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.