Brought to Europe by pith-helmeted explorers and unscrupulous kings, Africa's treasures are finally getting the royal treatment


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Twenty years ago, on assignment for The New Yorker, I traveled for two months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then known as Zaire. One morning, I was walking down the street in Kisangani when a kid ran up with a cane that he wanted to sell me. It wasn't "airport art"; it was the real thing—a chief's cane, exquisitely carved out of some hard, black wood. Halfway up, it spiraled into a woman with jutting breasts; above her, a man squatted on a drum. The top swirled back into a crook that reconnected with the cane several inches down. Whatever the symbolism of the man and the woman, the cane's purpose was to reinforce the chief's power. The piece had not been intended as an artwork, but in the eyes of a lembele, a white guy such as myself, it was one. The kid, expecting me to bargain, was asking 2 million zaires, the equivalent of $4. Eight days of work, in that part of the world, if you could get them. "I'll take it," I said guiltily.

The cane now sits in my study in upstate New York, among an assortment of objects from Africa acquired in the course of various trips. I recall a similar, perhaps older, cane at the Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie in Paris. That one was made by the Chokwe, a tribe that straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. In fact, much of Africa's best art is now more easily found in Europe than in Africa's scarred republics. This has as much to do with the ravages of colonialism as it does with the political failures that have made cultural life in many African states impossible.

Until recently, though, European museums dedicated to African art have deviated little from the 19th-century model that gave birth to them—one that has favored displaying objects as if in a cabinet of curiosities. But in the past two years, the British Museum has retrieved its African collection from the dusty confines of the Museum of Mankind and installed it in spacious new galleries. The French have also opened up new galleries at the Louvre (the Pavillon des Sessions) and embarked on two museum projects—one in Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly, opening in 2004, and one in Marseilles scheduled for 2008—all dedicated to "primary art" (objects from Africa, Oceania, Asia, the Americas, and the Arctic). These will draw on the formidable collections of the Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie and the ethnographic laboratory of the Musée de l'Homme. In one of postcolonialism's many ironies, Europe's repositories of African art have become a safe haven, a precious link to the varied histories and cultures of what was once called the Dark Continent.

At the end of my first journey to the Congo, I visited the Institut des Musées Nationaux in Kinshasa, the capital, where 45,000 remarkable artifacts produced by some 400 ethnic groups were stored on open shelves in a huge warehouse. I wandered down aisle after aisle of astonishing and powerful work: masks; fetishes; carvings with human or animal characteristics, or both; ritual paraphernalia; sacred objects. The Congo Basin is the cradle of Congolese sculpture, and though "primitive" art is assumed to be permanently locked into some fixed tribal style, these carvings were anything but uniform. In fact there is much variety and innovation, and it is always possible to tell which ethnic group produced a given piece.

Over the decades, I have worried about that collection. It has not been safe—from mold or from the Congo's violent political birth throes. And it is not accessible. (It will take some time before the country is ready for museumgoers.) Some of the best pieces have disappeared during the chaos of the past five years, which have seen the overthrow of President Mobutu Sese Seko by Laurent Kabila (himself assassinated in January 2001), as well as an endless civil war, which has already claimed the lives of at least 2.5 million Congolese. Some of the missing pieces have come up for sale in Europe, a dealer told me, but no one with a reputation to maintain will touch them.

Still, the recent exhibition of two Nok sculptures from Nigeria at the inaugural show of the Pavillon des Sessions seemed to signal a return to the tactics of Lord Elgin (he made off with the marbles from the Parthenon frieze now housed in the British Museum). The Nigerian embassy protested that the pieces had been stolen and should not be shown. It turned out that French president Jacques Chirac had tried for years to persuade Nigeria's president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, to agree to sell the sculptures, illegally exported to Belgium by a private dealer. Though the Nigerians finally gave in, in exchange for "French support" of their own cultural institutions, they still issued a statement warning against looting, citing the Louvre exhibition as an example. Meanwhile, the International Council of Museums placed Nok works on its list of African art considered too "hot" to purchase.

