For a while now, one of the most contentious topics in cultural circles around the world has been that of where African "artefacts" belong. There are at least two camps: those who believe the artefacts ought to be returned to Africa and those who, citing reasons such as a lack of local art infrastructure in African countries, disagree. Excluded from the debate, however, are the artefacts themselves, what "spirits" such masks, figurines, sculptures may contain, what significance beyond the immediately visible the artefacts may possess. To observers, such a discussion of centuries-old artefacts must be a debate about the past. In Àìmàsìkò’s account of the debate, however, the artefacts in question know it is a debate about the future. But how does an artefact imagine the future? More importantly, what can artefacts teach us about the future?
Centring the imagined perspective of a lost Ife bronze head in the ongoing debate on African artefacts, Àìmàsìkò contemplates the future of Yoruba and wider African heritage. The future does not always imply a rupture or complete break from the past - it can also be restorative, organic, a process of building and reconnecting. Àìmàsìkò explores this idea of the future by inviting readers into a history of Africa’s engagement with the world, told from the viewpoint of the Ife bronze heads often associated with Leo Frobenius. In this account, however, it is Frobenius and the West who are encountered and interrogated. It is the artefact, not the reader, who is curious, unsure of its place, contemplating its future.
Àìmàsìkò asks that we consider the future as not neutral but deeply political. There are reasons (colonization being among them) why our knowledge of Yoruba wanes, grows increasingly uncertain, as we immerse ourselves in Western futures. Yoruba people like much of human civilization have increasingly become preoccupied with "knowing" a certain kind of future. And Western cultures have increasingly become synonymous with certainty. The technology we use, our cultural norms and institutions, our states and even our concepts of time have all converged towards the West, in order to make our future appear more predictable. Our artefacts remind us that colonization was, fundamentally, about imposing a similar predictability, about taming the unruly; a project of containment, of drawing a line to suggest on one side that Western knowledge of Africa was certain and, on the other, that African knowledge of anything was not. In Àìmàsìkò, our artefacts ask us, then, to consider what we lose as Yoruba people in our quest for certainty; in our growing disdain for what we deem uncertain; in our mounting fear of what we believe is unknown.
The question Àìmàsìkò poses, then, is whose futures are we imagining in the debate on African artefacts? The debate seems so sure of its sides but in Àìmàsìkò it appears that not all sides have been covered - what about the artefacts? What would they want? And here we must ask questions about the place of the museum not only in the debate but also in Yoruba and African futures. Can the museum truly evolve beyond its service to colonial containment? Can the museum restore? More importantly, what exists beyond the museum? Our artefacts are living critiques of what we consider to be worth knowing and Àìmàsìkò invites us to consider the future as the process by which we step out of what is known to embrace, reconnect with and rediscover ourselves in the uncertain.
Written by Wale Lawal