Unidentified Djenné artist, “Figure of a Ewe” (13th–15th century), terracotta, lent by William E. Teel (all images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Two ancient Djenné terracotta figurines, believed to be illicitly removed and trafficked in the 1980s, will be repatriated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) after representatives from the museum and the Mali government signed an agreement earlier this month. Dating from the 13th to the 15th century, the statuettes of a kneeling figure and a ewe are among more than 300 items bequeathed to the MFA by William Teel, a prominent collector of African art and owner of University Prints, upon his death in 2012.

Since 2013, the MFA’s dedicated provenance curator Victoria Reed has led the effort to fastidiously research the acquisition history of every item in the bequest. With her colleague Chris Geary, then the curator of African art, Reed began assessing the Djenné statuettes that year. The two figurines, which fall into a “high-risk” group of frequently looted West African cultural objects on the International Council of Museums’ “Red List” and were missing essential paperwork, “raised red flags immediately,” Reed told Hyperallergic.

The ancient archaeological site of Djenné-Djenno, once a bustling center of trade and agriculture in the Inland Niger Delta, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Around the same time, in 1985 and 1986, Mali also established laws in an attempt to protect the country’s cultural heritage against trafficking — a response to networks of looters that regularly plundered Mali’s archaeological sites amid increasing tourism and official excavations in the region, as well as a burgeoning international market for African art. Masterfully crafted anthropomorphic and zoomorphic terracotta statuettes dating from the 11th to 16th centuries, like those bequeathed to the MFA, were among the items trafficked.

Unidentified Djenné artist, “Kneeling Figure” (13th–15th century), terracotta, lent by William E. Teel

One of the statuettes being returned by the MFA, “Kneeling Figure,” is believed to have been excavated from a tumulus near Djenne, probably after Mali’s 1985 legislation had been passed and “certainly after 1970 without proper export authorization,” Reed said.

The other, “Figure of a Ewe,” is thought to have been found in fragments during an illicit excavation that took place in Dary from 1986 to 1987, according to provenance documents that Reed shared with Hyperallergic and plans to make publicly available. Samba Kamissoko, a Malian antiquities dealer who was imprisoned for a year after US Customs seized a shipment of his trafficked artifacts, sold both statuettes to the New Orleans-based Davis Gallery, founded by Charles Davis in 1974 with a focus on West and Central African cultural heritage.

Teel purchased “Figure of a Ewe” and “Kneeling Figure” from Davis Gallery in 1989 and 1991, respectively. The objects were first shown at the MFA on loan as part of the 1993-1994 exhibition African and Oceanic Art: Treasures from a Private Collection. In a July 1998 article about ambiguity surrounding the provenance of works on display in the MFA’s Africa, Oceania and pre-Columbian America department, the New York Times reported that the Malian Embassy in Washington, DC had asked the US for assistance in repatriating two African objects on loan.

Teel, whose memorial service was held at the MFA, was enmeshed with the museum during his lifetime, endowing a curatorial position, loaning works from his private collection, and donating over 100 objects (whose provenance was later reviewed by Reed). After Reed and Geary identified objects of concern in Teel’s bequest, which were not officially accessioned into the MFA’s collection, the museum reached out to source countries to perform due diligence.

A statement from the museum explained: “The MFA contacted the Ministry of Culture in 2013 to seek its authorization before proceeding with their acquisition. The Ministry of Culture responded that the export of these objects had not been approved. Upon receipt of this information, the MFA began to arrange for the return of the objects to Mali.”

Matthew Teitelbaum, director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Issa Konfourou, permanent representative of Mali to the UN, with the objects being transferred back to the Republic of Mali on February 8, 2022. (© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Eight Nigerian cultural objects in Teel’s bequest that were found to be lacking an export license after a similar call (to Nigeria’s National Commission of Museums and Monuments) were promptly restituted in 2014, but the MFA, Reed indicated, had difficulty procuring the necessary signatures for the repatriation of the Djenné statuettes with the same swiftness.

Last year, the United Nations (UN) assisted the US government in repatriating over 900 artifacts that were confiscated from a shipping container at the Port of Houston after being illicitly removed from Mali. When the MFA’s registrar subsequently reached out to UN representatives, “they were immediately responsive and eager to have the agreement signed,” Reed explained.

The signing ceremony to secure the return was held at the MFA on February 8. In his remarks at the event, Issa Konfourou, permanent representative of Mali to the UN, said: “The excellent partnership with the MFA permitted the finalization of the administrative process leading to the restitution and the repatriation of two Djenné antiquities back to their original location … A strong part of Mali’s cultural identity and heritage is captured by these kinds of artifacts that define daily lifestyles, engagement with others and singularities of whole tribes.”

Konfourou indicated that, after their return, the two statuettes will go on display at the National Museum of Mali in Bamako.

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)