Indigenous Art and White Supremacy: the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd

This post includes images and names which may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In addition, it may contain culturally sensitive works which may be considered as inappropriate for viewing. I have done my best to present only images which epitomize a certain style, or which hold an important place in the history of this artistic movement.

In 1960, the Australian government, deciding that Aborigines were not ready to live as “white Australians,” instituted a forced re-education program to hasten their assimilation into white Australian society. To achieve these ends, the government relocated the Walpiri, Aranda, Anmatyerre, Loritja, and Pintupi language groups from their traditional lands and resettled them in the Papunya Settlement, located 250 miles west of Alice Springs in Central Australia. This policy also involved the forced removal of indigenous children from their parents.

Papunya’s precise location. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

The settlement consisted of below standard government housing designed to accommodate between 400 and 500 people; by 1970, over 1,000 indigenous peoples lived in the settlement. Government workers were housed in separate quarters, surrounded by barbed wire.

Aerial photograph of Papunya, Northern Territory, taken in 1968 by Chris Guster. Image courtesy of The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a British man, was posted to Papunya as the settlement’s primary school art teacher. He would later describe the settlement as “a community of people in appalling distress, oppressed by a sense of exile from their homelands…it was a place of emotional loss and waste, with an air of casual cruelty. I had come to a community of several tribal groups apparently dispossessed of their lands and…systematically humiliated by the European authorities…they were frustrated to the point of hopelessness.”

One day he noticed some of the school children drawing traditional designs in the sand. He began to encourage his students to represent their traditional visual themes and motifs in his art classes. When the children began work on a mural, the elders felt that the spiritual nature of the symbolism and style of the mural was better suited to adults. Seven aboriginal men in turn began their own mural of the Honey Ant Dreaming.

Old Tom Onion Tjapangati (left) and Nosepeg Tjupurrula (second left) direct the painting of the Honey Ant Dreaming on the wall of the school at the government settlement of Papunya. Image courtesy of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd.

This mural was painted on the school wall, and its presence inspired others in the settlement to begin paintings of their own. Over 600 paintings and 300 smaller works were created over the next year and a half. The administration of the settlement, in an act which curator Judith Ryan described as “cultural vandalism,” painted over the Honey Ant Dreaming mural in 1974.

In October, 1971, Bardon helped to arrange the Papunya School Painters Cooperative, which, in 1972 was incorporated into Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. Critics perceive the work produced between 1971 and 1972 to be fresh, evocative, and unrestrained. The early artists, generally older men, worked using whatever materials were on hand, including boxes, car hoods, and tin sheets. This explosion of artistic activity is typically regarded as the origin of Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art.

Kangaroo Rat Dreaming by Anatjari Tjakamarra, 1972. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

The Australian government, however, was unhappy with the formation of this artistic Papunya Tula Artists. In 1956, the Northern Territory Legislative Council ruled it to be a criminal offense should anyone to buy or sell paintings by Aboriginal artists without the permission of the Native Affairs Branch of the government. The superintendent of Papunya claimed that the paintings were produced by “government Aborigines,” and therefore belonged to the government. Bardon, ignoring these laws, continued to promote the Papunya Tula Artists and took paintings out of the settlement to sell at Alice Springs. Bardon became seriously ill and had to leave Papunya in the middle of 1972.

As the Papunya Tula Artists transitioned from painting for the Papunya community to painting works which would be sold outside of the settlement, tensions began to rise between the artists and outside Aborigine groups. These groups opposed the selling of paintings containing sacred knowledge and images. The tension came to a head in 1974 when an Aborigine group stoned an Alice Springs exhibition of the Papunya art.

In response the Papunya Tula Artists began to adopt a style in which they overlaid their paintings with dots to disguise the parts of their work which included sacred rituals and symbols. One of the early masters of this technique was Johnny Warungula Tjupurrula (1920-2001). His technique of “over-dotting” was taken up and developed by many Papunya artists, and by 1975 this technique became one of the central characteristics of Western Desert Art. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was another early master of this technique.

Warlugulong by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, 1977. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Of this period of the movement, Judith Ryan opined that the “openness of the Bardon era was at an end. Dotting and over-dotting, as an ideal means of concealing or painting over dangerous, secret designs, became a fashion at this stage. The art was made public, watered down for general exhibition…the uniqueness of the Geoffrey Bardon years—which like innocence, cannot be rediscovered.”

In 1976, the Northern Territory passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The act provided that Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory could claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. The act allowed for a claim of title if claimants were able to provide evidence of their association with land. After the Act’s passing, much of the Papunya settlement departed for their traditional lands. However, the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd continued to grow.

