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Help restore stolen African works


BYLINE: By Kim Thurler, Tufts Now

Newswise — Two years ago, music teacher Kwasi Ampene received an unexpected email from the curator of African art at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Would Ampene, a renowned expert on the music and culture of the West African Asante kingdom, help the museum return antiquities stolen by the British during the Anglo-Asante wars of the 19th century to the kingdom?

The seven looted items included gold ankle, arm and neck decorations, a gold-decorated elephant tail whip, and a wood and leather chair with metal decorations. Years of research and his own Ghanaian heritage have given Ampene a deep understanding of the importance of such objects in what he calls the “history, heart and soul” of the Asante.

Nevertheless, he approached cautiously. “Given the historical dimension and emotions surrounding the violence and pillage associated with European colonization in Africa, I was initially cautious and measured in my response,” says Ampene. “I thought, ‘It could be something or it could be nothing.'”

His review of documents and his in-person review of articles at the Fowler Museum convinced Ampene that it was indeed something. The objects were exquisitely made, probably by royal artisans, and their history was well documented. British soldiers stole some items in 1874 during the looting of Kumase Palace, the former capital of the kingdom. Others were part of the 50,000 ounces of gold demanded by the British government in the treaty ending the wars. The Fowler Museum and UCLA are fully committed to returning all precious artifacts to the kingdom, with no strings attached.

Ampene agreed to help him. To begin the complex repatriation process, in June 2023, he met with the ruler of the kingdom, or Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, at Manhyia Palace in Kumase, and shortly afterwards he organized a meeting at the palace for representatives of the Fowler Museum.

Years before, Ampene had formed a relationship with the king and his team while researching the work of Nana Afua Abasa, a Nnwonkoro singer and songwriter, who frequently performed at the palace before her death in 2000. Ampene returns every summer to study. the thousands of antiquities in the palace and inform the king and his team of his discoveries.

Otumfuo Osei Tutu II confirmed Ampene’s findings regarding the authenticity and history of the artifacts. He also said their timely return would be ideal as it would coincide with an event already planned for February 2024, to commemorate the battle in which the palace was demolished.

It was only seven months away.

The opportunity for a “museum in motion”

The deadline was tight to complete the complexities of the disposition and repatriation of the artifacts, a process that would ultimately involve U.S. and Ghanaian government agencies as well as the kingdom, the museum, UCLA and the university’s board of trustees .

Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges was getting permission to export the elephant tail whip, due to tight restrictions on trade in elephant items. “It took forever,” says Ampene. Permission was obtained just days before the items, packed in special protective cases, were to be flown from Los Angeles to Ghana’s capital Accra. It was “very, very, very, very” distressing, Ampene recalls.

Packed in special protective crates, the items arrived safely in Accra on February 1. They were kept in a secret location for several days before traveling the 250 kilometers to Kumase under the protection of armed security forces.

On Monday, February 5, in a private meeting at the palace, the files were opened and the objects were presented to the king and his cabinet. The atmosphere was one of joy and mutual respect, remembers Ampene.

At the end of the meeting, Ampene felt a huge wave of relief. “I hadn’t slept all weekend,” he said. “The first thing I did afterward was drink a glass of wine.”

The day of remembrance that followed on Thursday February 8 was marked by music, dancing and singing, with every detail, from clothing to umbrellas to gold-rimmed swords, helping to tell the proud history of the kingdom Asante. Among the 5,000 guests gathered in the palace grounds were heads of other kingdoms, the current vice president of Ghana and two former presidents, as well as diplomats.

The objects recently returned by the Fowler Museum will be displayed at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumase. However, Ampene believes that museums should not be a prerequisite for the repatriation of stolen antiquities.

“These objects are part of our culture and our identity. They have practical uses for us, they have spiritual uses, they strengthen our traditional political systems, our philosophy, our literature. We know what to do with it,” he says. “They don’t need to be in a museum. When we present them at a festival, it’s our museum in motion.

The tradition of interconnectedness that characterizes the arts in Africa permeates Ampene’s scholarship and his journey as an ethnomusicologist. “Music is part of a constellation of arts. Theater, poetry, visual arts all come together into one organic whole,” he says.

That perspective resonates among his students, says Ampene, who heads the music department in Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences and currently teaches a course on the musical arts of Africa.

The return of the artifacts took place amid an intense and growing global debate over the return of treasures stolen by colonizing powers. A few weeks earlier, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the British Museum had announced that they would “lend” to the Asante kingdom certain objects stolen during colonization. This approach is repugnant to Ampene. “We should not reward theft,” he said. “UCLA, on the other hand, showed the world what could and should be done. We now have a template to do this correctly.



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