«[T]he epistemologies of the South start from two premises: (1) the understanding of the
world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world; and (2) the cognitive
experience of the world is extremely diverse, and the absolute priority given to modern
science has entailed a massive epistemicide (the destruction of rival knowledges deemed to
be nonscientific) that now calls for reparation»
«Forget about the past is the main message of acquisitive or extinctive prescription.
The problem with this message is that it makes an unequal and unjust demand»
«A whole class of tricksters does not appear in a primitive society, subsist upon ‘a
combination of ventriloquy sleight of hand & charlatanism’ and obtain all the power &
respect [… ] unless there is something in the beliefs of the people which, so to speak,
give them a warrant.» – Commentary by Harold McMichael
on C. W. Willis “Cult of Deng” report, 1936.
As a general observation, political, economic and art-world concerns have come to dominate the narrative around restitution in Africa. From the point of view of a pluralistic African Epistemology – thinking about theories of knowledge from Africa existing in different temporalities and localities – what seems to have been missed by many commentators has been the disastrous effect that the lack of restitution has had on African knowledge systems (Kaphagawani & Malherbe, 2002). Indeed, African creative production, much like Africa’s knowledge production operating on the periphery of a globalized world, has suffered recurrent processes of marginalisation, humiliation, debasement, erosion and often irreversible destruction of local systems of knowledge. This essay will argue that this trend should be broadly associated with the dislocation of Africa’s creative productions. By creative production, for argument’s sake, we will mean the sum total of material culture, intangible heritage, technological objects and artefacts which are credited to specific persons, entire groupings or locales which have been categorised as ‘art’ due to their aesthetic value or uniqueness in form and application.
This essay will therefore forward that two further forms of knowledge beside aesthetic and technical knowledge could be said to be destroyed in the violent acquisition of African artefacts and their dislocation outside of their functional loci. It will also highlight how issues of ‘knowledge’ in whatever form have been profoundly understated in the discourse – in spite of some Western institutions recently acknowledging their part in the historical injustices of appropriation. These concepts will then be expounded on by reference to historical case-examples of lesser known instances of appropriated African artefacts. The overarching aim of this essay is to encourage a more considered form of restitution in reparations and greater recognition of local experts and cultural institutions, which may assist to remedy the historical and present decontextualisation of African knowledge through the displacement of its artefacts.
Reconsidering the Terms of the Debate
When thinking of the terminologies associated with the debate around looted art and creative production in Africa, as in the recent cases involving Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Ethiopia, Congo and South Africa, the issues of ‘restitution’ takes on particular non-linear, overtly affective, political, historical and ethical dimensions. For example, when thinking of ‘restitution’ from a ‘perspective from’ rather than ‘on’ Africa (Grinker and Steiner, 1993), the niche cross-cultural discourse of the art-world is thrown into a broader discussion based on the various political and ideological assumptions of the discursive agents. What is thus revealed from the burgeoning contemporary literature on the restitution of African art – between the post-colonial claimant and the globalised defendant – is a reflection of the fundamental incommensurability of presumed universal understandings of ‘art’, ‘culture’ and ‘knowledge’ across differing epistemic paradigms.
In some perspectives ‘from Africa’, the object and the world of the subject and its beauty is not disassociated with the concerns of the community and existence according to African accounts on African epistemic productions (Nzegwu, 2005). Therefore individuals as well the coproduction of knowledge was a fact in some contexts of African creative production and is theoretically possible today as multi-authored scientific texts or collective artworks attest to in the scientific community. This is also why authorship of creative productions in Africa have often been given to sites, shared ancestral figures or political representatives of communities which acts as an active metaphor for the sum total of beliefs, facts, observations and assumptions shared by African communities and specialist groupings within. (Nzegwu, 2005), (Wingo, 2005).
Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ concept of ‘epistemicide’ (Santos, 1995; 2014) should be immediately posited as the central idea present in this essay as it generally describes the ‘destruction’ or ‘death’ of what Santos broadly calls ‘knowledges’, be it self-reflective, historical or cultural knowledge, especially in the Global South. This is evident in how the African conception of art as related above is nearly alien in the discourse on art let alone reparations. Thus a tangent of philosophical contention here lies in the issue that the factors considered in the ‘reparations debate’ generally omits or implicitly discusses the ‘destruction of knowledge’ when assessing cases of looted art, restitution or the lack thereof with regards to African creative productions. The inherent problem here is the callousness and lack of gravity shown when this relates to productions out of Africa. Furthermore, it is argued that this state of affairs is inevitable, given the dominant narratives of interpretation imposed on ‘African art’ which often misconstrues the character of African productions as briefly alluded to above. Creative and cultural productions can therefore also be subject to decontextualisation by dislocation, and this is the matter which will concern the essay, as the effects of decontextualisation are especially pernicious given the historical consequences it has had on African agency in creative and intellectual production.
As a general rule, decontextualised objects are of little value to any enquiry, if one takes holistic and historical variables as inseperable in understanding the nature of things. In Africa, such objects do not presently contribute in any clear manner to ‘universal discourse’ or the ‘history of mankind’, outside of what has been rather odiously referred to by African philosophers as ‘philosophical midwifery’ (Oruka 2004) or ‘philosophical extraversion’ (Hountondji 1995). The former concept, refers to indigenous Africans requiring anthropologists or the like to extract, translate or transcribe philosophical ideas on behalf of the local African or knowledge system; while the latter concept refers to the art of Westernised mediators explaining African concepts for the consumption of Western audiences. Thus, forms of both tangible (artefacts) and intangible productions (concepts and methodologies) have effectively undergone, in the sense of their social and epistemic character, forms of erasure and silencing through the displacement of these productions and the genius associated with them. Departing from an analysis of terminology and philosophical presumptions being assessed in the restitution discussion, it will also be contended that the asymmetrical epistemic relationships inherent in the debate around restitution will continue to disqualify and marginalise African knowledge systems, history and cultures associated with those creative productions. This is, unless, these concerns are properly acknowledged and addressed. One can make a further claim that these consistent misrepresentations, whether innocent or premeditated, forms a basis of justifying the original unjust acquisition of African objects. This pushes the author to make another intervention based on intuitions drawn from African hermeneutics so as to ‘read’, ‘understand’ or reframe what is generally referred to as African ‘art’ as African ‘epistemic artefacts’.
