Senegal, Dec 26 (AP/UNB) — The Museum of Black Civilizations in Senegal opened this month amid a global conversation about the ownership and legacy of African art. The West African nation's culture minister isn't shy: He wants the thousands of pieces of cherished heritage taken from the continent over the centuries to come home.
"It's entirely logical that Africans should get back their artworks," Abdou Latif Coulibaly told The Associated Press. "These works were taken in conditions that were perhaps legitimate at the time but illegitimate today."
Last month, a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommended that French museums give back works taken without consent, if African countries request them. Macron has stressed the "undeniable crimes of European colonization," adding that "I cannot accept that a large part of African heritage is in France."
The new museum in Dakar is the latest sign that welcoming spaces across the continent are being prepared.
The museum, with its focus on Africa and the diaspora, is decades in the making. The idea was conceived when Senegal's first president, internationally acclaimed poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, hosted the World Black Festival of Arts in 1966.
At the museum's vibrant opening, sculptors from Los Angeles, singers from Cameroon and professors from Europe and the Americas came to celebrate, with some in tears. "This moment is historic," Senegalese President Macky Sall said. "It is part of the continuity of history."
Perhaps reflecting the tenuous hold that African nations still have on their own legacy objects, the museum will not have a permanent collection. Filling the 148,000-square-foot circular structure, one of the largest of its kind on the continent, is complicated by the fact that countless artifacts have been dispersed around the world.
Both the inaugural exhibition, "African Civilizations: Continuous Creation of Humanity," and the museum's curator take a far longer view than the recent centuries of colonization and turmoil. Current works highlight the continent as the "cradle of civilization" and the echoes found among millions of people in the diaspora today.
"Colonization? That's just two centuries," curator Hamady Bocoum told the AP, saying that proof of African civilization is at least 7,000 years old, referencing a skull discovered in present-day Chad.
Like others, Bocoum is eager to see artifacts return for good. The exhibition includes 50 pieces on loan from France, including more than a dozen from the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
More than 5,000 pieces in the Quai Branly come from Senegal alone, Bocoum said.
"When we see the inventory of the Senegalese objects that are found in France, we're going to ask for certain of those objects," Bocoum said. "For the moment, we have not yet started negotiations."
He brushed off concerns that African institutions might be unable to care for their own heritage, pointing to the new museum's humidified, air-conditioned storage space.
The history of some of the objects in the opening exhibition is grim. Pointing to the saber of El Hadj Umar Tall, a 19th-century West African thinker who fought against French colonialism, Bocoum described how French troops fighting him stripped local women of their elaborate jewelry by cutting off their ears.
Contemporary works in the exhibition touch on both triumph and tragedy. There are black-and-white photographs of African nightclubs in the 1960s shot by famous Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, and a stark mural by Haitian artist Philippe Dodard depicting African religions and the middle passage.
Works by Yrneh Gabon Brown, based in Los Angeles, reference slavery and contemporary race relations in America.
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," Brown told the AP. "And here, as a member of Africa's English-speaking diaspora, I am proud, reaffirmed."
France, whose president in recent weeks has pledged to return 26 pieces to Benin, is just one of many countries loaning works for the new museum's opening exhibition. Bocoum now is working with dozens of institutions around the world to plan future exhibits.
"This museum is celebrating the resilience of black people," professor Linda Carty, who teaches African American studies at Syracuse University, told the AP at its opening. "This is a forced recognition of how much black people have brought to the world. We were first. That's been taken away from us, and we now have reclaimed it."
Sandringham, Dec 26 (AP/UNB) — Queen Elizabeth II wove personal reflections into the latest edition of her annual Christmas message, saying she hoped her long life brought a measure of wisdom and noting her grandchildren's contributions to Britain's royal family.
The 92-year-old queen, the world's longest-reigning living monarch, also included the customary tribute to military personnel and wishes for world peace in the message, which was pre-recorded at Buckingham Palace and televised Tuesday.
"Some cultures believe a long life brings wisdom," Elizabeth said in the recording. "I'd like to think so. Perhaps part of that wisdom is to recognize some of life's baffling paradoxes, such as the way human beings have a huge propensity for good and yet a capacity for evil."
On a lighter note, the queen listed the House of Windsor's 2018 milestones with the same unabashed pride of someone writing their yearly Christmas letter for friends and far-flung relatives.