The art world ignored the work of the Papunya Tula Artists, and the National Gallery of Victoria did not acquire any of their works until 1987. Even then, it was only at the urging of Judith Ryan, who convinced the director to purchase 10 pieces for $100,000, a price which Ryan would describe in 2008 as a “steal.” In 2007, a painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri sold for $2.4 million.

Today the work of the Papunya Tula Artists is highly regarded. This work is now represented in major galleries, museums, institutions and many large private collections both in Australia and overseas. The Papunya Tula Artists currently operate out of Alice Springs. They are regarded within the art world as the premier purveyor of Aboriginal art in Central Australia.

The Papunya Tula Artists’ gallery today, Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Image courtesy of Qantas: The Australian Way.

Malintzin and the Subaltern

January 11, 2019: After I posted this on 5/17/2013, readers pointed out problematic, harmful elements of my presentation of this history. As a result of my casual writing style, I made light of the historical and contemporary violence, sexual and otherwise, which has been affecting the lives of Latina women since the time of conquest. This line has since been edited out, not to cover my rear, but because I listen to criticism, and strive to make my writing a space where members of marginalized groups can feel safe from microaggressions. Further, I’d like to make it clear that I do not seek to interpret this history through a modern Chicana lens. That is very much not my place as someone who shares neither that historical nor that lived experience. For these mistakes I would like to issue my deepest apologies to Latina readers of this blog, and I invite your ongoing commentary and critique.

Malintzin, also known by the pejorative La Malinche, and the Spanish title of Doña Marina, was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America.

The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.

The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young. Her mother remarried, and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.

Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until 1519, when she was purchased by a group of Spaniards. Most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in both Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.

With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down rebellions, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.

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Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.

Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.

A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Meaning, the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.

Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.

Which is pretty fascinating.

Napoleon, Haiti, and the Louisiana Purchase

Between 1800 and 1801, Spain secretly returned the Louisiana Territory to French custody; Spain was ceded the Territory in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, treaty which ended the Seven Year’s War. Napoleon planned to use the Territory as his North American imperial sear.

The United States government learned of this in 1802. The knowledge caused no small amount of panic. The government which controlled the Louisiana Territory controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, and whomever controlled the mouth of the Mississippi controlled the economy of the North American continent. And indeed, the Unites States’ government’s fears came true when Napoleon closed the New Orleans port.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase; courtesy of A People and a Nation: Volume I Ninth Edition by Mary Beth Norton

But something was happening in the background of all of this which would permanently destroy Napoleon’s plans, and alter the future of the United States.

The slave revolt of St. Domingue began in 1791. It came to a close in 1804, with the complete overthrow of French colonial rule. Today, this is known today as the Haitian Revolution.

Napoleon planned to use St. Domingue as his Caribbean base from which to launch his new empire, with its enslaved labor force and the revenue he gained its work as the backbone of the infrastructure of this new empire.

Having lost that holding, that labor force, and all the money that came with it, Napoleon had to scarp his imperial plans. The Louisiana Territory no longer financially tenable for France, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803; Thomas Jefferson purchased it for $15 million, $233 million in today’s money. This was the Louisiana Purchase.

And just an interesting note about the Haitian Revolution: the use of the same philosophies which inspired the American Revolution by a black, enslaved population terrified people like Thomas Jefferson so much that they could barely speak of it; they had no idea how to make sense of it within their precisely constructed idea of race. So they just kind of ignored it and began and enacted a policy of brutal expansion throughout the Louisiana Purchase.

Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 2: Gender, Performance, and Power in the Atlantic World

Though she now knew the Portuguese to be her enemies, Njinga was shrewd enough to understand that Europeans and their perception of her were as important to her hold on the throne as Mbundu perceptions.

She was always aware of the fact–in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Mbundu–that her power was undermined by her gender. To offset these attitudes, Njinga refused to be addressed as queen, answering only to the title of king. She required her male consorts to present themselves as women, and she trained her ladies-in-waiting as warriors.

This subversion of gender norms did not extend to her wardrobe. Though she understood that some presentation of maleness would help to secure her rule, she also realized that she had to present herself to the Europeans in a manner with which they were comfortable in order to gain their respect. Thus, she often dressed in the high style of Baroque Europe, employing a team of seamstresses to keep her wardrobe in-line with European fashions. She was fluent in spoken and written Portuguese, and wore a crown similar to those worn by European monarchs.