When referring to ‘epistemicide’ then, I am making a socialised epistemological intervention around an observable phenomenon entailing the destruction or death of knowledge by way of the destruction of knowledge producers and epistemic artefacts that may or may not be reversible. By ‘knowledge’, we mean ‘knowledge systems’ or the sum of beliefs, facts, observations and assumptions that are shared, understood or refined by a given group which causes knowers within that group to know, act or communicate in particular ways towards particular knowledge-based ends. This ‘knowledge’ could then be said to be ‘manufactured’ by skilled experts in theoretical, aesthetic or functional ways in the same manner that a philosophical artefact is said to come into existence and is constructed or imbued with meaning in the context of its creation and application. This interpretation is in fact revealed in the etymology of ‘artefact’ through its root concepts, from the Latin facere or factum as in ‘making’ or ‘something made’.
Hence, we could also note that the artefact refers to a physical instantiation of knowledge or beliefs which expert knowledge-bearers, who are trained to grasp the full entailment of conceptual networks associated with a manufactured objects can then come to apply their functions within particular specialised or generalised contexts.
Thus ‘art’, can also be understood, as it was by Plato’s Socrates in his discourse with Thrasymachus, as a trade, skill or profession by which certain tasks are performed at a high level of sophistication (Plato & Jowett, 1941). In Plato’s other works such as Timeus which follows the Greek Sage Solon, we also find how the ancient Greeks witnessed and attested to this sophistication in praxis in the education system of the ancient Nile Valley cultures, which was a system predicated on the transmission of knowledge through tradition by usage of a wide array of artefacts (obelisks, temples, nilometer) all embellished with writing, pictorial forms and semiology.
African artefacts’ have thus represented for the longest of periods, by virtue of their unique form and situation, a tacit antagonism against any kind of assumed cognitive hegemony of the West by virtue of their epistemological and aesthetic rupture from the presumed criteria of creative and intellectual production. However, by moving away from the historically dominant and exclusionary prescriptions held on creative production from generally Eurocentric perspectives and the social culture around the consumption of artworks or artefacts towards understanding the nature of knowledge contained and affirmed in African productions by Africans themselves, we see that Africa has something to say, and can do so in a multitude of ways and forms. This posture however can led to bouts of incommensurability with the more established and contemporary traditions of scientific, positivistic and even post-modernist ways of knowing, which has also held the currency in labelling and classifying the knowledge systems behind the production of various African artefacts. This wager must be taken however, in the interests of the cultural preservation of local African, diasporic as well as imminent indigenous knowledge systems and their methodologies from further loss by way of epistemicide.
What has remained constant since the end of the colonial period then, is the way African productions have been afforded a second-order significance which extends to the groupings of the producers’ within Africa itself. This is visible in the world of indigenous creative production such as that of the status of the renowned Ndebele murals compared to the litema of the Sotho which are currently in decline (Mylene, 2014). One can even extend this issue of creative production to descendants of indigenous San communities in South Africa whose cultural forms cannot be widely practiced due the peripheral positions of knowers, their marginalisation in extraverted accounts of their knowledge as well as loss of historical resources. Other cases of traditions such as Lusona in Angola, Nsibidi in Nigeria and the various marginalised fabric and dye-making industries on the continent are further precedents. Thus, by even drawing on a logic of taxonomy which compares and contrasts supposedly distinct ‘types’ or forms of people and their productions we have as African producers have also allowed the devaluation, commercialisation and overconsumption of our own cultural forms on the continent producing antagonistic or competitive relationships that goes against the ethos of cultural production in the first place.
One needs no more evidence of this than in the way in which the achievement or potential capability of civilisation and high culture was given, in the colonial Western canon, to groups assumed to inhabit the fabricated Hamitic identity category over a supposedly inferior and perpetually infantile Bantu, Negro or Cushitic groups in Africa (Chatelin, 1894). Thus, African conceptions of ‘art’ like ‘knowledge’ were never truly and equally accounted for, even within the nascent internal pan-African discourse, as a consequence of the asymmetries induced by the legacies of imposed core-periphery models through geographical imperialism, colonisation and ethnocentrism (Mamdani, 1996). These models, while anachronistic, continue to reflect a set of outmoded but stubbornly persistent tropes on the continent which continue to perpetuate an air of validity to the structurally and philosophically racist constructs of knowledge, ethnic identities, language-families and the ideology of the great chain-of-being which continues to carve up Africa, its people and its productions due to the historically prejudiced intellect and imagination of the West. However, as we have come to know, the fabrications of such racial and ethnic identities were primarily formed for civil and colonial administrative purposes and are inherited today and mutate across the current course of events in the present era, because they were not adequately addressed nor undone (Mamdani, 1996).
Thus, in one locus what would be considered as a spiritual object, a symbol of inter-cultural ancestry, a touchstone of communal cohesion or simply an epistemic artefact could equally become a commodity, under the name of ‘art’, ‘antique’, ‘curiosity’, ‘fetish’ or ‘idol’ in another context. This state of a transmutation of meaning is true even within the continent itself, according to the mouths of Africans themselves, as the imposed order of the day is dictated by a capitalist and extractive economic system which becomes inextricably tied into peoples’ survival and struggle for existence.
