So a few weeks ago, I wrote about Afroblivion and Afrotropia – the acts of erasing Africa and distorting her value. I suggested that the only way to end this toxic relationship between Africa and the rest of the world was for those of us who care to seek truth and speak out. Damien Hirst then went to look for my trouble that I hid in a far away place. Alaparutu! So what did Damien actually do?
On the left is an Ife terracotta head sculpted by artists from Ile-Ife in present day Osun State between the 12th and 14th century. On the right is Hirst’s ‘work’ titled, “Golden Heads (Female)”, displayed at his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi, with little reference to Ife or Nigeria. (May 2017)
On 5th of May 2017, my fellow Nigerian and lawyer, Laolu Sebanjo (a renowned artist in his own right) wrote a blistering letter to Hirst. Please read it. Please. To quote Laolu:
‘Who’s past should we believe? Is it the German Anthropologist (Frobenius) who claims the Yorubas were far too primitive to create such beautiful things or is it we the descendants of the Yoruba people who know our own history and can recognize a counterfeit when we see it. This body of work, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is an unbelievable pile of cheap knock offs.’
So let us talk about cultural appropriation. What is it and why is it so bad?
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” Susan Scafidi
Looking at this definition we see that the sticking point in cultural appropriation is ‘without permission’ or ‘unauthorised use’. Cultural appropriation is not just about the taking, or the lack of/cursory acknowledgement. It is about the power that allows the stealing, the exploitation of other people’s labour, the treating of the ‘other’ and their innovation with contempt. It is epistemic violence and actual violence. Two examples:
In 1897 the British, during a punitive military expedition looted an estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria). These were then sold in the private European art market. Today Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. And, in 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house. None of this money has ever been given to any of the original art-workers or their descendants.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight, is a song written and recorded originally by Solomon Linda in 1939. It is a key piece of music in the beautiful Disney animated movie The Lion King. In 2000 Rian Malan wrote an article titled, ‘In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.’ The article chronicles how the copyright of the song was essentially stolen from Linda and commercialised in the West, eventually generating about US$15 million. It was only when Malan’s article was published that Linda’s estate was eventually able to recover a comparably paltry sum in royalties.
And this is why cultural appropriation is bad, why it hurts, why it makes us rage and bleed. Because each act of theft takes us back. Back to slavery again. It reminds us that we are bound. Each appropriation re-appropriates our labour, our blood, our sweat. Denies us originality. Denies our place in human existence. Suggests that we serve only as a example of a prior stage of development. That we are a people to be moulded into a Eurocentric image. Cultural appropriation recolonises us. Each time things like this happen we remember the chains that bind us. We remember that our labour remains stolen. Our work of little value to us. Our work enriches those who treat us contemptibly, but not us.
This is why epistemic violence is violent, our culture is violently ripped away like a new born baby ripped from its mother, blood dripping, placenta popping. Our labour is re-purposed to put food in someone else’s mouth and we are bereft, powerless, hungry. Cultural appropriation means that someone’s ease is bought by someone else’s value. A world in which we can be condemned to hunger in this way, a world that so easily dehumanizes and deprives… this is a violent world. Remember we all die slowly. We are all human. But some die slowly and in pain, because some choose to wilfully ignore the fact that we are all human.
This is why we should talk endlessly and tirelessly about decolonisation in the 21st century. Victor Ehikhamenor (another Nigerian artist) said of Hirst’s ‘work’:
‘For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s. As time passes it will pass for a Damien Hirst, regardless of his small print caption. The narrative will shift and the young Ife or Nigerian contemporary artist will someday be told by a long nose critic, “Your work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s Golden Head.”‘
When SOAS students asked for the decolonisation of their curriculum, their request was treated with derision. But this is why decolonisation of knowledge is important. Putting history and all knowledge in its proper context. Telling both stories of grandeur and stories of greed. We cannot dream of freedom in a world of violent silence.
So Afroblivion and Afrotropia only end when we end it. The chains must be broken by us. My people, we cannot and should not beg to be recognized, or to have our labour valued. Make no mistake, legal and legitimate theft only occur in a world that makes it possible. We also make it possible. And we can make it impossible. Learn. Speak out. Mobilise. Persist. Resist. We are the becoming. We are freedom.