LETTER: The lost tribes of terracottas

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From Mr Nigel Evans

Sir: In his article "The government, the terracotta and the Academy" (Visual Arts, 26 September), David Sweetman mentions that the Royal Academy's secretary, Piers Rogers, "is struggling to maintain his customary urbanity" in the run- up to the opening next week of "Africa: The Art of a Continent". I wish him luck.

The opposition of the Malian government to the displaying of Djenne Terracottas is no surprise. They have traced over 250 of these beautiful objects to museums and private collections in Europe and America - all of them smuggled out of their country illegally over the past 25 years.

Mr Rogers should have known that the Malian Terracottas have become something of a cause celebre among Africanists. Five years ago, I made a film for Channel 4, entitled The African King, which traced the fate of these objects. This film and action by a group of Africanists led to the closing down of a private authenticating business run by the Department of Archaeology at Oxford and the closing of an exhibition of these terracottas in Paris.

This pillage of a country's cultural treasures, however, does not only apply to Mali. It has had an equally devastating effect on the Akan civilisation of Ghana, the Nok region of Nigeria, the Sao culture of Cameroon and Chad and the Koma of Benin. Indeed, one of the "authenticators" of the forthcoming exhibition has a photograph of a small object in a shrine, taken by himself in Nigeria five years ago. He was somewhat surprised to be asked to caption the same object a few weeks ago, and to discover that it belonged to a private collector.

The looting of African art over the past 50 years to satisfy private collectors has caused an irreparable loss of information essential to an interpretation of their function in their original culture. Objects stripped of context have no history, and have no meaning: that will be the overwhelming impression at the Royal Academy next week.

Yours sincerely,

Nigel Evans

London, SE1

26 September