However, the unfair privileging of certain sites of production and knowledge systems over others within Africa, has been primarily been effected by an intentional colonial and later neo-colonial rationale, as well as the notion of ‘the gaze’ (Grinker and Steiner, 1993). Historically, the prejudice towards certain sites of African production is easily evidenced in the West’s most celebrated philosophers and their philosophy of history such as Hegel’s infamous Sub-Saharan partitioning of Africa, which has been rightly captured in Valentine Mudimbe’s notion of an ‘Invention of Africa’ (1988). Thus acting as a retrospective framing of this racialist and ethnocentric fantasy of philosophical distortions, Mudimbe boils this philosophical prejudice down to what he calls ‘epistemological ethnocentrism’ or the privileging of particular normative accounts of ‘knowledge’ or epistemological standards of one cultural group at the expense of others to the end of devaluing their way of being and perhaps celebrating, oneself or one’s group, perceived epistemological superiority over the other.
In the post-colonial period then, where the issue of restitution has been recently and earnestly tabled in Africa, the general results have been one of impasses, clearly evident in an almost non-existent restitution discourse of African creative knowledge outside of certain niche spaces. On one side it appears, we have those who affirm the independent existence of art, knowledge, technical production and philosophy as being equally possessed by individuals in pre-colonial, colonised and post-independent groupings in Africa, whose representatives presently demand the restitution of their professed heritage. While on the other, there are those ‘universalist’ thinkers and institutions that, through their privileged hermeneutic position, as well raising valid concerns of legality and policy, question the logistics, legitimacy and validity of restitution claims being made, while explicitly accepting the need for restitution (Delputte and Rollins, 2021). Notwithstanding, there has been little to any sustained and serious enquiry within the discourse of the ‘restitution’ of African art which recognises that the continent’s call for the return looted objects and artefacts is also a demand for the return of the ‘containers of local knowledge’ which has a bearing on future productions to come on the continent.
The unnegotiated intrusion of non-African symbolic universes upon the African imagination and understandings of high culture, expressed in the Western ideals of truth and beauty, requires us to take note of the alternative meanings arising in the African context outside of the ‘white cube’ where mainstream Western assumptions of aesthetics and knowledge retains a presumption of universality and singularity (Mhone, 2021). In the case of the continent then, the prevailing understanding of ‘art’ for example can be thought of as a site where predominantly Western or Westernised interpretations have gained the greatest interpretative currency which is superimposed on African meanings and methodologies of creative production. This account as sketched above is somewhat analogous to Hallen’s (1997) account of the controversies of African philosophy, its artefact and the interpretation of African artistic production in the general discourse, aptly titled as ‘African Meanings, Western Words’.
Indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong or invalid about this state of affairs since it entails a central theoretical presumption at the heart of any cross-cultural philosophical enquiry and methodological formulation which invariably leads to new forms of production. What is problematic however are the innumerable instances when Eurocentric or other hegemonic notions of all-encompassing terms like ‘art’ operates almost exclusively as the only referential frame for interpretation of African productions. Thus, it appears that grand efforts in intellectual gymnastic are needed to revise racialist opinions of yesteryear which has unduly served as the canonical basis in making sense of representations of ‘African art’ as if we are all European and as if we all share the same Western historical worldviews or hermeneutic culture of interpretation.
One is also troubled by a sense of historical denial, revealed in the consistent shifting of the conceptual goalposts and standards of double values – the heirlooms of indirect rule and policies of assimilation. Since, such policies of segregation, assimilation and marginalisation engendered enduring stereotypes by enforcing false social and epistemic binaries which pragmatically favoured Western cultural ideals and aesthetic ideas as being best suited for the existence, maintenance and perpetuation of ‘high culture’ in the colony, where high culture refers to art, education, science and technology as well as political and civil administration.
This notion of the uncultured ‘colonised subject’ must have become inscribed in the valuation of any African production and its producers making the political and philosophical imperative inseparable from understanding the concept of production, whether that be of knowledge or art, in colonial and postcolonial Africa. One sees proof of this is in how the colonial core in Africa consistently determined by its own cultural standards, whether implicitly or explicitly and as if it were both judge and jury, the very epistemic limits and categories of African production. If one observes in the architecture of urban colonial or imperial infrastructure one would agree with African architectural historian Ikem Okoye (2002), that ‘Anglophone Africa’ for instance, does not exist outside a handful of cities in former British colonies. And yet these cores have dictated, regardless of how developed or underdeveloped, the ideals of high culture, of which peripheralised communities were more or less a spectator to, with a few exceptions. Moreover, as with philosophy, art or even knowledge, Okoye also testifies that in the field of architectural history applying the notion of ‘Africa’ as a qualifier for ‘architecture’ presents a dilemma to scholars, even African ones, due to these same legacies riddled with essentialist reasoning and ethnocentric predispositions (Okoye 2002).
If one for instance witnesses some of the imperial-era architecture of Johannesburg such as that of the City Library in line with Bruwer’s account (2002), one cannot mistake the propagation of a grand European epistemic mythos through the elevation of its own canon and its proclaimed genealogy of patriarchs as the highest ideals of art, culture and knowledge. While certainly carved out in the era of the early to the second half of the twentieth century, the roll-call invoked by the architects of the library was meant to inspire awe and reverence for those esteemed figures of production ranging from Socrates to Spinoza, from Newton to Homer and even Einstein whose likeness and names were carved into the buildings corners. The question then arises that if these, «figures symbolising history, medicine, philosophy, architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature» (Bruwer 2002), as well as science and art, were all unfortunately non-African, set in the backdrop of brutal colonial expansionism and Apartheid, what local epistemic heritage did indigenous Southern Africans ever have to build upon except that of the conqueror?