"It's been a busy year for my family, with two weddings and two babies, and another child expected soon. It helps to keep a grandmother well occupied," Elizabeth said, not forgetting to mention her own firstborn,
"We have had other celebrations too, including the 70th birthday of The Prince of Wales," otherwise known as heir to the throne Prince Charles.
The annual message was broadcast to many of the 53 Commonwealth countries. Elizabeth recalled that her father, King George VI, welcomed eight former British colonies at the first meeting of Commonwealth leaders in 1948.
"Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding," she said.
The queen mentioned her father, from whom she inherited the throne when he died in 1952, again while expressing gratitude for soldiers and sailors past and present. During World War I, two decades before his own unexpected ascension to the throne, he served with the Royal Navy and saw friends killed in battle, Elizabeth said.
"At Christmas, we become keenly aware of loved ones who have died, whatever the circumstances. But, of course, we would not grieve if we did not love.
Earlier in the day, Elizabeth and her family received cheers from a Christmas crowd when they arrived for a church service in the English countryside. A chauffeured limousine delivered the queen, while her descendants and their spouses walked from a nearby estate of the monarch's.
Prince Charles led the way, followed by his sons: Prince William and his wife, Catherine, and Prince Harry and his pregnant wife, Meghan. Harry and the former American actress known as Meghan Markle married in May and are expecting their first child in the spring.
The couple walked arm in arm next to William and Catherine. Many in the crowd wished them "Merry Christmas" as they strolled to the church in the English countryside on a cold, wintry morning.
After the 45-minute service, people gave them flowers as they headed back for a traditional Christmas lunch.
The queen's husband, Prince Philip, who is 97 and largely retired from public life, did not attend the service. Charles' wife Camilla, who is recovering from flu, also missed church.
William and Catherine's three children — Prince George, 5, Princess Charlotte, 3, and 8-month-old Prince Louis, also stayed home.
Britain's royals usually exchange small gifts on Christmas Eve, a practice popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The queen typically frowns on extravagant gifts, and many of the presents are novelty items.
When the queen was younger, Christmas meant a brisk family walk through the woods on Christmas or an excursion on horseback.
Elizabeth delivered her first Christmas Day message when she took the throne in 1952. The seasonal addresses aired on the radio until she made the transition to television in 1957.
They have been broadcast during every year of her reign save one. In 1969, the queen decided her family had received enough exposure from giving a TV crew unusual access for a documentary.
That year, she issued the message in writing.
Saddle Brook, Dec 25 (AP/UNB) — The New Jersey Department of Health says more than 3,000 patients at a surgery center may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Officials say patients who had procedures done at the HealthPlus Surgery Center in Saddle Brook between January 2018 and Sept. 7, 2018 may have been exposed.
Surgery center administrator Betty McCabe says the exposure was due to "deficiencies in infection control" involving the cleaning of instruments and injection of medications. McCabe says 3,778 patients are being urged to get their blood tested.
The health department says the risk of infection is low, and no illnesses have been reported. The department called it "an abundance of caution" to suggest that people be tested.
McCabe says the center is offering to pay medical costs associated with testing.
Cairo, Dec 23 (AP/UNB) — On the Giza Plateau outside Cairo, thousands of Egyptians are laboring in the shadow of the pyramids to erect a monument worthy of the pharaohs.
The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for well over a decade and is intended to showcase Egypt's ancient treasures while drawing tourists to help fund its future development. But the project has been subject to repeated delays, with a "soft opening" planned for next year scrapped in favor of a more triumphant inauguration in 2020. Costs have meanwhile soared from an initial $650 million to well over $1 billion, with most of the financing coming from Japan.
It's the latest mega-project to be championed by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is wagering that massive investments in infrastructure will revive an economy weakened by decades of stagnation and battered by the unrest that followed the 2011 uprising.
The museum is a series of towering concrete halls that will eventually hold some 50,000 artifacts, including the famed mask of Tutankhamen — popularly known as King Tut — and other treasures currently housed in the century-old Egyptian Museum in Cairo's congested Tahrir Square. The hope is that tourists will stay awhile, and provide the foreign currency Egypt needs to buttress its economy.
"It's a place where you can linger to enjoy ancient Egypt," project director Tarek Tawfik said on a recent tour of the site, which will also include a conference center, a cinema, 28 shops, 10 restaurants and a boutique hotel. Giant windows open onto the 5,000-year-old pyramids, and the museum will feature an intact wooden ship and a towering statue of Ramses II.