As she constructed a self which would appear worthy of respect to both the Europeans and the Mbundu, she also constructed an army. This army was composed of fugitive slaves, marginalized members of court, and the Imbangala mercenary groups who had once spread terror throughout Ndongo. With her army, Njinga began her campaign against the Portuguese, making particular use of guerrilla tactics. Her training of her ladies-in-waiting was not simply for show: Njinga often personally led battles and raids against the Portuguese.

Statue of Njinga standing in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda, the Angolan capital; photo courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen on flickr

After claiming the city of Kavanga as her new capital, Njinga quickly established a base for slave trade in order to strengthen her economy and used the city as a center from which to conduct her operations against the Portuguese. In 1631, she integrated Matamba into her lands. There, she resettled thousands of people who had fled from the Portuguese. With the Matamba territory under her rule, and with thousands of subjects behind her, Njinga began to expand into Portuguese held Ndongo.

Her victories against the Portuguese continued as the years went on, and it seemed as though she had a permanent victory when the Dutch occupied the former Portuguese island of Luanda. The Dutch supported Njinga’s campaign because they needed access to the slave market in order to support their own colonies.

However, her luck ran out in 1648 when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch and re-asserted their authority over the land they now called “Angola.” Njinga returned to Christianity in an attempt to placate the Portuguese, and in 1656 she signed a treaty allowing Portuguese missionaries, traders, and government officials to reside in her capital. She had hoped that, with these people in her power, she would be able to control Portuguese military operations against her.

Njinga shielded the interior of Southern Africa from the full brunt of the Portuguese for almost 40 years. She remained active and vigorous—even remarrying in 1658—until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She single-handedly altered Mbundu attitudes towards female rulers, leading to the rule of several queens after her death, albeit queens who were the puppets of Portuguese governors and missionaries.

She was a brilliant ruler who defied and continues to defy the simplistic labels of “hero,” “liberator,” and “traitor,” like so many of the powerful women navigating the fraught waters of the Atlantic World.

Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 1: Confronting the Portuguese Empire

Some terminology before I begin: The Ngola ruled over Ndongo where the Mbundu people resided. Later, as a result of war with Portuguese invaders, the ruler of Ndongo came to rule over Matamba as well; however, the culture remained that of the Mbundu people. To the Portuguese, these lands were called Angola.

Queen Njinga (also known/spelled as: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Souza, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande) of Ndongo and Matamba was born in 1582 and died in 1663. In Portuguese historiography, she is alternatively remembered as a hero, a collaborator, a heretic, and an enemy; in Southern African historiography (particularly within the Angolan Liberation Movement), she is remembered as a hero and a liberator who shielded the interior of the West Coast of Southern Africa from Portuguese penetration for decades.

Portrait of Queen Njinga (clearly side-eyeing the Portuguese); source unknown.

Njinga was born to the Ngola Kiluanji and his consort Kangela in 1583, 168 years after the Portuguese first arrived in the region. The West Coast and interior of Southern Africa would become the base from which Portugal would launch their overseas empire, to be supported by the labor of the human capital wrested from the continent’s interior.

By the late sixteenth century—around the time of Njinga’s birth—the Portuguese had occupied the island of Luanda, establishing it as a slave post and using it as staging grounds for their religious and political incursions into Ndongo land. This threatened Ndongo sovereignty, and disrupted the economy as their movements threatened the Ndongo monopoly on trade and slave routes. In the course of these invasions, the Portuguese heard the word “Ngola” and mistook it as the name of the land, rather than the title of the ruler. They thus called the land by the name “Angola.”

Tradition holds that Njinga was born against this backdrop of Portuguese incursion with the umbilical cord still wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that this daughter would grow into a proud and haughty woman. In deference to this omen, she was named Njinga after the Kimbundu verb “kujinga” meaning “to twist or turn.” These traits—viewed as negative ones in a woman—would serve Njinga well later in her life.

Though she recalls that she was her father’s favorite child, this favoritism altered neither the succession nor the cultural attitudes which kept women from the throne. In 1617, Njinga’s half-brother Mbande ascended the throne and immediately had all of his rivals (including Njinga’s son) assassinated. However, he overlooked the most dangerous of these rivals: Njinga herself.

Njinga viewed herself as far more of a capable ruler than her brother, and as far more worthy of the throne. She recognized that she would need Portuguese support if she were to claim the throne for herself. Thus, she planned an ambassadorial visit to Luanda.

The official reason for this trip was to form a treaty with the Portuguese governor aimed at having a Portuguese fortress removed from Ndongo land, to have the Portuguese return certain individuals they had seized from Ndongo territory, and to force the Imbangala mercenary group to cease their constant raids into Ndongo land. She also showed the Portuguese goodwill by agreeing to allow Portuguese slavers and missionaries into Ndongo territory. Njinga’s efforts were successful, the only remaining point of disagreement being over whether or not Ndongo would accept the status of vassal.