This rhetorical question however is raised to show how even such probing fails, when taking into account, the incalculable damage wrought by epistemicide in an attempt to erase, at a prior stage, the possibility of even recognising the existence or evidence of African high culture. Of course, the truth of this claim relies on some counter-factual and revisionist reasoning. Yet it is the denial of even the possibility of this prospective reasoning in Africa due to epistemicide through the looting of artefacts that has deepened the crises of local production in Africa. On the picture of thinkers like Gayatri Spivak, based on what has been described above, such acts and designs by the West would be tantamount to ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1988); and for others like Miranda Fricker this would broadly constitute ‘epistemic injustice’ and/or ‘hermeneutic injustice’ especially when referring to individuals’ social experience being distorted or falsified by structural prejudice (Fricker, 2007).
One can then come to appreciate that epistemic ethnocentrism was the general attitude involved in committing unprovoked violence against the knowledge systems and cultural productions of those considered as the ‘other’. In fact, the primary target of these theoretical and political constructions, in the colonial period, had consequently led to the debasement of African creative production which has also provided warrant for the original violent acquisition or destruction of productions on the continent. Presently, it justifies the insistence on a limited notion of restitution in regard to looted African creative productions which also in turn shifts the debate away from empowering local producers. Furthermore, it presents generally ineffectual forms of symbolic justice by merely recognising or exposing the crimes committed against Africans historically but taking terms such as knowledge, art and history for granted which later exclude the very same Africans supposedly being accommodated or protected. This will be made apparent in the discussion below on the analysis of a few case examples of epistemicide perpertated against local creative and epistemic production on the continent.
Epistemicide of Epistemic Artefacts in South Sudan
The ‘Shrine of Ngundeng’, Ngundeng Bong’s brass pipe and other productions of the Lou Nuer prophet in South Sudan, attests to the state of almost irretrievable loss of knowledge, history and culture associated with campaigns of epistemicide perpetrated against African peoples. The pyramid, shrine or mound of Ngundeng as a production and epistemic artefact, inspires retrospective wonder in the archival photographs taken by Percy Coriat’s colonial party – before and after the eventual demolition of the structure. Claimed to be, ‘some 300 feet in circumference and 50 to 60 feet high’, it was known in Dinka as a ‘yik’ or according to others a ‘Bie’ referring to the conical pyramidal structure which served as one of a gamut of stationery shrines attended to the between the Dinka, Nuer and other cultural groupings in South Sudan. It was constructed around 1870 by the multi-lingual Nuer ‘prophet’ or indigenous polymath Ngundeng Bong, from which structure received its name in the Nuer language as, ‘Bie Ngundeng’, ‘Bie Deng’ or ‘Bie Dengkur’ where ‘Deng’ was the name of a certain sky divinity of the Nuer. Very little of the full entailment and meaning of the structure comes to us directly from indigenous groups themselves other than that which is mediated to us by anthropologists like
- Evans-Pritchard and modern historians. These sources do shed some light on the ‘cosmologies’, ‘customs’, and so forth of such South Sudanese groups. However, any concrete understanding and definition of the structure itself remains contested among scholars notwithstanding the absence of the opinion of the groups from which these structures were formed. Therefore, while perspectives ‘from Africa’ are largely absent in this reconstruction of knowledge about the structure, in stark comparison to those perspectives ‘on Africa’ which abound.
Nonetheless, it has been persuasively argued by a recent commentator that the structure functioned to sustain, «political organisation of permanent settlements within populations noted for their physical mobility» (Johnson 1990). The social and shared set of cultural meanings symbolised by the structure to those groups who understood the overarching import and purpose served as an important cultural and creative marker in a supratribal African life-world. This indeed seen elsewhere on the continent such as the supratribal ‘mhondoro’ spirits of Zimbabwe which were attended to by supposedly distinct cultural groupings (Auret 1982). In the abundance of imposed definitions on Africans and their productions, one is therefore called to continuously reconsider the historical narrative since the ‘natives’ do not generally figure in the discourse itself even if modern anthropology and aesthetic study has begun to address these problematics. In reading history, especially colonial history, local Africans are only called upon by intellectuals to take up an arbitrary, confirmatory or auxiliary position as the knowledgeable scholar fills in the proverbial blanks. Local groups appear not to be called for their wisdom because it is assumed they are bereft of any real knowledge in the first place.
Elements of Nuer cosmology, ecological epistemology and social philosophy could potentially be inferred from the structure, which has been done in varying degrees by commentators. However the collective approach to knowledge production seems glossed over when thinking about Ngudeng’s practice, his son Gwek who continued and died for his father’s work, the Nuer people and the other cultural groupings who all participated in, co-constructed, or made use of the Bie Ngundeng.
The process and thought behind its construction, its symbolism and its later role in indigenous African resistance against colonisation have also come to be considered by historians. Additionally, the shrine served as a site of the sacrifice of animals and therefore served in ceremonies facilitating social cohesion. Finally, it was a site of local medicinal practice associated with indigenous understandings and mechanisms of response to large-scale unknown diseases and epidemics but these perspectives and knowledge systems were consequently rejected – probably as pre-logical or superstitious musings of the natives to the colonial authorities – although we cannot be certain why.
Atop the pyramidal structure in some archival photographs, was a fishing-rod that signified the site as a ‘Pajok’ or a place or village of power or divinity to the Nuer who associated it with a significant ancestral activity of spear fishing. For Johnson, sites like Bie Ngundeng and others like ‘Luang Deng’ are to be considered as ‘spiritual centres’ (Johnson, 1990). Taken to its logical end, one could make comparative allusions to the ideas behind ‘holy’ localities of Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hindu and other Universalist faiths which still consider particular sites filled with both cultural and epistemic productions as sacrosanct by their religious pilgrims today. Such ideas however can be traced back to an older continuum of shared practice among ancient and persisting Nile valley cultures attesting to the early development and attainment of knowledge systems in ancient Africa. This is no less visible in the elaborate temple structures at Gebel Barkal in Sudan and Karnak in Egypt which were once themselves sites that served similar functions for pilgrims and practitioners of the ancient world millennia before the Common Era (Kendall 2002).
