Paris Court Oks Sale of North American Artifacts

[Jakarta, LttW] There’s always an interesting story behind an artifact—a sacred one—and to whom it belongs. A few weeks ago, an auction house in Paris was selling myriad of Arizona’s Hopi Indians’ sacred ritual masks to public following a Paris court ruling. Many were disappointed by the court’s decision, including the U.S. government and the Hopis who want the masks returned to its home.

Our minds will probably go with the Hopis; the right people who are entitled to keep those sacred artifacts are the people who originally own it. However, the primary question to this matter remains the same: how can we justify an ownership of such precious cultural manifestations?

With so many auctions of artifacts happening in all over the world as we speak, the above question needs to be settled immediately. First of all, we need to realize that any artifact (and other forms of cultural manifestations) “belongs” uniquely to who creates and where it is created; but most importantly, all of those creations also belong to the rest of us as the world heritage, history, as well as source of knowledge. So, as long as it protected from damages and kept accessible to the world, then any individual, community or even institution other than the original owner can also “own” it.

Without doubt, there are societies who will do anything necessary to protect their own cultural manifestations; but unfortunately, there are some who don’t. In Indonesia for example, a number of sacred artifacts has been traded solely for income which often made possible by the real owners themselves. So, how can we justify this?

[Ed.]

Paris court OKs sale of North American artifacts

by Thomas Adamson

(PARIS, AP) A contested auction of dozens of Native American tribal masks went ahead Friday afternoon following a Paris court ruling, in spite of appeals for a delay by the Hopi tribe, its supporters including actor Robert Redford, and the U.S. government.

About 2-1/2 hours after the court announced its decision, auctioneers began selling dozens of brilliantly colored masks made of wood, leather, horse hair and feathers across town at Druout auction house.

The auctioneer argued that blocking the sale would have tremendous implications and potentially force French museums to empty their collections. Arizona’s Hopi Indians want the masks returned, insisting they have a special status and are more than art — representing their dead ancestors’ spirits. Hopis feed and nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.

In its ruling, the court noted the Hopis ascribe “sacred value” to the masks but “clearly they cannot be assimilated to human bodies or elements of bodies of humans who exist or existed” — the sale of which would be banned in France.

The court also alluded to the 1978 U.S. legislation, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and wrote “no provisions banning the sale outside the United States of objects used in religious ceremonies or susceptible to be is applicable in France.”

Advocates for the Hopis expressed dismay.

“This decision is very disappointing since the masks will be sold and dispersed,” said the tribe’s French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, outside the courtroom. “The Hopi tribe will be extremely saddened by the decision, especially since the judgment recognizes that these masks have a sacred value. The judge considers that the imminent damage (to the masks) is not sufficiently strong.”

Jean-Patrick Razon, France director for Survival International, an advocacy group that supports tribal peoples, shared the disappointment.

“The Hopi people have been pillaged throughout their history. We despoiled their land, we killed them, we violated their souls and it continues. Now, their ritual objects are being put up for auction,” Razon said.

The Hopis’ lawyers filed a request with the Council of Sales, the French auction market authority, to suspend the sale, Servan-Schreiber said, but a spokeswoman for the Council of Sales told The Associated Press that it had no legal grounds to intervene.

U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin tweeted Friday in French: “I am saddened to learn that Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris.” On Thursday, he sent a letter to the French government and the auction house asking for a delay to allow better consideration of the tribe’s concerns. Hollywood star Redford wrote a letter calling the proposed sale “sacrilege” — even a “criminal gesture.”

Gilles Neret-Minet, of the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house behind the sale, said he would stop short of any triumphalism over the ruling, “but I’m happy that French law was respected.”

“I am also very concerned about the Hopis’ sadness, but you cannot break property law,” he said. “These are in (private) collections in Europe: they are no longer sacred. When objects are in private collections, even in the United States, they are desacralized.”

Neret-Minet said the auction house has received “serious threats” ahead of the auction, and declined to comment further other than to say: “But remember this is an auction open to everyone. If anyone wants to come and buy them, they can.”

The 70 objects, mainly Hopi, went on display at Druout for the first time as the court battle kicked off Thursday, offering a rare public glimpse of such works in Europe. They date to the late 19th century and early 20th century, and are thought to have been taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s. The most expensive single mask is estimated to be worth at least 50,000 euros ($66,000).

The masks are undoubtedly striking — surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. Hopi representatives contend the items were stolen at some point, and wanted the auction house to prove otherwise.

The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.

Disputes over art ownership, demands for restitution, and arguments over whether sacred objects should be sold are nothing new. Take the continuing row between the British Museum and Greece over the Elgin marbles, which Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon in the 19th century. Greece wants them back; but opponents fear that would open the floodgates, forcing Western museums to send home thousands of artifacts.

Obituary, Margaret Thatcher

(LTTW, LONDON) Margaret Thatcher, a British Conservative Party politician who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990, has passed away after a stroke on Monday, April 8, 2013. Thatcher, who was 87, had been in declining health for some years, suffering from dementia. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and is the only woman to have held the office.

Downing Street announced that she would receive a ceremonial funeral with military honours at St Paul’s Cathedral.

In every step taken by a leader, there are those who benefit and those who loss from it: thus the approach taken by Thatcher to British culture and its manifestations. Thatcher was the first leader in Europe who started the “privatization” of arts activities with its reduced governmental roles in fundings and facilities by encouraging corporate sponsorship. Many individuals and organizations (especially theater) were hit by Thatcher’s administration policy, but not a few who benefit from it, one of them was the musical Phantom of the Opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber. In fact, the budget for the Arts Council was actually increased more than doubled over the past 11 years of her tenure.

