Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The repatriation of artefacts and religious and ceremonial objects

The Katchinas on the art market and the forever higher prices are a thorny, multifaceted subject. The collecting frenzy concerning the Kachina dolls carved in cottonwood root is unimaginable. Of course people prefer to buy the old and authentic figures. In the old days and still today they were given to the Pueblo children as an educational tool of their spiritual life. They used to be hung by a string on the wall or between woven mats between the beams on the ceiling. Often adorned with stylized symbols these fascinating figures are usually connected to clouds, rain, corn, fertility. Artists and anthropologists always were interested in these colorful, often bizarre sculpting; also the Dadaists with among others Maw Ernst, Man ray and André Breton. At the public sale of Breton’s estate on the 17th of April 2003 all the native art from his collections was auctioned of. The Katchinas fetched prices between 5000 € and 50.000 €. The Ethnological Museum from Marseille has been able to obtain one for 25.000 €. This poses a problem: Hopi, Zuni and an other nation from the plains had asked the famous auction house Hôtel Drouot in Paris, not to sell seven specific items. They were still active religious objects and the communities to which they belonged wished to use them. Without them the ritual connected to the object cannot be performed. The Katchinas and other objects are of vital importance for the well being of the peoples whose ancestors have made these objects in a ritual way. Impolite, not to say rudely Pierre Amrouche replied along the line that: your request doesn’t regard us… we do not have to comply with American law and that is a good thing” (source: Karenne Wood, responsible for the coordination of the repatriation of Native American objects). The request wasn’t even passed on to André Breton’s heirs. And legally the auction house is right, but once again ritually important objects disappeared in an overseas museum or in a private collection.

Today the Kachinas are still carved from the same roots. The style has subtly changed over the centuries, were it only because acrylic paint is used and that is much more colorful than old, vegetal dyes. The oldest images seem flatter and stiffer, with the arms close to the body, where as today one finds the arms in all kinds of positions. Basically the makers of the old Kachinas are anonymous, although the excellent doll carvers can be recognized by their style.  The problem isn’t the normal images one find in many collections, but the ritually active objects that have been stolen or other wise obtained in an unacceptable way. Although the collectors and the museums take good care of their objects, they don’t know how these objects have to be taken care of in a ritual way. Those who know these secrets, are initiated to do this in their respective societies are the only ones who can perform the task of caring for these objects. The art collectors are unaware that he is dealing with a manifestation of something spiritual or godly. And then the question: how much does one pay for that?  Can such an artifact be sold…?

This case is doubly hard, as the nations had asked for these objects. It happens that objects are repatriated, but that the tribes do not have the accommodations to keep the objects, or to display them. Moreover if the objects still have their power, that power can be contaminated by having been in the proximity of other objects with a different power. Some feathers and “masks” that had been given back, made the wearers of them very sick. It turned out that in order to kill the lice in the feathers and other things that could destroy them, the museum had used arsenic…

from the book: Wevers tussen twee werelden, Kramat, 2004

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