Sunday, June 14, 2020

Speech at George Floyd Candlelight Vigil, in Cranbury, NJ


This evening I spoke at a candlelight vigil co-organized by the Coalition for Peace Action, the Bayard Rustin Center and area high school students led by the amazing Princeton High junior Isabel Sethi. 


Here is the text of my speech:

Two nights days ago, another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was gunned down by the police in Atlanta. Someone had called the police on him. And when two white officers showed up, there was a rough up. Rayshard took one officer’s Taser and ran. Seconds later, they pumped bullets into his body and went about searching for the casings while Rayshard bled to death. What was his crime? Sleeping in his car in a parking lot.

For the past three weeks, we watched thousands, in cities large and small, take to the streets to express their outrage at the terrible incident in Minneapolis on May 25. We all watched in disgust as a white police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, and for nine minutes squeezed the life out of him in broad daylight. What was his crime? They suspected him of using a counterfeit 20-dollar bill.

The loathsome murder of Floyd has rightfully awakened America to the ugliness of a history that reaches back hundreds of years. This history began with the sale, humiliation, dehumanization and exploitation of black people shipped from Africa to build, unpaid, the powerful nation that America is today. And, for long black people have cried out, begged, revolted, and campaigned against the regime of oppressive violence that marked their existence in the United States.

For long, white America, ignored the condition of black Americans, even after they were granted full citizenship and given the benefit of equal rights under the law. For long, black people have waited, prayed, and hoped that the transformation of the police—an institution that openly terrorized black people in the era of slavery and Jim Crow—would be complete, and that black encounters with the police, no matter how ordinary, do not end in injury, trauma or death. The murder of George Floyd by the police, it seems, has done what countless others could not do; it seems to have ignited the moral outrage of white America about an age-old black experience.

Yet, the murder of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and countless other black men and women is not just an indictment on the police; it is an indictment on any town or county or state that hires the police, arms them and demands of them to maintain law and order by any means necessary. We do all this and not accept that the failures our police is on us?

Each American that excuses state-sanctioned violence, celebrates our gun culture, and ignores the transformation of police in black neighborhoods into occupying forces is responsible for the morbid outcome of America’s investment in a culture of forceful policing of black people and black communities.

Beyond ongoing debates about reforming or defunding the police, each one of us must ask ourselves tonight:

Am I willing to stop not only police killings of the George Floyds, Rayshad Brooks, Breonna Taylors, Eric Garners, and Sandra Blands but to actively seek the end of the systemic racism that undervalues black lives, black experience and black citizenship? Do I want retain an America in which white people’s comfort depends on the oppression and exploitation of black and other racial minorities? And, are we willing and ready to accept that racism in America was invented and maintained by white people; and that it is white people’s burden to end it?

When I see the unprecedented diversity of the people out in America’s streets demanding for justice for George Floyd; when I see the thousands of youths—including the co-organizers of tonight’s vigil—call for drastic change, I am hopeful.
The past and present failed black people in America; the youths of today, inspired by the irrepressible leaders of BlackLives Matter, must decide on a different and just future, for America’s sake.

Each of us, especially the white people here tonight, must be the change we want to see in our society, and that change starts with how we see and relate with black people in our families, neighborhoods, schools, towns, and counties. If we do not commit, in our daily lives, to the end of individual or systemic racism in America, no amount of candlelight vigils for George Floyd, or for the next black victim of police violence, will save us from the indictment of history.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Response to Christie's: June 29 Auction of Blood Art from Nigeria


Am I surprised that the response from Christie’s would be that they are going ahead to make some money from Biafran Blood Art, because they believe those objects were legally acquired? No. What else could they say, if, it appears, they are bent on going ahead with the sale?

Yet, I am unimpressed and frankly miffed by their miserable attempt to redefine the term “in situ” as applied to African Art. I believe I know this field. And, I want to ask Christie’s to name these so-called well-respected scholars that have redefined the term “in situ” to refer to objects “collected by an African dealer before being sold to a foreign collector outside of the African continent.” The time is long past when defining Africa was some kind of lethal sport by colonial foot soldiers and colonially minded scholars.

Christie’s can remove the “in situ” they already have in their auction catalogue, if they wish. Doing that does not matter, as there is no “confusion” to clear up. Mr. Kerchache acquired these objects from a war zone (as that war raged), and that is the point. Whether or not he—once described by Wall Street Journal as the “Gallic Indiana Jones for his insatiable wanderlust and thirst for adventure”--like a few Europeans like him were parked somewhere outside of the Nigerian-Cameroon border to receive these objects and ship them to Europe is not really important.  Moreover, which part of the UNESCO Convention of 1954 on Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (Accessioned by the Nigerian Government in 1961) protects the art works looted from Eastern Nigeria during that armed conflict?