Apart from this, Ngundeng the prophet owned and used various artefacts in his particular practice. This included a ‘bul’ or a drum as well as an apparently ‘elaborate’ ‘tony’ or brass pipe made by an Anuak craftsman of the neighbouring Luo group as well as a ‘dang’ or rod which served as a peculiar epistemic artefact that came to symbolise anti-colonial resistance since it was conceived of as a weapon upon which prophecy against colonial forces in the Sudan would come to pass (McGregor, 2001). Thus Ngundeng, as an early African anticolonial resistance leader as well as an indigenous expert, along with his close and extended community wove a set of meanings into artefacts that came to carry the episteme of his culture as well as providing a supracultural response to the hostile and systematic incursions of colonial Arab and Western forces into South Sudan. Above all, it allowed for the local practitioners and groups as well other neighbouring indigenous collectives to mediate and share local understandings and knowledge that aided in the perceived survival of the greater collective.
Thus, to assume no significance in local African production in terms of what we call expert, scientific, or philosophical knowledge allows the way for the violence of epistemicide to occur. One must make this epistemological blind-spot apparent, so that one would be able to agree that the eventual destruction of this structure or any site of spiritual and cultural significance, be it earthen or marble, is a form of epistemic and/or cultural destruction.
The eventual demolition of Bie Ngundeng therefore had a particular aim and sought particular ends on the group targeted, even if it was contested among the actors involved and following from Lemkin’s explicated notion of vandalism we could conceive of this act as genocidal in intent. For the British colonial administration, of the time, according to the historian Johnson, certain elements within the administration would go on to falsify and fabricate an already biased ethnographic and historical record to create a perceived threat among the Nuer and other groups that needed to be annihilated. This would justify both acquisition and destruction of artefacts thereafter. In this case, artists, guilds, groups of medicinal experts and priests which have existed throughout Africa in various forms and competencies were pathologised in South Sudan and cast by the experts of the colonial administration as ‘cult members’ (Johnson, 1985).
Thus, South Sudanese indigenous experts and their status as polymaths or ‘prophets’ was subsequently debased, clearly apparent in their descriptor found in the colonial administration’s adoption of the derogative Arabic term of ‘Kajure’ or a practitioner of witchcraft for these persons. Colonial actors in this episode, like C.A. Willis, would in many of his reports, manipulate and alter the meanings of indigenous culture, thought and creative production eventually leading to inevitable series of pre-emptive punitive measures being taken against local peoples, in this case, the Nuer, Azande and other groups (Johnson, 1985). Such events would also provide the pretext for the destruction and looting of artefacts associated with shrines like Bie Ngundeng in 1928. The fate of other important artefacts surrounding the shrine such as the brass pipe of Ngundeng and the fishing spear which sat atop the shrine of Ngundeng were also likely victims of destruction, displacement or erasure. A. Alban for instance, casually mentions the loss of the latter pipe in a fire out of carelessness in a report on the ‘pyramid of Ngundeng’, but quickly asserts that it was of little aesthetic value and was better off destroyed after he used it to so as to gain enjoyment out of, «watching the faces of the Nuers whom I used to offer a smoke out of it» (Alban, 1940). The charred remnants of this pipe and rod are supposedly housed in the archives of Khartoum museum as of 2009 but what exactly has been returned is unclear without access to the archives and this case appears to have the hallmarks of a cultural crime scene evident in an online Sudanese news report on the matter (Dak, 2009). One should conclude on this basis that the destruction of the meaning and knowledge in the displacement and destruction of these South Sudanese epistemic artefacts is clearly incalculable. This shows how epistemicide goes hand-in-hand with humiliation that leads ultimately to the ‘silencing’ of a non-Western episteme (Santos, 2014).
In this particular episode of history, epistemicide was also apparent in the events that unfolded around the experts of the Bie. Willis for instance in his reports on the ‘Cult of Deng’ asserts that he had to ‘interfere’ with the affairs of the Nuer and that in destroying the cult he would be able to instil docility among the natives. The photographs taken of the Nuer shrines, one of which includes the hanging body of Gwek beside the ruined mound, further suggests that the significance of the structures and possession of the archive allowed the colonial administration to effectively become the guardians and arbiters of memory around the artefacts and the subsequent destruction which took place. Any concept of indigenous African art, architecture, technical production, and philosophical knowledge could then be denied indirectly as a consequence. Various layers of indigenous epistemology were also irretrievably destroyed in the violent destruction and acquisition of these artefacts in Sudan. Invariably, the anti-colonial resistance by the Nuer immediately ceased after the destruction of this and other important sites as well as the sustained arrests of Nuer and other local experts by the colonial administration.
The argument being made then is that in very severe cases, as sketched above, the possibility of restitution becomes nearly impossible when we find the clearest evidence of the occurrences of epistemicide. The stakes of the damage done to Nuer history, culture and the potential continuity of indigenous expertise which was interrupted and stymied in the larger discourse on the philosophical history of Africa should also not be understated. For if it is indeed the case that expert knowledge being possessed by Africans in the face of material evidence is rejected, it consequently entrenches a Hegelian myth of Sub-Saharan inferiority which is merely a consequence of the false binary borne out of racialist thinking, illustrative of limited knowledge and poverty of spirit in some thinkers’ uninformed imaginations. Once we assent to the latter position we take on a stance that defends epistemicide and its perpetrators by promoting the illusion of a current absence of evidence being evidence for the absence of systems of knowledge in Africa.
Suffice to say, early criticism against the crude, bureaucratic and insidious methods of Willis by a superior, according to Johnson, indeed showed that the actions of the administration were not universally agreed upon but nevertheless built upon epistemicidal intent. Indeed this intent functioned almost seamlessly beside the colonial project as a rogue unit of sorts acting under the auspices of colonial authority, effectively disrupting African symbolic universes through cognitive and social engineering.
