Arts + Culture
Photo still from Marvel's Black Panther.

Taking Back Our History: Understanding African Art Repatriation

We speak to anthropologist and curator Niama Safia Sandy about the politics around the repatriation of African art.

Earlier this month, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London responded to a claim by the Ethiopian government to retrieve items taken from the 1868 battle of Maqdala by suggesting that Ethiopia take them out on a long-term loan. The items, which were taken from the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros II in the area formerly known as Abyssinia, include a gold crown, a royal wedding dress, the bones of Prince Alemayehu, Emperor Tewodros II son who was captured and taken to Britain where he died at just 18, and more.

The audacious suggestion that the items be "loaned" back was a clear disregard for cultural ownership, a reinforcement of colonial attitudes that once again stripped African countries of their culture and agency.

The outrage that ensued was no surprise, but as we know, outrage isn't always enough to get things to change. It's also useful for those of us, whose history has been ravished by Western dominance to explore ways to reclaim it, to take by what's lost. This month as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Maqdala, it's a fitting time to think about solutions.


We spoke to Brooklyn-based cultural anthropologist, writer and a founding curator of the Southeast Queens Biennial Niama Safia Sandy about the history of the battle, the politics of repatriation—the returning of art or cultural heritage to their country of origin—and what institutions should be doing to combat the widespread issue. Read what the expert had to say below.

As a black anthropologist and curator, how did you feel hearing about the UK's suggestion that Ethiopia take the looted Maqdala items on a long-term loan?

Sadly, I was wholly unsurprised by the Victoria & Albert Museum's stance on returning the relics to Ethiopia as long-term loan. As much as it is mind-boggling that artifacts —both religious and other items—that are known to have been pillaged, it is par for the course. The Victoria & Albert Museum's position smacks of the hubris produced by white hegemony and centuries of imperialist attitudes. Tristram Hunt's supposed "philosophical case for the cosmopolitanism" in the nature of museum collections is totally undercut by virtue of the fact that the items were stolen. Furthermore, they were stolen from places that have a tremendous amount of cultural and spiritual importance to Ethiopians.

Provenance, the method in which an item was acquired, matters. Let us not forget the "Abyssinian Expedition of 1868," from whence the majority of these artifacts came, was essentially a campaign to put Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was known then) in its place. They brought nearly 40,000 British and Indian soldiers and logistics personnel, and almost 30,000 animals including elephants to Ethiopia to retrieve about a dozen people being held by Emperor Tewodross II. Tewodross II is the first modern ruler to unite the many kingdoms of Ethiopia, hence the title negus negast or "King of Kings." He was the first to make efforts to modernize the country. They wanted to make an example of Abyssinia and show the might of the British Empire. The British military literally burned his entire citadel to the ground, but not before desecrating his body, the place he worshiped, and pillaging the entire village of Maqdala. Today there is still a lock of the Emperor's hair in the Imperial War Museum.

In the context of all of this, it is inconceivable that a reasonable person would suggest a "long-term" loan. Ethiopians, including Emperor Yohannes I and citizen groups like AFROMET (the Association for the Return of The Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures), have been rallying to return these items for over a century! The Victoria & Albert Museum isn't even the only place that has them.

What are some of the politics behind artifact repatriation? What is preventing institutions from simply handing items back?

This, and many other things in the museum world, is about power. The thinking for leadership at museums and heritage institutions is "if we return this country's artifacts, we'll have to return that country's artifacts" and it is basically a matter of blood in the water. What is to stop every country in the world outside of the West from requesting their cultural artifacts back? I agree that a fully inclusive and cosmopolitan view of the world's histories and heritages must be shown and preserved but the manner in which the items are procured really should be considered.

Niama Safia Sandy pictured next to Tasha Douge's 'This Land Is Our Land a.k.a Justice'Image courtesy of Niama Safia Sandy


To your knowledge, how has this issue been addressed in the past? Can you name any examples in which repatriation has worked and items were successfully given back to their home country?

In the past museums have returned artifacts. As it relates to the Maqdala relics, some of the objects have actually been returned. While visiting London, in 1924, Ras Tafari Makonnen, the future Emperor Haile Sellassie, was given one of the two crowns in the British Government's possession as a gift to the then-ruler, Empress Zawditu. Ironically, the one that was left behind is the gold crown currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1965, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ethiopia she presented Emperor Selassie with Tewodros' royal cap and seal. As of last year, the British Museum is in talks to return Benin City bronzes to Nigeria and Benin. In 2015, several US museums turned over dozens of stolen Indian artifacts sold to them by an antiquities dealer.

Do you have any suggestions for a realistic solution to the issue of artifact repatriation?

The best practice is to evaluate the circumstances under which the items came into the institutions possession. If equity and upholding real histories is the true goal then showcasing objects that were obtained under questionable methods is out of the question.

*

Niama Safia Sandy is a New York-based cultural anthropologist, curator, and essayist. She is an alumnae of Howard University, SOAS, University of London, and the No Longer Empty Curatorial Lab. Niama is a founding curator of the Southeast Queens Biennial which debuted in 2018. Her curatorial oeuvre includes multiple ongoing exhibition projects with internationally renowned art institutions. Niama has convened panels, led discussions, and presented papers at Prizm Art Fair, the 2016 Creative Time Summit, the 2017 Midwest Art History Society Conference, and Black Portraiture[s] 2018 at Harvard University. Sandy recently contributed the preface, "Love ex Camera," to the first edition of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, a publication highlighting the work of over 100 black women photographers from all over the globe.

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This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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Film
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!

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Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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