However, her primary motivation for this meeting was to show the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Souza, that she would be a strong, dependable queen. To further push this agenda, she allowed herself to baptized. She took the Christian name Ana, and assumed the governor’s surname: de Souza. It was clear that at least, in the time of her meeting with de Souza, Njinga held the high ground.

Of this, a famous story emerged: de Souza neglected to offer Njinga a chair when she arrived to their meeting. This deliberate action was intended to show Njinga that she was subordinate to the power represented by the governor. Understanding this and refusing to partake in de Souza’s charade, Njinga ordered one of her servants to get down on all fours. She conducted the meeting seated on the back of her servant, cementing her refusal to be perceived as anything but the governor’s equal.

“Queen Njinga of Ndongo Presented to the Portuguese Governor” engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a 1687 water color by Giovanni Cavazzi

However, once Njinga had returned to Ndongo, it became clear that the Portuguese did not intend to honor the treaty. They did not remove the fortress, return the individuals, or restrain the Imbangala. In 1624, Njinga’s brother, the Ngola Mbande, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that it was murder, and others that it was suicide caused by his continued loss of power to the Portuguese. Regardless of the truth of the matter, many believed that Njinga was responsible.

After his death, Nijnga assumed power as regent over Mbande’s son. Though she was technically a regent, both the Portuguese and the Mbundu understood that she had declared herself queen in all but name.

As previously noted, the idea of a female ruler violated Mbundu cultural norms. But it went deeper than that. In Mbundu political theory, legitimate rulers could only be descended from the previous ruler. The claim of a ruler’s sibling—assuming that that sibling had been born to the same parent as the ruler—was shaky at best. Njinga’s claim to the throne, as Ngola Mbande’s half sister by a consort of his father, was illegitimate in the minds of the Mbundu people. Her chief support was among those involved in matters of state—the general Mbundu people most likely did not accept her as queen.

And neither did Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese intentionally spread rumors claiming that Njinga had murdered her brother in order to further de-legitimize her rule. The Portuguese then went even further and selected a rival claimant to the throne. This person had lineage which met Portuguese approval, and had demonstrated that they would prove amenable to Portuguese colonial interests.

In response to this betrayal, Njinga renounced her Christianity, ceased to pretend that she was simply acting in the stead of her nephew, and formally asserted herself as queen.

White Nonsense Historiography

I think it’s time for us to talk about the effects of white guilt on historical revisionism, especially within the USA. The following sentiments need to gtfo of ~National Dialogue~

The blacks sold each other into slavery before the whites came along, so the white people were just as bad as the Africans.

-Black people in America had slaves too, so I don’t get why we’re demonizing white people.

-The Indians screwed each other over and worked with the Europeans, so the white people weren’t that bad.

These sentiments are horribly offensive, deeply ignorant, erase the identities of millions of people, and post-humously deprive people of their agency.

First of all, “Africa” is not and never has been a nationality. It is a continent filled with a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities. Before the Europeans came along, the power structure in Africa was driven by wealth and ethnicity. When these African nations went to war with each other, they did take prisoners of war, and those prisoners of war were sold into slavery. However, to identify this as “blacks oppressing other blacks” or “Africans oppressing other Africans,” is to view pre-European Africa through a colonialist lens. Those people were the Bantu, the Yoruba, the Igbo; they weren’t just people in a continent you don’t understand.

The block/white construct of race was not even developed until Europeans arrived in Africa in the late 1400s, and even then, the white=superior, black=inferior dichotomy took over 100 years to develop. Which leads me to the second point.

The development of the construct of race in the New World isn’t as simple as it is made out to be. When Europeans first landed in Africa, an entirely new culture developed from the interaction between the European and African populations. This culture was that of the Creoles: a society whose culture combined elements of both African cultural attributes and European cultural attributes to create a third, entirely new culture. This culture saw itself as neither African nor European, and in fact, to have identified a Creole person as an African or a European would have been deeply offensive to them.

Members of the Creole culture settled in parts of the New World, and owned slaves from Africa. The New World Creole population was highly affluent, and affluent people held slaves regardless of skin color; wealth ruled the hierarchy of the Atlantic World.

However, as time went on and the racial construct solidified, the Creole population, though they had never been slaves, were slowly deprived of their agency, and often found themselves being forced into slavery by virtue of their darker skin. To identify the Creole slaveholders as “blacks owning slaves” is to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension of the realities and identities of the early Atlantic World, and the history of the construction of race.

