Written by by John Sutter, CNN
This story was originally published by SENSEable City, a new journalism project covering cities and neighborhoods in the United States
S. Hostiré Toure reeks of human connection. Hand-held in the middle of a busy market at Bamako’s Salé district, the stone and carved odalisque — or resting woman — conjures an image of Mali’s rich, ancient trading routes. It is a modern relic too, a piece of much more recent history, destined for US asset forfeiture.
But the same crowd of Tuareg and Arab women mimes mock execution shots of Toure’s miniature. They are also actors, smiling and laughing as they get some of their costumes and jewelry back for her. This is staged commerce, a way of trading souvenirs amongst neighbors for decades.
This happens daily in the Malian capital, as people bond over food, music and history. These days, the international spotlight is on Mali and its troubled political past. Looted U.S. government property is at the center of that story.
This November saw the handover of more than 900 items by the US Treasury Department of looted objects from Bamako’s museum, including six antiquities and two drums. The Tuareg pre-eminent Ibérico period artifacts have been returned to Mali, America’s first foray into cultural repatriation.
From 2005 to 2010, Bamako’s museum was ransacked by Tuareg separatists, who looted, burned and sold dozens of artifacts.
“Mali’s family treasures are finally back in the custody of an ancient country,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the handover. “Now Mali can rebuild from the ashes of its past.”
Collecting ancient artifacts
No one knows how many archaeological objects have been looted from Malian museums. Those who knew of them were killed, and the case became a case study in refugee camps in Sierra Leone.
But knowing who is grabbing the most treasure is enough to raise an eyebrow. Art demand, as always, is driven by price.
For instance, one of the most valuable objects returned was a Kaaba wall painting looted from a museum in Yola, Nigeria. After it was seized in 2009, the painting was placed in Nigerian storage facilities and sold in 2016 for $13 million dollars.
A significant increase in the use of art collections by governments for regime change in the last few decades has also been attributed to increased trafficking in stolen cultural property. For centuries, these objects have been used as sources of capital, diplomatic props and political tools to divide communities.
Rarely realized is the violence and high human cost they have entailed. In Mali and other places, many objects have been passed between rulers and aristocrats. But once they are in the hands of despots, people are often kept under lock and key in jails, and their looted artworks are returned with the loot by the junta.
When the Mali’s national museum reopened in 2010, Djamoussé Soares, a prominent Mali religious scholar, told CNN that the institution had collected and stored these artifacts for centuries.
The restored facility, that opened after a devastating disaster — an Islamist attack that left more than 20 dead — is called UNESCO World Heritage Mali Tower Museum.
Citizens and museum lovers alike welcomed the return of the looted artifacts to their nation’s memorials. For so long, many of these pieces were lying idle. Now Mali, like many other nations, can focus on educating the public and the rest of the world about Mali’s rich pre-colonial history, not of overthrow.
Searching for a sense of purpose
“Bamako has been able to move on,” Toure said, of the looting scandal. “We have had these works for a long time, so what is the point of returning them if we have to live with them?”