The government, the terracotta and the Academy

They're in the catalogue, but they're not in the show. Whatever happened to the Djenne Terracottas?

As its mammoth exhibition of African art approaches, the Royal Academy is beginning to sound a trifle defensive. Amid tales of problems over exhibits that may have been smuggled out of their country of origin, and rumours of disagreements with governments and museums, the Academy's secretary, Piers Rodgers, is struggling to maintain his customary urbanity.

Ask why a number of experts seem to have fallen by the wayside as planning proceeded and Rodgers insists that this was merely the sort of disagreement that bedevils any huge international event. But this hardly explains why the final organiser is not an Africanist but one of their own Academicians, the painter Tom Phillips, a long-time collector of African art but no more than a passionate amateur in the French sense. Rodgers's attempts to shrug this off are somewhat disingenuous; it is obvious that Phillips's presence was bound to affect the final choice of work, and indeed the exhibition does seem to be based on the pleasure principle, a collection of lovely things chosen for their aesthetic qualities rather than a scientific grouping of key objects, beautiful or not, selected to represent a cultural theme or an ethnic grouping.

This is no bad thing: the Academy is, after all, a gallery, not a museum, but the half-hearted way it defends this perfectly acceptable approach breeds doubt. The umming and aahing in some of the catalogue essays doesn't help, either. The Ghanaian academic Kwame Anthony Appiah almost undermines the Academy's chosen theme by asserting that the anonymous creators of all these precious objects had no concept of either Africa or art and that what they were really making were essentially useful things for home, work or worship. Ah, one thinks, here comes the demolition job that points out how ridiculous it is to try to look on an entire continent, filled with a wide variety of peoples, and with cultures spread over thousands of years, as if it were one thing. Previous Academy shows have concentrated on unified areas - China, Japan, Tibet. To speak of Africa in this way may be to fall into the old error of seeing the place as the Heart of Darkness, a single black hole. But Appiah backs off, tamely ending his piece with the suggestion that while we may never fully understand the things we are looking at, at least we ought to be able to enter the worlds of those who made them.

An example of how we might achieve this is given in another essay, by Henry Louis Gates Jnr, who offers up Picasso as the first artist to see the aesthetic qualities in African sculpture. Gates Jnr even puts a date on this epiphany: 1907 and the artist's visit to the Trocadero museum, after which came Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon and thence Cubism. This is a commonplace habit of modernist art history, carefully aligning a love of Third World peoples and their cultures with the liberating forces of 20th-century art. All very leftish and cosy. And wrong.

Picasso seems to have looked on non-European art as little more than a source of inspiration. There is a photograph, taken in the Twenties, I think, which shows a corner of one of Picasso's studios in which a mass of African sculpture is stacked like so much junk, mere source material waiting to be taken up and used as needed.

In any case, as John Richardson has recently pointed out in his magisterial biography, it was not African art that first inspired Picasso but Gauguin, at the posthumous exhibition of the late Tahitian paintings, held in 1906. As we now know, Gauguin largely invented his own Polynesian culture, basing it on Maori work that he had seen in New Zealand in 1895 - and earlier, in 1878, when he visited the Universal Exhibition in Paris where a showing of colonial art had been put together by the Orientalist painter Jean- Leon Gerome. Much censored in this century for his titillating scenes of exotic Arabic life, it was nevertheless Gerome who first selected non- European art purely on aesthetic grounds, rather than for reasons of anthropology or ethnography - much as Phillips and his team seem to have done, and no doubt with much the same results. Just like Gauguin before us, we will no doubt admire and enjoy what we are offered and, just like him, we will probably have little idea what we are really looking at.

There is, however, no reason why the once-colonised should display any gratitude for this belated conversion. An exhibition has just opened in New Zealand commemorating the centenary of Gauguin's visit to Auckland, where he saw the Maori art he was to use as the basis for many of his Tahitian paintings. Writing in the catalogue, the Maori scholar Jonathan Mane-Wheoki uses words like "exploitation", "appropriation" and "violation", and makes the point that Gauguin's interest and use of Maori sources has precious little to do with the Maoris themselves.

Mane-Wheoki even raises the question of reparations and restitution for a stolen culture, and it is here that the Academy has had some of its more difficult moments. To put it bluntly, much of the African art in Western collections, public or private, was acquired by means of which we no longer approve.

As Phillips admits, his problem was how to deal with a situation where the best or, in some cases, the only examples of a particular culture were of doubtful provenance. And in one particular area, the Academy found that it had stumbled into a minefield. Phillips was especially keen to exhibit some of the extraordinary terracotta figures that began to appear near the ancient mud-walled city of Djenne, in Mali, about 25 years ago. These beautiful pieces have rarely been put on display because most of them simply "disappeared" from West Africa, a cause of irritation to the Malian authorities.

However, Phillips and the Academy decided that the works were so important they would press ahead, and a number were already included in the catalogue before disaster came from an unexpected source: the British Museum, custodian of the Elgin Marbles, suddenly decided to turn gamekeeper. The museum has no Djenne Terracottas itself, but warned the Academy that if they went ahead in spite of Malian opposition, it would withdraw its pieces from the show. The Academy was forced to cave in, hence the works illustrated in the catalogue that we will not find in the galleries.

Rodgers has taken the line that he is grateful to the British Museum for helping the Academy "shape its policy" on this matter, but Phillips take the more robust view that the terracottas should have been included, that leaving them out will not see them returned to Mali but will ensure that a valuable part of that country's culture is now missing from one of the most important gatherings of African art ever assembled.

It is sad that possession has become an issue where only appreciation was hoped for. In the end, Anthony Appiah is right - despite all these difficulties the exhibition is its own justification. It probably doesn't matter how limited our knowledge is as long as we attempt some sort of imaginative involvement with the anonymous creators of these sumptuous things. It is here that the inventive Gauguin is probably more of a guide than the acquisitive Picasso. Gauguin was capable of dreaming up a paradise, unspoiled by the vices of industrialised Europe, a heaven he peopled not with savages but with chiefs and princesses, gods and goddesses. If one aim of art is to raise us a little beyond our commonplace assumptions, then there will be every reason to be grateful to Tom Phillips and the Academy for giving us the opportunity to do so, on so grand a scale.

n `Africa: the Art of a Continent', is at the Royal Academy, London W1, 4 Oct to 21 Jan (0171-494 5615)

n David Sweetman's novel `A Tribal Fever', set in Mali, will be published by Andre Deutsch in the spring

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