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Archive for the ‘Art news’ Category

A young musician, reentering the country with the violin she has had since she was young, returning home after performing a gig overseas. A Smithsonian staff member escorting paintings on loan from Tokyo. A man moving across the country with his family heirlooms, including his grandmother’s antique silverware and his grandfather’s old revolver. Pretty soon, all of these people, and many more in a myriad of individual situations, may find it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to do such basic things.

A Department of the Interior crackdown aims to deal a killing blow to poaching by making it more difficult than ever to bring ivory in or out of the US, or to even transport ivory objects domestically, across state boundaries. The target of this policy is, of course, the black market in ivory from animals poached recently, and in the future. The administration’s intention is clearly admirable, as we all wish to do what we can to help save endangered species from extinction. However, it seems clear that either policymakers have no concept of the wide-ranging consequences of such a policy, the collateral damage if you will, or that they simply do not care.

Under the international treaty known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), drafted in 1973, it is illegal to bring into signatory countries objects made from ivory, certain kinds of snakeskins, rhino horn, or any of a long list of other endangered species’ furs, skins, or body parts, with the exception of anything made before 1976. By placing a contemporary date on the policy, those drafting the wording of the treaty made sure it would be targeted at cutting down on contemporary poaching currently ongoing. While there are valid concerns relating to the issues of forgers & smugglers intentionally aging new objects in order to pass them off as antiques, and the difficulties of discriminating between objects from the years or decades immediately before and after 1976, the policymakers at that time recognized that blocking the movement of objects far older – including artifacts of great artistic or historical value, such as a 12th century chess set from the British Museum, which drew great crowds when loaned to the Metropolitan Museum just two years ago, and under this policy might never be seen in the US again – does nothing to curb poaching going on today, and indeed serves no purpose at all other than to provide great difficulties for the arts and other particular sectors of our society.

It has been suggested that any ivory out there, allowed legally into the country, encourages continued poaching by demonstrating a continued demand for ivory. An article in Forbes quotes a representative from Fish and Wildlife as claiming: “we believe that a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is the best way to ensure that U.S. markets do not contribute to the decline of these species in the wild.” In fact, quite to the contrary, it seems clear that having older ivory out there provides a source, a supply, of ivory for those seeking to produce or obtain ivory objects without supporting contemporary poaching.

When we think of ivory, we tend to think of knickknacks and scrimshaws, and/or of wealthy art collectors who move in circles quite foreign to the rest of us. But we are all ourselves collectors too; we go on vacation, we buy souvenirs. How many things do you own that might have ivory on it, possibly without you even knowing it? What’s that inlay on the body of your guitar made of? How about the buttons on that vintage aloha shirt you bought the last time you were in Honolulu (or Bali)? Or the wristwatch your grandfather gave you when you were a kid? When you bought that knickknack in that quaint little shop in Llangollen during your honeymoon forty years ago, did you get a certificate of authenticity and proof of antique provenance?

Under this policy, we can say goodbye to the idea of ever selling our family heirlooms to retire comfortably, or inheriting those heirlooms from relatives living out-of-state or overseas. Forget about ever hearing a concert from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Yitzhak Perlman, or any of the world’s great Philharmonic Orchestras (not to mention countless other musical artists and groups) who might not be able to travel to or within the US, for fear of having their instruments seized for the tiny bit of ivory on the tip of their violin, viola, and cello bows. Likewise, we can forget about ever again seeing any of the greatest treasures of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting. It has already become increasingly difficult in recent years to get loans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artworks to show in our museums, for a variety of reasons; if museums around the world are required, for example, to replace the ivory toggles used to help tie scrolls closed with plastic ones just to accommodate US law, it could have seriously deleterious effects on relationships between US museums and museums the world over, forcing us to say goodbye not only to American audiences getting the opportunity to see and enjoy those particular types of East Asian artworks, but potentially making it far more difficult for our museums to borrow and show any artworks from overseas at all. And if the great crowds lining up outside the Frick Gallery in New York last summer to see Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” are any indication, there is a great interest in continuing to be able to borrow works from overseas. Tiny though these sectors of the economy, or of society, may be, I do think it terribly undesirable. And it shows a disregard on the part of the administration for considerations of our great cultural institutions and experiences.

Returning to the matter of the unintended consequences this policy could have for all of us – collectors, dealers, and typical private citizens alike – the Department of the Interior’s official press release does briefly mention that some classes of objects, including “bona fide antiques [and] certain noncommercial items” would be exempt, so long as the owner/seller/shipper provides proper documentation. Of course, it comes as no surprise that information about the applicable law is confusing and contradictory. The New York Times and Washington Post note that exemptions are made for those who can prove that the ivory was legally acquired before 1976, while the Dept of the Interior’s press release says that one must prove that “an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.” Cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, meanwhile, on his blog, gives 1989 as the cut-off date. Yet, “antiques” are defined as being at least 100 years old; so, are objects made less than 100 years ago, but before the 1970s, antiques, and legal to own and trade, or are they not?