The conservative leader was by no means a supporter of creativity in the public sphere, yet Thatcher’s policies awoke an awareness and spirit of rebellion that transformed British art forever. “Love her or loathe her, one thing’s beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.” The Associated Press summed it up.

Iraq’s Art and Music Scene – More Vibrant than Ever

[Jakarta, LttW] It’s been a decade since the Iraq War had begun. Did the “mission accomplished” fantasy last? Not from what it seems in many media portrayals of Iraq so far. Nonetheless, let’s not forget that this is about Iraq, the land once known as a peaceful salad bowl of cultures; and to the Iraqis, things are a little bit different. The hopes are high, and they are taking it very seriously.

According to the Telegraph, the Iraqi capital Baghdad is approaching herself as a “capital of culture” for 2013, to remind the world that there is more to culture than bombs and bloods in Iraq. There are more indicators showing that the recent “battlefield” caused by the war is rebuilding itself a home that can provide a positive energy for the people. The National Museum of Baghdad was finally reopened; a number of Iraqi Diasporas have brought together Iraqi artists across the globe to share their experiences through art; not-for-profit projects for the advancement of Iraqi art and public education are springing up everywhere; and top-selling musicians are growing swiftly.

The above indications are truly a good sign of Iraq’s rising, and certainly as good as knowing that the arts are responding to such struggles. However, being around the ever growing arts activities do not necessarily mean that the culture is “vibrant” already; it is a term used for reflecting how the arts is functioning as healing and creative force among the societies. Viewing today’s Iraq’s vibrant art and music scene within this perspective, we have had to trace back from its great history of art and music, and then ask ourselves a question: Will the future of Iraq’s art and music scene be vibrant than ever?

[Ed.]

Iraq’s Art and Music Scene – More Vibrant than Ever

by Livia Bergmeijer*

(MUFTAH, IRAQ) The Iraqi art and music scene is flourishing – but you wouldn’t know it by watching or reading the news. Political chaos, economic suffering, death and destruction still dominate media portrayals of Iraq, a country which has experienced unspeakable suffering in recent decades.

It is perhaps for this very reason that many Iraqis – both at home and in the diaspora – have turned to the arts in search of new channels of self-expression.

Iraqi art and music are hardly new phenomena. Classical Iraqi (Mesopotamian) music goes back to the times of the great Abbasid Empire when minstrels would render the poetry of court bards into song.

Since then, Iraqi music has developed into one of the Arab world’s most celebrated musical traditions. The late Iraqi musician, Munir Bashir, known as the ‘King of Oud,’ was considered a master for his unique improvisation techniques (taqsim) and his use of the Arabic, and typically Iraqi, maqamat scale system – an art form recognized by UNESCO as “an intangible heritage of humanity.”

Iraqi performers Kazem el Saher, Ahmed Mukhtar, and Ilham al-Madfai are among some of the most prestigious and top-selling musicians in the region, blending the classical tradition with more modern and popular influences.

Iraq is equally revered for the architectural treasures of its thousands-year old Mesopotamian civilization. One of the most heart-wrenching events of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was the looting in April 2003 of the National Museum of Baghdad, home to a vast collection of ancient artifacts and precious architectural specimens – thousands of which were either plundered or destroyed.

An investigation conducted after the looting revealed that the museum had been converted into a military fighting base shortly after the invasion. Such contempt for the “Cradle of Civilization” greatly undermined the importance and relevance of Iraq’s archaeological heritage and is but one example of how the war and subsequent occupation attacked the very core of national pride. The museum was finally reopened six years after this tragic event, though by that point less than half of the looted exhibits had been recovered.

There is little doubt that the war has left Iraq worse off than before, including brutal sectarian warfare, a deterioration of women’s rights, greater religious fundamentalism and an increasingly authoritarian regime under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In spite of all this, Iraq’s long-standing artistic traditions are stronger than ever and continue to play a significant role in inspiring emerging art forms, outside and inside the country.

Over recent decades, a growing Iraqi diaspora community has blended traditional Iraqi art forms with influences from their experience in exile. One budding Iraqi artist, Hanaa Malallah, who lives in London, is explicit about the way her first-hand experiences of war have influenced her work. It is telling that her PhD thesis was titled ‘Logic Order in Ancient Mesopotamian painting,’ a perfect example of how new Iraqi art is often the product of Iraq’s classical heritage mixed with current social and political circumstances.

A number of initiatives have brought together Iraqi artists from all over the world and enabled them to share their experiences – through art. One such event is the London-based project Art and War: Responses to Iraq, which is running an exhibition from March 12-18, 2013, to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The exhibition will bring different Iraqi and British artists together to display works that have been influenced by personal experiences of the Iraq war.

Another initiative is the non-for-profit iNCiA. Founded in 1995 by the London-based Iraqi artist Maysaloun Faraj, it is ‘dedicated to advancing Iraqi art and the education of the public in Iraqi art as an integral part of world art’ through the ‘provision of exhibitions, literature, workshops, website and advocacy.’

Such projects seem to be springing up everywhere – the desire of Iraqi artists and musicians to remind the world of the great ‘Cradle of Civilization’ is clearly tangible.

While our TV screens might not show us this magnificent side of Iraq, new forms of technology and social networking are making it easier for both local and diaspora Iraqi artists to communicate and share ideas and experiences with each other and their growing audiences around the world.

Ilham al-Madfai’s beautiful hymn to Baghdad encapsulates the love and longing Iraqi artists feel toward their country. “What shall I say about you in the book of passion? For a thousand books are not enough to express how much I love you.”  Now more than ever, Iraqi musicians and artists are expressing a passion for their broken country.

 *Livia Bergmeijer is co-editor of Muftah’s Iraq, Iran, & Turkey pages