Let me be clear. I write these notes for the record, as I only half-hoped that Christie’s would do the right thing. I might not have the energy or live long enough to pursue this matter to its logical conclusion. However, we are a people with long and persistent memory; we will not forget what happened to our cultural heritage during that war and who played what role in it then and now.
Christie’s and others in Europe and elsewhere can sit tight on their colonial high horse, and dismiss concerns about merchandizing these alusi figures, and Royal Benin works. After all Africa and Africans do not matter. Right? Christie’s and its ilk may cloak themselves in and even cite laws written to serve the powerful and the hegemon. Yet, profiting from Blood Art by its keepers and dealers, and mealy-mouthed justification for their actions, is not just arrogant and insolent; it is downright WRONG.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the continuing global response to it, I sit here in my corner and watch the mea culpas and confessions of individuals and institutions who suddenly realize that they had participated in or benefitted from systemic racism and exploitation of black people in the US, Europe and elsewhere. I wonder if Christie’s have issued or will issues their own solidarity message before the June 28 auction of Blood Art another nation of black people.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Art and BlackLivesMatter Protests: Podcast of my interview by The New Arab


#BlackLivesMatter: How art is inspiring solidarity from the streets of America to the Middle East


Last week, I was interviewed by Gaia Caramazza, a producer at The New Arab for a program on the role and place of art in the ongoing anti-racist protest movement spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. I think she did a fine job of the podcast titled "#BlackLivesMatter: How Art is Inspiring Protests from the Streets of America to the Middle East." If you wish to listen to the podcast, click HERE. My segment begins at about 19:30 minutes. 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Biafran War loots in Christie's Auction Sale



Wall plaque, Edo Kingdom

On June 28, 2020, Christies, reputedly the world’s premier auction house will have a sale of art from Africa, Oceania and North America. I raise my voice against this sale. As the magazine Quartz has just reported, major auction houses are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to sell art objects from Africa that are part of colonial-era looting of the continent’s cultural heritage. Among the Christies lot, for instance, is one copper alloy plaque (above) that must have been among the looted objects from the Benin palace. It is shameful that any self-respecting auction house is still involved in the sale of royal Benin objects from that 1897 rape of the palace by British soldiers

Alusi figures from Nri-Awka area, Eastern Nigeria

But here is what I find even more vexing about Christie's sale. 

In a 2017 op-ed article in the New York Times, I wrote about widespread looting of art from Eastern Nigeria during the Biafran War (1967-70), and that my mother still mourns the overnight disappearance of countless sculptures from communal shrines in my hometown, Umuoji, in Anambra State. These art raids from all indications were sponsored by dealers and their client collectors mostly based in Europe and the US. So, apart from the royal Benin wall plaque, the June Christie's auction includes two impressive alusi (sacred sculptures, above) said to have been acquired in 1968-69 in situ by Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001). That is, Mr. Kerchache acquired these sculptures in the Nri-Awka area (a half-hour drive from my hometown) during the darkest years of the Biafran War.  

Dear Christie's, let’s be clear about the provenance of these sculptures you want to sell. While between 500,000 and three million civilians, including babies like me, were dying in the thousands of kwashiorkor and starvation inside Biafra; and while young French doctors were in the war zone establishing what we now know as Doctors Without Borders, their compatriot, Mr. Kerchache, went there to buy up my people’s cultural heritage, including the two sculptures you are now offering for sale. I write this so no one, including Christie's and any potential buyer of these loots from Biafra can claim ignorance of their true provenance. These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children. Caveat Emptor!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Looted Benin Objects to be Published Online

87440
Standing Figure, Benin Kingdom, c. 17th century
Collection of University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

In the fight to get museums in Europe and America to take seriously the matter of restituting important African art and cultural objects stolen or looted from the continent in the age of colonialism, there is small but significant progress.
It has just been announced that the Museum am Rothenbaum, Hamburg will publish online all known Benin objects in various media looted by British soldiers in that infamous invasion of the kingdom in 1897. Funded by a generous grant from the Ernst von Siemens art foundation, the project, under the auspices of the Benin Dialog Group, is significant, as it will provide scholars, activists, and institutions interested in the question of the Benin loots--since scattered in major museums around the western world--a comprehensive accounting of who is keeping what of these exiled objects. Until now, such information is buried mostly in barely illustrated scholarly books accessible only to a very small group of academics in universities and museums.
I hope that the goal of this project is to provide images of all the documented works. For with such a visual catalogue, the enormity and scale of that historic plunder of a kingdom will become all the more visibly evident.

Head of an Oba, brass. Collection of Field Museum, Chicago
But, I wonder. As I noted in a post on the subject early last year, the fact that US museums are missing in action is beyond scandalous. Notice that the announcement about the Hamburg project lists only the big European museums with huge caches of the Benin loots, including Hamburg's Museum am Rothenbaum, the British Museum, Berlin’s Ethnology Museum, Vienna’s Weltmuseum and the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden.
Where the hell are American Museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Field Museum Chicago, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia's Penn Museum, and Brooklyn Museum? What are they doing about the looted Benin objects they are keeping in their galleries and vaults? When will they tell us what they intend to do about their own loots?

For more on the Hamburg project, click here