In any case, as an astute commenter on the Washington Post’s article online notes, it doesn’t really matter what the precise technicalities of the law may be. Any individual customs officer, on any given day, might be less familiar with the permits, or have a different personal understanding of the regulations, or might make a different determination as to the veracity of a traveler’s claims, or as to the age or identification of his objects. Customs officers are not experts in the appraisal of antique ivory, snakeskin, and every single other potential type of contraband – and case in point, neither is the average tourist souvenir-buyer. I myself have a set of mahjongg tiles I bought at a flea market in Tokyo which I imagine are plastic but which may well be ivory. Beats me. And, as the young musician in the Washington Post article notes, he too only suspects that the tip of his bow might be made of ivory, and doesn’t himself even know whether it’s antique ivory, or might have been replaced relatively recently before he bought it, or whether it’s even ivory at all.

Ironically, the one group not targeted by this crackdown on ivory trafficking? Sport game hunters, who are permitted two African elephant sport-hunted trophies per year.

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NHK reported yesterday that a survey by the Bunkachô (Agency for Cultural Affairs) has confirmed the locations of over 10,000 Important Cultural Properties, but in the process discovered that at least one National Treasure and at least 108 Important Cultural Properties have gone missing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stolen, or truly “lost” to the ages, but simply that at the moment, the Agency does not know their location. Some of these may in fact have been stolen, while others may have been sold; in some cases, the private individual owner simply moved to another house, or another city, and in other cases, the owner has passed away, and the Agency simply was not (apparently) keeping up with what happened to the objects in these cases.

The NHK report tells us that the Agency’s survey of the 10,524 National Treasures + Important Cultural Properties continues. A pamphlet the Agency has available online lists 866 National Treasures + 10,430 Important Cultural Properties that are not buildings or structures, so I’m not sure exactly how the numbers add up to 10,524, but, I just thought I’d share that number, put it out there anyway. The report does say that there are 238 objects remaining to be surveyed (including 12 National Treasures). If anyone knows how to make these numbers work out together, or notices a mistake in my understanding of what’s being said here, please let me know.

In any case, the National Treasure which has gone missing is a tanto, a short sword, forged by the swordsmith Kunimitsu. The Tokyo man who owned the sword passed away 18 years ago, and it is unclear what happened to the sword at that time. The survey tells of 24 other cases where the owner passed away, and his or her property was dispersed in some way. Thirty-three Important Cultural Properties seem to have been stolen. The agency lost track of 31 other objects when the owners moved, while another three objects have been sold, and the situation of another 17 objects remains unclear.

The Agency is sending out information to art dealers in the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing objects, and is also from next year asking owners of Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures to report back to the Agency once a year (by way of postage-paid postcards) on the whereabouts of their collections. Local Boards of Education will also be requested to perform surveys, once every four years, of the registered objects in their local districts.

Link to the NHK report, with video.

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Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

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Wowee. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve last posted. Sorry about that! I’ve been organizing photos and writing Wiki entries, visiting museums, and catching up on actual research/work. And in the meantime, boy have the links piled up.

“Heaven and Hell,” by Kawanabe Kyôsai. Tokyo National Museum.

*I don’t normally follow Christie’s auctions, but their current Japanese art auction came to my attention as it includes a long-believed-lost painting by Kawanabe Kyôsai, depicting a “Hell Courtesan,” or Jigoku-dayû, along with a bunch of other Kyôsai works, all of which are said to have once belonged to Josiah Conder, architect of some of the most famous/prominent buildings of the Meiji period. The full catalog can be downloaded as a PDF here.

*Speaking of Meiji architecture, the Asahi Shimbun reports that Japan is seeking World Heritage Status for a number of sites representative of Meiji industrialization. Now, I’ve written before on Japan and China (in particular, among other countries, I’m sure) appealing for just about anything and everything to be classified World Heritage Sites, and how absurd some of the petitions are. It’s basically a competition for who can have the most, regardless of how genuinely significant the sites may be to world heritage. But, with Japan oft-cited as the first major modern non-Western power, the first non-Western country to join the ranks of the Western powers as a “modern” industrial and military power, I think there’s actually some legitimacy to this idea.

