Friday, April 2, 2010

This Dutchman Sells Gods

I visited my friends, Daan Beekers and Thomas van der Molen in Amsterdam. Bristling with Dutch pride, Daan and Thomas tried to take me round Amsterdam and show me the beauty of their country Capital. We passed by the Queen’s palace which was under renovation: she was on holiday in Austria. We went to the roadside open market somewhere in central Amsterdam. Many things were on sale in the market. I was attracted by a man who sold gods and goddesses of other lands—especially Africa.
He has idols of deities from different parts of Africa and Asia (See pictures left and right) to your left. He has Buddha for sale. He allowed me to take his picture and those of the gods but he wasn’t willing to tell me how these things got to Europe or to his shop. He was busy attending to ‘customers’. The gods and goddesses looked starved: they have not received any sacrifices for ages. I could not help feeling this was travesty, and sacrilege. It brought to my mind the old allegations of shrine robbery repeatedly levelled against pioneer anthropologists, missionaries and colonialists.

1 comment:

Daan Beekers said...

And both Thomas and I are anthropologists too, I have to admit...

But fortunately anthropologists now tend to be more conscientious when it comes to such matters.

But very interesting point. I have often asked similar questions when I saw religious statues taken out of their context. Buddhas, for example, are now immensely popular as a form of decoration in Western homes... In that sense I liked the imagery of starved gods and goddesses that you used.

On our weblog a colleague wrote a very interesting post about exactly this issue: It's in Dutch though. She explains how an anthropologist sits at a presentation and recognizes an ancestral statue that had actually been stolen from one of her informants in Kenya! She then got to work to get this and other statues back to where they came from (which indicates the change in anthropological morality).

I'm also reminded of a beautiful paper by Edmund Leach, who argues that religious statues or images can not be adequately apprehended once they are taken out of their original context:

Anyways, it was a great pleasure showing you around Amsterdam, Ayo! And it is wonderful to have the opportunity to see one's own place through the eyes of a visitor... Keep well, and come back soon!