Andrea M. Couture is a writer in New York City. She has worked in international development, human rights, and the visual arts.

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Nigeria, Iraq, and Greece Want Their Artifacts Back

by Andrea M. Couture 06-01-2020
What's taken with an artifact? Transgenerational identity, memory, knowledge, ritual, inspiration, self-esteem, and agency. 

Detail of reconstructed lion at Babylon’s Ishtar Gate / Einsamer Schütze

THIS ISN'T A lion: It’s a miracle. You can almost hear the imperious growls that would have thundered in the imaginations of pedestrians approaching ancient Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. They would have walked along the Processional Way to enter the inner city, flanked by cerulean blue tile walls with 120 nearly life-sized lion bas-reliefs—a spectacle!

Not so in 1899, when German archaeologists arrived on the banks of the Euphrates—80 miles from Baghdad—and dug until 1917. Babylon’s splendor had been reduced to mounds of thousands of glazed brick fragments, which would fill nearly 800 crates sent to Berlin. There, each piece was laboriously cleaned, stabilized with modern material, sorted and assembled into whole bricks, and ultimately restored into panels of proudly parading beasts in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. Iraq has been trying to get them back since the 1990s.

For nearly two centuries the Greeks and the British have been arm wrestling over the Parthenon Marbles—including a lengthy frieze of a mythical Greek feast, a muscled river god, and voluptuous female figures—taken from the Acropolis in Athens and now displayed in London’s British Museum. Lord Elgin was Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed Greece. Greece claims that Lord Elgin stole them, that the sale was illegitimate since Greece was occupied, and that they should be returned.

Artists Are Transforming Objects 'Created for Evil' Into Works of Beauty and Power

by Andrea M. Couture 10-22-2019
Four artists who chose to turn trauma into sights to behold.

HANNAH ARENDT SAID we can ask of life, even in the darkest of times, a “redemptive element,” and art can be that—an affirmation of right, light, truth, some beleaguered beauty. But note well: Art is no escape from the problems of the world but, rather, a repurposing, a resistance. And, of course, this phenomenon of violence into art can go both ways. Michelangelo’s bronzes, including his colossal papal statue of Pope Julius II, were melted down into cannons and other weapons during the French Revolution. It’s our choice.

Here are four artists who chose to turn trauma—civil war, natural disasters, apartheid, and female genital mutilation—into sights to behold.

Ralph Ziman, South Africa

AN IRONCLAD BEAST—bulletproof, 10 tons of hardened steel, its 165-horsepower engine roaring at high speeds down narrow streets of black townships, demolishing obstacles in its path and stinking of diesel fuel—has been resymbolized into a masterpiece, embossed with 55 to 60 million multicolored African trade beads, a total change in form and function.

Designed and put into service in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the so-called Casspir, a mine-resistant and ambush-protected vehicle, has been subverted. Says South African artist Ralph Ziman: “The Africanization of the Casspir seemed to take away the terror it once evoked ... people felt comfortable to approach it, touch it, and share their stories and memories.” He elaborates on his intention: “To make this weapon of war, this ultimate symbol of oppressing ... to reclaim it, to own it, make it African, make it beautiful, make it shine.”

Born in South Africa in 1963, Ziman grew up in a strict system of institutionalized racial segregation and political and economic discrimination—“apartheid,” which translates in Afrikaans to “apartness.”

“I have vivid memories,” he says of his first sighting of a Casspir. It was April 1993. Charismatic leader Chris Hani had been gunned down outside his house in a Johannesburg suburb by a white nationalist. The artist drove to the funeral and saw columns of Casspirs descending the dusty streets; heavily armed police fired tear gas, shotguns, and automatic weapons. More of the same occurred the next day in Soweto, where police and army units parked their Casspirs along the highway and exchanged gunfire with members of the African National Congress. “Tear gas and smoke burned our eyes and into our memories, along with the sight of armed men on the Casspirs ... for me, covering this beast with beads is catharsis,” says Ziman.