Lara Croft the Tomb Raider is back and once again the "explorer" is pillaging and desecrating sacred sights as a coming-of-age and nail-biting Summer blockbuster. Tell me something. Why does no one ever go and desecrate Abraham Lincoln's tomb and cause irrevocable damage to the burial site in order to stop the imminent destruction of the world? I mean if we are trying to be historically factual in films where the main leads are either anthropologists, archaeologists or historians I think it's more likely that disaster would lie in the tomb of say Lincoln, Churchill and most definitely Columbus. And not a revered god/goddess held in high regard by any number of unnamed African, Asian or Indigenous people.
It's no secret that when it comes to artefacts and the collection of of tangible history, colonialism whiteness and Eurocentrism are part and parcel of the excursion. It never ceases to amaze me how the success and/or infamy of Indiana Jones was upheld in the foreground of a temple or grave that he entered in search of claiming treasure that never belonged to him. (“It belongs in a museum of the country he is culturally invading!”) Why has Hollywood always found the pillaging of non-white sacred sites alluring and what does it say about a mainstream culture which consistently purchases tickets to these cinematic extravaganzas making Croft, Jones and The Mummy’s Rick O´Connell an extremely lucrative business?
In an interview, anthropologist and author Eric Jolly called Hollywood´s tendency to dramatize plundering, “an example of Eurocentrism with the glorification of the white hero in the context of exotic adventures.” He continued by saying that this was just another manner of ‘exoticizing non-white cultures.” Jolly is also the director of the Institut de Mondes Africains (Institution of the African Worlds), one of the largest African studies laboratories with a focus on “African globalization, representation and the politics of art.” It is located in France.
This month the Brooklyn Museum will have new curators of African Art and Photography. The two white people will “organize an innovative, freshly conceived temporary installation showcasing the breadth and depth of the collection.” I would laugh (I did) because they are serious and I am pretty sure the politics of representation and how this looks did not really seem like that big of a deal because when you are white you are allowed to be an expert in anything.
Then, you are just the unwilling victim/participant of a reality that was created by people you don't know, in a time you didn't exist in, and which you don't even really benefit from because black people have Obama, Oprah and Lebron James. I am not saying that non-black artists are not allowed to be purveyors of African art, but it's a problem when they are the only ones seen as being capable of being experts. But then again maybe that is what I am saying. The legacy of whiteness as the voice of culture on the African continent is ironic because of the unending persecution of the originality, wealth, skill and intricacy directed towards African art. There is a cultural and historical legitimacy that has always seemed to evade African relics when they are handled by a white gaze, seen more as happenstance than an intentional marker of a civilization. Nothing exists in a political and racial vacuum, and the politics of space are white as fuck when a white person is handpicked to innovate an African exhibition in a city where its predominantly black neighborhoods are now filled with wealthy young whites who can afford to gentrify places that were largely criminalized because of the blackness of its previous inhabitants.
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With films like Tomb Raider, The Mummy and Indiana Jones wealth or imminent doom is always found at burial sites. For most non-white people whose lives are not influenced by Christian norms of Heaven and Hell, culturally and traditionally, death is never an end but simply an avenue into the next life. For ancient Egyptians death was not feared but met with with calm, resolve and promise. It is inevitable and so plans were made for the spirit to be well in the after-life. In Shona culture, the traditions of my people state that madzitateguru (our ancestors) have never left us. They walk among us as spirits or in the bodies of living things we see around us. An antelope, a bird sometimes even in the rain. What happens to their calm of mind when their graveyards are run down by the entitled footsteps of people who call themselves explorers? In life, peace evaded them because while they were trying to feed their families anti-blackness and neo-colonialism had other plans. And then too even in death whiteness intrudes to once again lay hostage to the legacy and memory of the people haunted by its constant presence. It's only a film, I hear you cry. But films always come with context and they also create and shape conversations on consumer culture, race and politics.
Claudie Voisenaat, an anthropologist who specializes in “intangible cultural heritage,” talked about the ways Tomb Raider makes the destruction of venerated sites an inevitability in the quest for white heroism. “What is problematic, it seems to me, is that in this story, the whole world and the sacred sites of other cultures are only the scene of a fight between white people: on one side the bad guys who want to enslave the planet, on the other, the good ones who want to save her. As for the natives, enslaved or abused by the wicked, they will voluntarily serve the good [people] who will rescue them. But they are always in a position of subalternity.” She continued by highlighting the dissonance of the main characters, where cultural destruction is made obsolete by victory against evil. “The dramatic destruction of a prominent archaeological site becomes a happy ending that saves the world while the hero or heroine (and the spectator) leaves with the clear conscience of an accomplished humanitarian duty.” In film non-white people have always played a supporting role to the experiences of whiteness but it's a hell of a thing when whole places are relegated to the same role.
As I write this the new African Art curator will be starting his job, Tomb Raider has made a worldwide total of almost 250 million dollars and the Ethiopian government is negotiating the long term loaning of Ethiopian artefacts stolen by British soldiers in in 1868. Their previous claim in 2007 was denied. They are basically asking for the shit that was stolen from their country to be “possibly” loaned back. One Guardian columnist thinks said artefacts “ may not be in the right place.” Gee whiz, you think? Tomb raiders were real people who looted objects that now find themselves at the center of a diplomatic negotiation even though there is nothing diplomatic about how they were taken.
We do not see films featuring heroes raiding Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grave searching for his pocket-watch because ultimately there is a respect for the life he lived and a deference to his memory that is not allowed to those of a darker hue. There is no glory or adventure to be found from disturbing his peace because he is seen as deserving of such. And while we are on the subject of pillagers and stolen shit, maybe the Queen can give back the largest clear cut diamond in the world set in the Sovereign sceptre, which was stolen from South Africa.
That would be so great, thanks.
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Correction: A previous version of this article said there were two new curators for African Art at the Brooklyn Museum. There are in fact, two new curators, one for African Art and one for Photography. VICE Canada regrets the error.