As to the final point, the peoples inhabiting North America before the Europeans showed up were hardly a cohesive group of people with one language and culture and mode of dress. North America was populated by a huge variety of nations with their own cultures, languages, ethnic identifications, gender roles, and worship practices. You know, just like Europe. And Africa. And the Near East. And literally any large piece of land with multiple functioning polities.

Between those North American nations there were alliances and rivalries and enmities. When the Europeans arrived, some nations saw them as a key to thwarting their enemies; some didn’t.

To imply that the foreign policy decisions of a few nations, while, of course, labeling the decision-makers as simply “The Indians” is to blame Native populations for their own destruction, and let European Americans off the hook for ethnic cleansing. I don’t think you need me to tell you why that is disgusting and offensive.

The United States of America was built on the backs of African slaves and the native populations of North America; not to mention the young, poor, and mostly Irish indentured servants the colonists went through like tissues before slavery became normalized.

The perpetuation of these harmful narratives further marginalizes and erases non-dominant populations. It’s lazy, harmful, ignorant, offensive and like, generally, not a good look.

The Bust of Nefertiti, Germany, and Egypt

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing.* After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany, and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the World War II. At that point, all Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war, and it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum, which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943.

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities.

The Bust was moved around several times after this. In 1967 it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.

The Elgin Marbles: Needs Subtitle

The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.

Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

The debate is ongoing.

The Rosetta Stone: Contested Key to Hieroglyphic Translation

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an Ptolemaic-era Egyptian artifact which provided the key to a modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in 196 BCE, with the decree is inscribed in three Hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a post-Late Egyptian, pre-Greek language spoken in Egypt beginning in 650 BCE), and Ancient Greek. The same text is presented in all three languages, thus scholars were able to decipher the Hieroglyph text through their knowledge of Ancient Greek.

close-up of panels inscribed in each of the three languages

As time went on, the stele, which was probably a fairly ordinary one at the time of its issue, eventually ended up in use as a building material in the construction of Fort Julien on the Nile River Delta. A French soldier found the stele in 1799, and recognized its value to Western scholarship. As it was not being used in any academic or official propensity, he took it.

Word spread quite rapidly of this find, and lithographic copies and plaster casts of the stele began to circulate around the European scholarly community.

However, as this was taking place to the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, in 1801, British troops attacked and defeated the French troops stationed in Egypt. The British took the Rosetta Stone from the French in a move sanctioned by the Treaty of Alexandria, and its subsequent removal from Egyptian soil was approved by the Ottoman government. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802.

In July of 2003, Egypt made its first request for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone.

Class and Convents in Colonial Latin America

Colonial Latin America is fascinating. What I find most interesting about it is the intense stratification along class and racial lines. While said divisions can be found in other parts of the New World, I have never seen them quite as rigid as they were in Colonial Latin American Society. Even the convents were heavily stratified.

For wealthy women whose parents did not wish to pay numerous dowries, the convent provided a space in which they could live in relative luxury with women of their own class. They could decorate their own quarters, socialize with women of their class, and immerse themselves in literature and the arts all in the freedom of the convent walls. It is rather antithetical to our modern imagining of what took place in a convent. In fact, the perception of convents was so different back then that men would often make up rather lewd rhymes about the sisters.

Of course, that life of secluded luxury and artistic opportunity was only available to wealthy white women. Though they were technically marrying Christ, they had to pay a dowry to gain entrance to these convents, and had to pay to maintain their own apartments. They did have slaves, and the few times even biracial women tried to join these convents, they were summarily rejected.

There were some convents created for high ranking women of Native descent; especially for the biracial mostly illegitimate offspring of Spanish conquistadors and Native women. There were also convents for poor women. These convents were very serious and austere. The sisters were expected to spend their days praying and cleaning, not partying and studying music like their wealthy, white peers.

Race and wealth aside, being a woman in Colonial Latin America really sucked. If you were a wealthy woman, you had absolutely no privacy or agency and existed to be married off. Maybe once you were married and had produced a male heir you could have some control over the household or indirectly run your own business, but that was the full extent of it.

Middling class white women, and some Native women who had ranked highly in the civilizations predating the Spanish invasion, tended to be in the best situation, as they were in between enough to have more agency than the women at the top and had enough freedom to escape the sheer hell that poor white women and African women had to deal with.

Though they served as an escape from the harsh reality of womanhood in Colonial Latin America—which is why they became so popular and numerous—convents did not provide an escape from the harsh reality of not being wealthy or white; they merely reflected the society from which their members came.