museums such as the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay or other well known museums. We wanted the museum not to be held to western standards in terms of how it should look. Our museum would traverse the whole story from the origin of mankind to contemporary times.

The Benin Bronzes were part of the Oba's collectionPhoto: Ciku Kimeria

The overarching sentiment was that the story of black civilizations is a story of humanity. The Manden Charter of the Mandingo people of West Africa was created in the 13th century making it one of the oldest constitutions in the world—albeit oral. It has its first law as "All life is equal." Africans never placed people above animals, trees, lakes or forests. In Africa, when we prayed or ask for forgiveness before killing an animal for food, we did not do this out of superstition. We did it because of our view on humanity.

Africa was the locomotive of human civilization for over 7 million years ago. Colonization was around 550 years of that time period. We want the museum to be representative of African history in its entirety.

What's your favourite story behind how artifacts came to your museum?

When the British destroyed Benin city in 1897 they stole all the masks of the Oba People.These are on display in the British museum. What they didn't know was that there were two copies of each of the masks. The others were with the queen mother who lived outside of Benin City. When she heard that her son, the Oba (King) had been imprisoned, she hid all these masks. We have her collection here on display. They have been available for display in different parts of the world. They recently came from Miami and we will be sending them back shortly to Nigeria.

Photo: Ciku Kimeria

What has been the reception of the museum so far? What has surprised you?

It's been overwhelmingly positive. When we opened the museum in late December 2018, we had 700 items on exhibit. Only one month later we already have 1,300 items. Other museums are eager for us to display their items. I expect that in a year we will have between 4,000–5,000 items on display. It should be noted that we don't own any of our items. They will always be loaned from different museums worldwide. The black diaspora worldwide has really mobilized to make sure that we will always have diverse and engaging content. 80 percent of what is on exhibit right now comes from outside of Senegal—other African countries and black diaspora. The lowest number of visitors we've had on any day so far is 350 . We are averaging 500–600 visitors every day with having even reached 800 visitors on one day.

How does the museum plan to engage with the diaspora?

Even from the inception process we have been engaging with artists and museum curators from different parts of the black diaspora including Cuba, the US, Brazil etc. The exhibits at the museum will keep changing—with the Cradle of Humanity remaining as the only permanent one. All the other exhibits including the one on contemporary art, will continually have changing themes and displays that engage with content from black diaspora. This is not the museum of Senegalese civilizations or of African civilizations. It is and will continue to remain, the Museum of Black Civilizations. Each time we change the exposition, we will aim to be as representative as possible. The current exhibits will all be changed in September—except for our permanent exhibit—The Cradle of Humanity. The exhibit on contemporary art will be changed every 6 months.

Photo courtesy of The Museum of Black Civilizations

Given current calls for repatriation of Africa's looted assets, what role do you think the museum will play in this discussion?

We cannot let those who looted our assets then tell us what we should do with them. Restitution needs to happen with the knowledge that the looter has no right to decide what happens with items that were never theirs in the first place. If I stole your ring and you asked for it back, how can I then tell you that you need to first let me know where you will put it, before I give it back to you? No one has that right!

If people get their artifacts back and want to put them in a sacred forest, that is absolutely their right! When these objects were stolen from the continent, we never said that they were artwork to be displayed. Some of these artwork includes severed skulls that were taken during a time of oppression, colonization, violence and the subjugation of Africans. How can anyone dictate to us what we should do with our looted objects once they are returned?

The return of our looted assets should not be dependent on us having space to exhibit them. It should be based on the fact that they belong to us and were looted.

What are some of your favorite exhibits at the museum? Why? What is it about them that stands out the most to you?

The sculpture of the giant baobab tree that is in the middle of the museum. It was done by the Haitian sculptor, Edouard Duval-Carrié. It's location in the center of the museum shows that the diaspora is at the heart of the story on black civilization. He's one of the greatest sculptors in the world. All the work was done in Haiti, but the sculpture had to be installed piece by piece in the museum given its massive size. This metal art form—of using cut pieces of iron is one that has been perfected by Haitian sculptors and has its origin in the slave plantations. The iron workers who were in the plantations were responsible for making all the iron tools that would be used by other slaves. When they had leftover iron, they would use it to use it to make decorative items. The beloved tree of life is of great cultural, spiritual and historical significance in Senegal with some of the trees being between 1,000—2,500 years old and having more than 300 uses.

View of the museum atriumPhoto courtesy of the Museum of Black Civilizations

What would you consider as success for this museum looking back a few years from now? What would you have hoped to attain?

That black people worldwide will engage with this museum and that it will serve as a space where we can have dialogue among ourselves, but also with other civilizations. This is the reason that we have a current exhibit on "Dialogue of masks" that not only features African masks, but also Indian ones, Native American ones etc. We want to show that the story of black civilizations is the story of all humanity.

Music

Listen to Samthing Soweto’s Album ‘Isiphithiphithi’

Samthing Soweto's highly anticipated album is finally here.

One of the most anticipated albums of the year, Isiphithiphithi by Samthing Soweto is finally here.

The South African artist's project consists of 12 songs and features Makhafula Vilakazi, Shasha, Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa and Mlindo The Vocalist.

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South African Telenovela 'The River' has Been Nominated for an International Emmy

This is the popular telenovela's first International Emmy nomination.

One of South Africa's beloved telenovelas, The River, has received its first ever International Emmy nomination in the category of "Best Telenovela", according to IOL. The River will go up against other telenovelas from Columbia, Argentina as well as Portugal. The 47th installment of the International Emmy Awards will take place on November 25th of this year and will be held at the Hilton in New York.

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Culture
Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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