Such issues of the social and cognitive legacy of displacement acquisition are clearly glossed over in the present discourse on restitution. Perhaps this is because local African productions are not generally associated with ‘high culture’ prior to the advent of modernisation or because it is another inheritance of a double-value systems in the recognition of African works.
Thus, the following admission by the colonial administration poses to us a sinister possibility of some of the founding reasons for the continent-wide campaigns of violent acquisition or destruction of African artefacts, linked to the imposition of colonial and racialist hegemony. In this report to Willis, his senior makes the general report that: «The governer has to deal with primitive conditions of mentality. He must seek to use the forces which control and influence the tribal mind. If he proclaims himself as the Hammer of the Kujurs he will stir up serious trouble. He must read […] “Edwin Smith’s Golden Stool” if he has not already done so» (Johnson, 1985).
The ideas expressed here have interesting resonances with modern examples of African discourse on restitution recently illustrated by the emphatic Kwame Opoku on looted Ghanaian artefacts and the English colonial desire to acquire the ‘Golden Stool’ in West Africa (Opoku, 2011). What is suggested above to Willis, is the methodology and historical record one could follow in effecting ‘control and influence’ on the ‘tribal mind’. What sets Willis apart from Sir Garnet Wolselely, the central antagonist of Opoku and Smith’s works, is that Willis not only displaced artefacts of a people through violent acquisition, he effectively stole, erased, manipulated and destroyed the knowledge, history and culture of a people to point that retrieval for the indigenous themselves is nearly impossible. Finally, the extract above gives us a good indication of how theories of knowledge were historically tied to power and how negative theories of cognition were used to debase and disqualify the knowledge claims of African experts. Such attitudes also seem to seamlessly coincide with acquired and destroyed African artefacts where any meaningful talk of restitution becomes nearly impossible as a result of epistemicide.
The Historicide and Ethnocide of Epistemic Artefacts in Central Africa
Santos, in his famous 2014 work, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, suggests that we should not merely reduce the
destruction of knowledge of groups to that of an ‘epistemic artefact’ situated exclusively in historical discourse without any relation to the present or future. For Santos, the destruction of knowledge, «involves the destruction of the social practices and the disqualification of the social agents that operate according to such knowledges» (Santos, 2014). We are therefore implored to expand our conceptions of the forms of knowledge destroyed in the acquisition of African artefacts, the lack of restitution and the absence of consistent and altruistic support given to local knowledge systems and its producers. It is here we should return to the idea of epistemic artefacts and their sites of function. One should note that the artefact is always located in a continuum of subjective and perceived time, which is usually in some present-past matrix that can be pinned down to a place of significance in a given people’s shared historical consciousness. In African hermeneutics, African philosophy or any philosophy is considered to be entangled with history, which Tsenay Serequeberhan explains, «is a situated and systematic interpretative exploration of our lived historico-cultural actuality» (Serequeberhan 1994). Consciousness or self-awareness of this philosophy can then be said to be manifested in accumulated knowledge and manufacturing of artefacts which function in the present as conduits, linking distinct temporalities and forms of knowing sustained in various localities that may or may not make up broader networks of knowledge contained in shared systems. When such artefacts are activated through their proper usage or understood in context one can then come to a unified African ‘hermeneutic circle’ of deep aesthetic comprehension, involving historical and philosophical understanding.
From this framework, the effects of the destruction of historical knowledge has been as equally pernicious as with epistemicide. As a ramification of punitive, exploratory or scientific expeditions that often concluded in the ‘theft of history’ (Goody 2012), the destruction of historical knowledge in the acquisition of African artefacts implies further dimensions of erasure. This is explicated in cases where the historical consciousness of a particular group or individuals of group is concerned which can also be termed historicide (Haas, 2017). It can be called the ‘killing of history’ because an individual’s or collective’s teleological potentiality and ability to build on the examples of the past are dislocated or erased. Thus, without concrete templates and exemplars from history to innovate from, there is a much more diminished possibility of novelty and consistent application of methods. The destruction of history indeed affects the veracity of epistemic or legal claims made by marginalised collectives around indigenous land or objects, as they are all rooted in the past, but are exclusively significant for the continuity of local practices. However, the ‘truth’ of these claims cannot always be independently and accurately verified by historical outsiders, but nonetheless are true to those collectives whose identities are built into the artefacts they or their ancestors have produced.
By historicide then, one means the premeditated attempt to erase in part or in total, the memories and markers which are found in a given collective’s historical consciousness or part of their inherited or sustained material productions or sites of production. Thus, when these productions have winded up as looted art, it has generally displaced the historical knowledge of a certain group. Therefore, historicide would be in this case, the result of the dislocation of African artefacts whereby hegemonic powers as in institutional formations, control the history, sites and accessibility of the past of particular groups. This brief account of historicide concurrent with the restitution debate is sketched to show how the issue of the destruction of historical knowledge is both an issue of the colonial and neo-colonial era and can be perpetrated by both foreign and local actors in Africa. The hope is that this concept can be read in the case illustrated above and discussed below.
We should now come to the final notion of this essay in ethnocide, a synonym for genocide according to Lemkin, in a footnote in his seminal 1944 text on the latter concept. Ethnocide thus denotes a particular culture as the primary target of intentional destruction towards the ends of erasing a particular group’s cultural identity and existence (Lemkin 1944). Falling more directly into Lemkin’s earlier notion of ‘vandalism’, we can draw on the more recent understanding of Brittany Neihardt’s work on ethnocide as purposeful acts of vandalism or the destruction and looting of cultural heritage (Neihardt, 2017). Thus African art as epistemic artefacts should be interchangeably understood as objects of cultural heritage since they represent physical instantiations that infer concepts around ways of being and aesthetic presumptions as well as the collective standards of cultural groups who engage with them in interpreting and finding knowledge about the world around them.