*And, speaking of historical sites (gee, that worked out nicely), there is apparently a project called Wikipedia Loves Monuments. It’s operating in a bunch of different countries – here’s the map for the US – and it basically consists of a keen interface, powered by Google Maps, showing a whole ton of famous sites across the US (and across the world) that are in need of photography for use on the corresponding Wikipedia page. Most of the major ones have been covered already, as one might expect; the only ones in red anywhere near where I was in New York for the last few weeks were a few random houses in normal residential neighborhoods which are apparently either really old, and therefore historical, or are representative of particular architectural styles… I wish that Japan was one of the participating countries, because I’d love such a nice, smooth, interactive map of notable sites in Japan to go hunt out. (As for whether I’d then give my photos to Wikipedia, I dunno. I’ve got some issues with Wikipedia, as I may have mentioned in the past.)

A reproduction of the Edo zu byôbu, an early 17th century depiction of the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

*Meanwhile, Marky Star, over at Japan This!, has been pumping out one excellent article after another, mostly on the origins & history of Tokyo-area placenames, shogunal burial sites, and shogunate-era execution grounds. Among his most recent, most ambitious and most impressive articles to date is one from a few weeks ago in which he asks (and answers) What does Edo mean?

*Switching gears, Brittany at San’in Monogatari has published a very nice post on Kanayago, the goddess (or kami) of tatara. What’s tatara, you ask? Well, it’s a certain kind of furnace, a traditional Japanese method of building and operating a furnace.. and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I know of it chiefly from the film Mononoke Hime (or, Princess Mononoke), in which a community of women, headed by Lady Eboshi, uses tatara furnaces to smelt iron, and if I remember the plot of the film correctly, to construct firearms.

More to come soon…

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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

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A medieval Sufi tomb, destroyed by the terrorists.

I’ve posted about the Timbuktu situation before. Can’t say I’ve been following it super closely, but, best as I understand, beginning last April, Islamist fundamentalist rebels & Tuareg separatists took over most of the territory of the country of Mali, and, until they were routed by French & Malian government forces last week, set themselves (in part) to destroying World Heritage Sites they felt were idolatrous or otherwise sacrilegious.

They have already destroyed a number of medieval tombs of Sufi saints, showing an astounding lack of respect for their own history, their own culture, their own religion, and an incredible failure to care how this makes them, Africa, and Islam appear to the rest of the world, encouraging rather than combatting negative stereotypes of Africa and Islam both as anti-intellectual, as primitive, violent, and all-around uncultured and uncivilized.

Last week, the terrorists went one step further. Timbuktu is not only the home of great sub-Saharan architecture, and sites of great religious importance, but it is also the home of one of the greatest collections of Islamic manuscriptsmedieval manuscripts that represent some of the greatest examples of the flourishing high culture, science, philosophy, of the Islamic world prior to the era of European imperialism. Last week, the rebels torched one of the central libraries, and for a terrifying, dramatically saddening moment, it was thought all was lost. Now, some sources, including the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project itself are reporting, to the contrary, that librarians and curators in fact evacuated the vast majority of these treasures in anticipation of the rebel attack. Of course, we are not being told how or where the documents are now being hidden away, but museum directors and private collectors assure us that “the manuscripts are hidden in different places where nothing can happen to them.”

(Video courtesy of blog 333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship Under Threat.)

The actions and attitudes of these militants are unbelievable to me. To destroy your own culture, your own history, one of the greatest shining examples that Africa was not backwards, was not primitive, but was full of vibrant intellectual and cultural activity of the highest order, long before European involvement, seems counter-productive and self-destructive to say the least. And that, of course, is putting it mildly. In an opinion/editorial piece on CNN.com, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, discusses these issues and their import in far more eloquent and to-the-point terms, writing, “The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”

I do not know much about the specifics of the circumstances on the ground there in Mali today; the timeline on Wikipedia seems to indicate that the French and Malian government forces are in the process of retaking territory even as I write this. Hopefully they will have little difficulty completing this task and restoring government control, and order. However, in my amateur opinion, I would not be surprised if rooting out and eliminating these fundamentalist, and dreadfully destructive and violent elements from the region may prove impossible. This is most likely not something that can be changed with warfare, or by outside foreign intervention. All the UN condemnations in the world won’t stop these people. The only thing that can stop them, I wager, is for Muslims around the world – and most especially within these Northern African communities – to gather together and denounce these attitudes, to work within their communities to change minds, to change attitudes, and to eliminate this disgusting, repulsive virus that threatens to destroy Islam’s greatest historical and cultural treasures.

Some reports quote Malian locals as saying they need the French forces to stay, in order to continue to protect them from the rebels, but other reports are indicating that the French are looking to get out of Mali as soon as possible, in order to avoid the sort of quagmire the US continues to find itself in in Afghanistan. Hopefully, all involved will do what is right, and the horrors of the last eight months or so will not be repeated.

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