The Israel Museum and Why Africans Need to Tell Their Own Stories

he Israel Museum – presumably as famous and revered among Israelis and tourists in the region, as the British Museum among British people and tourists in the British capital.

During my stay in Jerusalem, a visit to the Israel Museum was thus almost inevitable. Of course, visiting the temporary exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s often heavily-charged political works was on the programme, as well as a fascinating replica model of Jerusalem as it would have looked in the Second Temple Period, and a visit to ‘The Shrine of the Book’, which houses parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Facsimile of the book of Isaiah inside a specially built part of the museum.

After these ‘must-sees’, I walked to the ‘Arts of Africa’ Section of the museum, and took my time to explore the artefacts that are housed there. I was pleasantly surprised to see many familiar styles of different periods and from different regions and peoples of West Africa and beyond.

A closer look at the descriptions that accompany the artefacts and the brief introductory note to ‘Africa’ and the following exhibitions, I noticed many mistakes in the information given, and those mistakes were mainly restrictive ones – meaning that both the cultural, lingual, and political landscape of the great continent were underestimated, downplayed or were simply wrong.

The introductory panel, which is at the beginning of the exhibition, states that Africa has 50 countries, which is wrong, as the African Union and the United Nations both recognise 54 African countries. So either Israel does not recognise 4 of the officially recognised countries, the information is outdated, wrong, or the museum curators did not do their homework properly.

Also, the display states that there are 1000 languages in Africa, again, this is a grossly underestimated truth, as there are already over 520 languages spoken and used in Nigeria alone – which is, according to my count, only 1 out of 54 nations. Up-to-date estimates state that there are about 1500-2000 languages spoken and used on the continent, which is technically not that far off from the number stated in the Israel Museum, the difference, however, is that it is stated as an estimate, not a fact that was proven and checked.

Why do I choose to harper on these, to some, seemingly meaningless or unimportant details?

I express my concern about these mistakes for two main reasons: Firstly, I believe that a nationally and internationally recognised institution should have their facts right, plain and simple. Secondly, the centuries-old history of Africa in the European minds as being the dark continent, where people supposedly live with animals and in huts – rather than in cities (yes, a number of people have said this to my face), and the subsequent, politically and religiously sanctioned exploitations of Africa’s people, soil, and resources, calls for a very carefully structured and honest narrative that challenges the status-quo and the predominant negative biases against the continent. The West and the non-African world pride themselves in a (false) belief of colourblindness, political correctness, and anti-racism, but in order to really make these ideals a reality, we need to first of all repair the damage that has been done in centuries past. It is not enough to half-heartedly tell the future generations half-truths about Africa, or else, how will they be able to overcomes the biases that are, contrary to popular belief and comfort, still very much prevalent in society?

So while I was impressed to see the wonderful artwork, masks, brass, clay and copper items in the collection, I felt a bit let down by the descriptions and the general efforts made by the museum to honestly display the richness and variety of the African continent and its cultures.

Unfortunately, the visit to the museum left me even more disappointed and very angry. Upon making my way towards another exhibition and then the end of the tour, I came across a statue that I overheard a child innocently call ‘the man with the big willie’. I heard this before I saw the statue and obviously chuckled and wondered what that ‘man with the big willie’ could be.

As I went up the stairs, I now saw it: ‘the man with the big willie’ was huge statue of a naked, exposed black man, who wore nothing but a bead-necklace and who somewhat stooped, and looked sadly down onto his beholders. I just could not believe it. This museum felt the need to erect an extremely tall statue of a naked black man, randomly, in the middle of the room.

In an age where black men are killed because of their colour and because of the hyper-sexualised idea that white people seem to have of them, people go and erect a naked statue of a black man, for everyone to freely gawk at his genitals, laugh at his nakedness, take pictures doing funny poses, and calling him, innocently or not, ‘the man with the big willie’. I have to admit, I thought that this statue was one of the most racist things I have seen in recent times.

If you don’t see where my outrage comes from, ask yourself, what will the children that see this statue think of the next black man they see? What kind of associations will they make? After all, last they checked, black men are depicted, in a museum (!), as naked, pathetic-looking, lifelike giants, who wear nothing but beads, and are exposing their supersized genitals.

Think of this statue in the context of subconscious bias, of racism, colonial propaganda, neo-colonial propaganda and so forth, and tell me in good conscience that this statue is not racist, degrading, and right out unnecessary.