To remain ‘neutral’ for the sake of argument, I contrast two views of ‘culture’ from a Western commentator and African historians. For Davidson a theorist working on ‘cultural genocide’, drawing on the sociological thought of Benedict Anderson and the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn, ‘culture’ refers to Davidson as, «a bounded paradigm that flows from the custom and traditions of local and regional venues […] [It] defines not only acceptable behaviours but to a large extent the very parameters of thought» (Davidson, 2012).
From this generalised account we can calibrate a rooted and fundamentalist account of culture from the African context, as it were, by quoting extensively from a fascinating account of African culture and its technical and scientific practice. This account extends seamlessly into the larger discussion of this essay which pertains to the issue of understanding of ‘art’ in Africa, artistic or creative production on the continent in the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial contexts and its intimate relation with knowledge as seen below:
«Two features of traditional science should be noted. First, the role of individual thinkers and inventors was subordinated to that of society in nurturing knowledge and expertise within the culture. The loss of autonomy and sovereignty during the colonial period was therefore bound to have a profound effect on the further development and nurturing of such knowledge. Secondly, traditional societies made no distinction between knowledge acquired by reason, experimentation, imagination or faith. There was no dichotomy between science and religion, science and philosophy, or science and art» (Wonji, Mzuri and Ajayi et al., 1993)
While we should be cautious of the totalising claims made above, in light of recent discoveries in modern archaeology, linguistics and anthropology we can however begin sketching an account of technical African cultural production. If we bring these two views of ‘culture’ together, we have an expanded notion of the productive potentialities in culture in spite of the criticisms raised by African thinkers against ‘culture philosophy’ (Oruka 2004). In the context of artistic and technical practice, we could hold that African cultural paradigms of creative production contained both individual thinkers and experts as well collectives made up of those individuals. Those formations would then be responsible, theoretically at least, for overseeing multi-faceted aspects of cultural and creative production which could be simultaneously scientific, philosophical, aesthetic, social, religious and/or secular. From this basic understanding of what is meant by ‘culture’ relative to creative production in Africa, it is evident in the manufacturing and local understanding of many African artefacts that their dislocation has contributed to the dislocation of African cultures and the specialised knowledge associated with them, notwithstanding entire histories.
From this point, we can shift our focus to a specific case of ethnocide with the Minkisi, or in singular form Nkisi, which are statues that are considered a ‘ubiquitous’ ‘genre’ of African artistic production by the West, but which, in reality, had immense cultural and epistemic significance to the Bakongo people, among others. As an object of great philosophical import it was also functionally applied in its traditional context in facilitating communalism, settling disputes, holding philosophical interventions in communal affairs, providing representations for extended concepts of person in ancestral veneration besides instituting practices of indigenous jurisprudence. The Minkisi also acted as an aid to healthcare for indigenous medicinal practitioners probably in the same way a medicinal placebo is thought to act, today. If one finds all of this strange, one should compare such instances with modern symbolic practices of secular leaders swearing oaths upon religious texts and the necessity of religious figures providing official ordinance to state weddings or funerals.
Through a brief assessment of the discourse on acquisition as well as gallery exhibition descriptions of the minkisi, we find admissions and awareness of the cultural destruction incurred by those who are in possession of these works. This begs two larger questions out of the gravity of the issue of epistemicide which has plagued cultural production on the continent. One, what exactly is being done about the actual living cultures and their experts who are the historical victims of such acquisitions? And two, what is being provided, outside of paternalistic institutional support and recognition which aims to remedy some of the realities of local producers who have been historically denied the ability to revive, freely practice, produce and profit from the production of these artefacts?
The online collection of the Africa Museum in Belgium for instance has an extensive page on the origins of one of many minkisi figures which are held in their archival collections, including a historical recounting of the violent nature of the acquisition of such artefacts. Indeed, the admission on the part of the museum’s account of the provenance of the artefact speaks volumes to the recent awareness of ethnocide on the part of the gallery exhibitions which are chillingly congruent with Lemkin’s account of ‘Vandalism’: «Property of Chief Ne Kuko, this power figure was looted by Alexandre Delcommune following a punitive expedition, end 1878» (Lacaille, 2021).
On its own, this account of provenance reveals a web of actors – victims and perpetrators – of epistemicide through the forceful and unjust exchange and acquisition of cultural property. While the destruction of cultural knowledge is implied in the forced exchange of property rights, it is indeed somewhat observable in the narrative of the collection itself. Indeed, the museum’s account of Belgian Congo colonial officer, explorer, and art looter under the guise of ‘trader’, Alexandre Delcommune, figures in our almost never-ending story of those like Willis and others as agents of epistemicide, who were individually culpable for perpetuating it in different forms on the Africa continent. However, it is the writing of Delcommune in his diary, which the museum highlights, that articulates a clear admission of intentionality involved in the cultural destruction through the targeted looting of artefacts, generally implied but not always stated as clearly as we see in the following extract: «I was certain that seizing this famous god would have a considerable effect on the further course of events occurring at that time» (Delcommune, 1922 cited in Lacaille, 2021).
