Whose art is it? US museums reexamine their African collections.

Whose art is it? US museums reexamine their African collections.

This Bembe reliquary will go on display at the university of Michigan Museum of Art in late August. Researchers are trying to assess its provenance.

The man is seated, his legs and hands outstretched, wearing a colorful ensemble of blue and red stripes. His back is straight – he’s alert and ready to protect his descendants from misfortune and illness. 

This knee-high reliquary made of wood pegs, split cane, vegetable fiber, and cloth was once used to house specific ancestral spirits, researchers think. Such figurines are produced by ethnic Bembe in central Africa and were traditionally used to hold human remains that, according to Bembe beliefs, will pass through stages of an endless cycle of being. 

This figurine took its own zigzag journey out of Africa to end up in a small Midwest museum. Just don’t expect to find all that information on its accompanying sign. 

“Straight up donation. And that’s pretty much all we know about it,” says Laura De Becker, an associate curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor. 

Not knowing the figurine’s provenance raises legal and ethical questions at a time when museums across Europe are grappling with a colonial legacy of looted artwork and artifacts. In recent years, amid increasing calls for restitution, some European governments have repatriated items to Africa. Germany recently agreed to return hundreds of artifacts to Nigeria that had been earmarked for a new museum in Berlin. 
















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