While controlling the market in stolen art is certainly difficult, doing away with outdated notions of "Africa" is not much easier. It means resolving the tension between ethnography and art history, between artifact and art object, that has plagued the display of "primitive" art. Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren is a case in point. Located in a verdant town just outside Brussels, it's a relic of Belgium's 52 short but brutal years as a colonial power. The main building, a cupolaed Neoclassical palace at the edge of the Fort de Soigné, is one of those formidable structures that the Victorian age typically devoted to natural history and ethnology. Inaugurated in 1910, the Royal Museum and its various outbuildings house the largest cache of artifacts from central Africa on the planet. But the collections are in disarray: books are missing, thousands of photographs remain uncatalogued. "It's almost as if they're ashamed to have the stuff," says filmmaker Raoul Peck, who spent a few days on location here, shooting scenes for his recent film on Patrice Lumumba, the first post-independence prime minister of the former Belgian Congo, who was murdered in 1961 at the age of 35.

The museum was designed as a showcase for the Congo Free State, which King Leopold II created as an autonomous region in 1885 and ceded to Belgium in 1908. During that time, according to Adam Hochschild's harrowing book King Leopold's Ghost, millions of Congolese were worked to death gathering wild rubber in the forest and slaughtering elephants for their ivory. But you'll find little about the downside of Leopold's "philanthropical enterprise" here. On my last visit, the only discordant note in a series of paintings commissioned by the Belgian government to document its colony's riches was La Civilisation du Congo, which shows a Congolese man being flogged while a pith-helmeted official ticks off the lashes in a notebook. (It has since been removed.)

What is here, however, is often marvelous, sometimes simply sad. Near the museum's entrance sits one of the longest dugout canoes I've ever seen, excavated from a single tree and capable of holding 100 people. A diorama shows a family of stuffed okapis, the elusive forest giraffe that was one of the last large mammals on the planet to be discovered. (Thousands are now being shot and roasted in the Ituri region by miners of a rare metal called coltan, used in cell phones and computer chips.) There is a replica of one of the leopard men, or anioto, members of a secret Congolese society who were said to dress in leopard skins and murder people in the night, ripping them open with knives or iron claws to make it look like the work of a leopard. Beneath the display a placard reads: "It must be understood that such ritual institutions dedicated exclusively to murder have rarely seen the light of day in Africa." It's the kind of sign that would not have been there a generation ago. In fact, since 1960 the museum has searched for a way to redefine its mission and is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. For now, it remains a reflection of its time—a musty relic of absolutism, mesmerizing in its way.

An even more sumptuous colonial showcase than Belgium's Royal Museum is the Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie in Paris, whose Hall of Five Continents is lined with Art Deco frescoes. During the sixties, André Malraux, then minister of culture, persuaded such distinguished figures as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to advise him on acquisitions. Some of the objects from the museum's collection, along with others from the Musée de l'Homme, have now been transferred to the Louvre and are on permanent display at the Pavillon des Sessions. The Pavillon, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, is airy and light-filled, and the 120 works displayed there seem, at last, to have been placed on an equal footing with the museum's European masterpieces.

Yet the impetus behind projects like the Pavillon des Sessions is not simply to confer legitimacy on objects that otherwise would lack it. If African art has typically been viewed either as exotic artifact or as a sort of primitive abstraction brought to artistic fruition by Cubism, these new spaces are dedicated to African art in all its complexity and variety. In fact, Jean Nouvel's design for the Quai Branly—a steel and glass building with a garden meant to echo some of the collection's themes—suggests a movement toward a new symbiosis between everyday object and artwork, European and African, one in which shared histories are as important as differences.

  • Royal Museum for Central Africa 13 Leuvensesteenweg, Tervuren, Belgium; 32-2/769-5211; Art collected since the mid 1800's, from the republics of central Africa, primarily Congo. The museum is soon to be largely refurbished, though it will retain its ethnographic character.
  • Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie 293 Ave. Daumesnil, Paris; 33-1/44-74-85-00; A vast array of objects, both sacred and profane, most of which will eventually be housed at the Musée du Quai Branly. Closing in January 2003.
  • Pavillon des Sessions Louvre, Palais-Royal, Paris; 33-1/40-20-53-17; Works from Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and the Arctic organized geographically.
  • Musée Dapper 35 Rue Paul-Valéry, Paris; 33-1/45-00-01-50. Two special exhibitions a year in this private foundation, recently renovated, which also has an extensive library.