Thus any discourse around ‘restitution’ which is absent of any consideration of the ‘theft of history’ represents a problematic raised in Fanon’s thought around colonial violence. Indeed, this has come to evolve into what contemporary Sudanese thinker Hussein Bulhan’s recently termed ‘metacolonialism’. This idea suggests that as we move beyond the neo-colonial turn and the globalisation era at the beginning of the 21st century towards a post-war-on-terror, post-pandemic digital era, the ramifications of colonisation and its legacies will have had a greater effect on the Africa and its people’s psychology as a result of historical accumulation (Bulhan, 2015). Local continuity of creative production is therefore stymied by the globalising forces of institutional power retained by museums and other sites of acquisition as opposed to that of oft marginalised and peripheral local collectives. Therefore, questions around the communities and organs who seek to repatriate remains and other artefacts back to the community localities are further complicated by legal and institutional procedure which paradoxically hasten the deepening loss of historical consciousness and memory. As relatives and communities either begin to forget or pass away, what is left is the inevitable vacuum in the historical consciousness for future descendants that affirms the ahistoricity of Africa which Hegel asserted in his account of Africa. The likelihood of the awareness of the original victims of historical theft in minkisi artefacts as well as bodies-turned-artefacts are therefore a significant dimension of knowledge embodied in artefacts that is well known in other discourses but not explicitly connected to any general restitution debate around African productions.
From the Princeton Art Museum, their description of the minkisi figure in their collection provides an admission into the ways in which such objects were acquired and also destroyed in an attempt to destroy knowledge, history and culture. Fuelled by the colonial anthropological data of the day on the customs of the Bakongo and the many other African cultural collectives which employed the minkisi, it appeared that the attempt to destroy or acquire these figures was driven largely by the fear and wonder of African autonomy and its creative genius at the time. Coupled with Western financial interest, epistemic ethnocentrism and an intentional plan on the part of Western actors to eliminate African cultural resistance and remake Africans in their own image as pacified imitators, some colonial authorities sought out minkisi figures and burned them. From the following gallery description we are thus given a snapshot of history when it is stated that: «In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, minkisi were collected in large numbers by coastal traders acting as agents of new ethnographic museums. Other minkisi were abandoned by Kongolese converts to Christianity or destroyed in iconoclastic bonfires meant to eradicate their perceived pagan influence. These removals separated minkisi from their ritual experts and often eliminated their medicines, rendering them powerless» (Ross, 2022).
In the end, while the culture of the Bakongo is apparently of great concerns to the galleries, collectors and museums who retain minkisi figures in their archives, this concern is equally shared by that of colonial-era art dealers and auction houses. Those in the intellectual world are also forced to take such positions as a matter of the contemporary politics of political correctness and postmodernist beliefs in the art-world also relate to economic concerns and interests of success. Herein lies a bugbear in the discourse on restitution which needs to be seriously considered. If African cultural artefacts are in the hands of persons and experts of other cultural paradigms which may not be inclined to the hold the same beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and value in regards to the objects they retain, what are we to make of their interpretations? Especially when all cultures are extremely diverse, and philosophical questions that concern various cultures differ greatly, which has been shown to be true even in objects of philosophical thought as in the works of Lucius Outlaw (2005) and Kwasi Wiredu (1996), for instance.
The general claim posited in this essay is that any restitution debate which does not consider the disastrous consequences on local knowledge systems through the unfair acquisition and dislocation of African artefacts is firmly entrenched in colonial assumptions and is thoroughly unreasonable. These persisting colonial, neo-colonial and metacolonial assumptions, it is argued, exemplify the longstanding asymmetrical relationship between the constructions of the Global North and South, the core and periphery, theory and practice, and the uncharitable disassociation of ‘philosophy’ and epistemology from African history, artefacts and culture. In this essay I have attempted to show this to be evident from case examples which illustrate epistemicide, on the continent, and the way in which historicide and ethnocide function as further vectors of destruction of particular forms of knowledge in the dislocation of what is considered as African artistic production. The network of concepts sketched in the essay above can also serve as a conceptual schemata for understanding the restitution discourse from the perspective of contemporary African epistemological perspective that engages with indigenous knowledge systems.
In conclusion, one should be able to appreciate that displacement of ‘artworks’ or epistemic artefacts have led to the delegitimisation of African accounts of knowledge. Furthermore, the general sustained lack of restitution, talk of reparations or significant acknowledgement by the scientific infrastructure of the West on the myriad social and epistemic consequences looted art has had on victimised communities further deepens the crises of epistemicide on the continent. Sustained misanthropic and denialist postures towards the complexity of localised African knowledge systems also perpetuates the negation of what post-modernists may call, ‘the conditions of possibility’ or in other terms, the potential for the survival and growth of local African knowledge systems and creative production for the rest of the 21st century and beyond. Additionally this need not be at the expense of modern continental and diasporic African production and producers, but can run in parallel, in unison, concurrently or synergistically to allow for agentive reconstruction of African cultural heritage and creative production. We as Africans, and the rest of the world at large are therefore called to reconsider the terms active in the restitution debate and the limits of the notion of restitution in the African and other colonial contexts from the Global South. The invitation is to hold enquiry, with more seriousness and sense of urgency, into the matter of whether restitution and restitution only, will lead to justice and equitability against a history of erasure, especially for localised African aesthetic and epistemic systems of production which are longstanding casualties of an ongoing process of historical, cultural and epistemic injustices.
Acknowledgements: I acknowledge the Centre for Humanities Research of the University of the Western Cape for the fellowship award that facilitated the writing of the present article. The opinions expressed and conclusions reached are my own and not necessarily attributable to the CHR. This article has been produced as part of my affiliation to the CHR at UWC.
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Harry Wilson Kapatika is a writer, researcher and self-styled poet who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of the Western Cape. His research interests are primarily centred on African philosophy, especially in the domain of African epistemology and the history of ideas. His other academic interests include the African Humanities and the application of its multi-disciplinary approach to pedagogy and theorisation in the African context. His interests also include African hermeneutics, wisdom literature as well as ancient, pre-colonial and general African history. His current Master’s thesis research applied a critical conceptual analysis of Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s conceptual neologism, ‘Epistemicide’ in the context of African epistemological theory. Harry is also a self-published author of an anthological and rhetorical text of prose and poetry entitled, ‘Ruminations before the Five Seasons’ (2019).