Note: This paper, "The Odyssey of the Afo-a-Kom," by Eugenia Shanklin was published in 1990 in African Arts XXIII(4):62-69; 95-96.
II. The American Version: Americans as the Good Guys
III. The Kom Version: How Kom Outwitted America
IV. The Ufwu-a-Kom
VI. Epilogue: The Second Homecoming
The Odyssey of the Afo-a-Kom
by Eugenia Shanklin
In 1973, the tiny former kingdom of Kom in Cameroon's North West Province became the subject of a number of news stories in the New York Times because the kingdom's most "sacred" object, the "Afo-a-Kom," was stolen from the palace at Laikom and transported to New York, where it was put up for sale in an art gallery and offered to collectors at a high price. The discovery of the missing object, and the knowledge that it had been removed from Kom ritual life, were sources of much consternation in Africa and in America. The Afo-a-Kom quickly became the center of a controversy in the United States, to do with whether--and under what circumstances--stolen art objects had to be returned to the country of origin. These questions have not been resolved, although the moral one could draw from the Afo-a-Kom story is that objects must be returned when they are part of an on-going ritual and religious system.
There are on-going discussions of the ethical questions involved in dealing with art objects "plucked" from their source by fair means or foul. But little attention has been focused on the points of view of those who receive a sacred object and those who lose it. The story of the odyssey of the Afo-a-Kom, however, can be told from both sides and doing so offers an instructive example of the ways in which "sacred" objects (and their owners) are viewed in developed and developing nations. As will emerge, what the Americans regarded as sacred, religious art is better seen as a powerful art-object in Kom. It is also apparent that in the past, the Afo-a-Kom had a limited audience (confined to Kom notables), but now has developed three new audiences, whose attitudes toward the statue are very different: the Kom people, most of whom had never seen the statue before but now are very proud of the furor it caused; the Cameroonians, who began making copies to sell to gullible Westerners soon after the object's return; and the Western connoisseurs of African art, as well as New York Times readers, some of whom regard the statue as one of the finest examples of African statuary.
Here both sides of the story will be told, beginning with the American version as given by the New York Times reporter who covered the events and then the Kom version, as it is told in Kom today. There are a number of interesting differences between the two stories, reflecting both factual matters and cultural differences in interpretation but of greater interest are the differences between the subtexts of the two stories, especially as these relate to the meaning of "sacred" art objects. The text of the American story concerns the object's removal from Laikom, its tortuous journey to America, and its triumphal return to its ancestral home. The subtext is that "sacred" art objects are more important to the people who make and revere them than to art dealers and that Americans are responsible, responsive people, i.e., the "good guys."
The Kom text is that after its removal from Laikom, their "stick of wood" caused quite a stir in a modern Western nation because it was so powerful, and that the Americans were so uncomfortable with the object that they undertook heroic measures to return it to Kom; the subtext is how cleverly the Kom people outwitted the Americans, a belief appropriate to a group that believes they defeated the German colonial forces in the first decade of the twentieth century (Nkwi 1976).
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