Lost ‘ found

A slew of new cultural initiatives are redefining how we look at the past. By Kim Gurney

A funeral song which had been passed down between generations was the key to reuniting an American family with relatives in Sierra Leone, thanks to researchers who took up the challenge of tracing the haunting melody back to its roots. That was just one of many powerful anecdotes about intangible heritage that emerged during a four-day indaba held in October at Cape Town’s International Convention Centre. The core purpose of the Africom conference, in partnership with the South African Museums Association, was to discuss issues around a recently adopted UNESCO Convention on intangible heritage that awaits ratification from African members. Delegates from across the continent discussed issues from everyday museum management to loftier notions around the impact of globalisation.

Regarding the latter, the conference marked the first roll-out of an implementation plan for a new community-based UNESCO web project Digi-arts Africa. Johannesburg-based collective The Trinity Session set up a stand outside the main discussion hall to explain to delegates how they might join the network, which aims to promote research and activities relating to digital cultural practices.

Luli Callinicos, chair of the Natural Heritage Council of South Africa, said in her opening address that the fragmented nature of our culture meant the sector had laboured under the impression that museums were not really African but alien spaces. “Now, we realise how simplistic that notion was,” she said. Callinicos also spoke about how ideas around heritage had changed for the better since 1994: “Museums are deconstructing their own histories … re-representing existing artefacts and representation of the past. They are finding that their most precious artefacts are people.”

The conference was firmly grounded in real-world experience. Delegates spoke about innovative projects from cultural banks in Mali, whereby villagers are encouraged to donate artefacts in exchange for micro-credit instead of selling them to passers-by; to local efforts by the Ifa Lethu Foundation to repatriate artworks bought during apartheid by foreigners. Brown Maaba, project manager at Ifa Lethu, said in his presentation: “Legally, these artworks are theirs but they were also purchased for next to nothing under certain conditions. We need them to educate our nation.” He also told delegates about a mobile gallery, launched in early October, which will take the repatriated art to township schools on a national tour. “We want to demystify art as a class thing,” Maaba said.

Ifa Lethu recently published an advertisement in the New York Times requesting donations. It has also recorded hundreds of audio interviews with artists about the circumstances of the production of works collected. A debate about where this intangible heritage should be housed is now underway. Maaba said the foundation was interested in developing capacity at black art institutions to act as a repository. “Some galleries want to lay claims; other institutions are interested but don’t have the skill to do so.”

Meanwhile, heritage of the tangible kind was the focus of a national awareness campaign launched in October to try and locate the country’s most wanted stolen artworks. Museums, galleries and police stations exhibited posters depicting six works by artists including Gerard Sekoto, JH Pierneef, Henriette Ngako and Moses Seleko.

Inspector Charmaine Swart of the Endangered Species Desk at SAPS said the Wanted poster was part of a campaign to raise awareness about stolen heritage. “We are setting out to sensitise people in South Africa, with heritage being looted and exported because of a lack of knowledge,” Swart explained.

The SAPS, the Department of Arts and Culture and South African Heritage Association are meeting quarterly to share information. Swart added: “We are also busy putting together a process manual for the training of police officers to recognise art at border-posts and what to do about it.”

Swart said it was difficult to say whether or not this kind of theft had recently increased — partly because it often went undetected for years and also because it was often recorded as house-breaking. But heritage works were often extremely valuable, she said, and most stolen works went straight to Europe. “We will have to wait and see what happens but we believe we will get a good response.”