Tawfik describes it as "a fantastic experience of ancient Egypt in a very modern building that provides all kind of modern, comfortable functions."
That would mark a major change from the current setup, in which tourists visiting the pyramids and the Sphinx are routinely hassled by touts and camel-drivers.
Tourists are gradually returning to Egypt, but the industry has yet to recover from the 2011 uprising, which toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ushered in a period of instability, culminating in the military overthrow of the country's first freely elected president, an Islamist whose brief rule sparked mass protests.
El-Sissi, who led the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and was elected the following year, has presided over an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. Political demonstrations, heavily restricted under a 2013 law, are now unheard of. A Sinai-based insurgency that gathered steam after Morsi's overthrow has carried out a series of attacks in recent years, mainly on security forces and Christians, but has only rarely targeted foreign tourists.
El-Sissi has meanwhile sought to use large-scale projects to bolster the image of the state — with mixed results. A trumpeted expansion of the Suez Canal in 2015 has yet to deliver the soaring revenues the government promised, as global trade has eased. A grandiose new administrative capital under construction outside Cairo is still in the early stages, with negligible foreign investment and foreign embassies not keen to move so far out into the desert.
Egypt's pharaonic heritage remains a major draw, however, and Tawfik expects the museum to attract 8 million people a year once it opens. An estimated 8 million tourists will have visited Egypt in 2018, an increase from previous years but well below a peak of 14.7 million before the 2011 uprising.
Egypt's multi-national construction giant Orascom built the museum, with initial loans from the Japanese government of $320 million in 2006 and $450 million in 2016. The Japanese continue to advise on the museum's development and artifact restoration, but it is unclear who will provide the additional financing for the project, with costs now estimated at $1.1 billion. A bidding process is underway to find someone to operate the site.
Much of the financing may end up coming from the military or affiliated companies, which play a major role in the economy and have been heavily involved in other mega-projects. The Associated Press spent several weeks seeking permission to visit the museum, which was ultimately granted by the military.
Tawfik said the military is helping with "value engineering" — the sourcing of local components like stone cladding and materials to reduce reliance on more expensive imports. Egypt floated its currency in 2016 in order to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, leading to a devaluation that has taken a heavy toll on poor and middle-class Egyptians.
"Today, despite all the increases in costs and the floating of the Egyptian pound, it's quite amazing that the project will be completed, thanks to good management and value engineering," he said.
Dhaka, Dec 23 (AP/UNB) - A painting that was stolen during World War II and later spent decades in a Connecticut home will be returned to an art museum in Ukraine, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
The FBI seized the painting after a retired couple in Ridgefield transported it to Washington, D.C., to be auctioned last year. The couple, David and Gabby Tracy, had long cherished the painting but figured it was a copy, not the signed original.
Standing nearly 8 feet tall (2.4 meters), the painting depicts the 16th century Russian czar Ivan the Terrible looking crestfallen as he flees the Kremlin on horseback.
It had been left behind in a Ridgefield home that David Tracy bought in 1987. The previous couple in the home said the painting was already there when they purchased the house from a Swiss man in 1962.
When Tracy and his wife moved to a different house in the area, they paid $37,000 to add a sunroom big enough to display the painting.
"This painting was a beautiful painting, and we treasured it," Gabby Tracy, 84, told The Associated Press on Saturday. "You couldn't help but admire the fine painting, what detail was in Ivan's face."
But as they made plans to move to a condominium in Maine last year, they realized the painting wouldn't fit. They hired an auctioning company near Washington to sell the work, which was appraised at about $5,000.
After the auction house added the painting to its catalog, though, an employee received an urgent email from an art museum in Ukraine.
"Attention! Painting 'Ivan the Terrible' was in the collection of the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum until 1941 and was stolen during the Second World War," the email said, according to court documents. "Please stop selling this painting at auction!!!"
The museum identified the painting as a 1911 work by Mikhail Panin, titled "Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina." It was a permanent exhibit at the Ukrainian museum until 1941 but disappeared during Nazi occupation of the city.
FBI officials took custody of the painting and later traced it to the Swiss man who sold the Ridgefield home in 1962. Officials didn't release his name but said he moved to the U.S. in 1946 after serving in the Swiss Army. He died in 1986. Gabby Tracy said it's unknown how he obtained the painting.
After learning it had been stolen, the Tracy couple agreed the painting should be returned to Ukraine. The story particularly moved Gabby, who was born in Slovakia and survived the Holocaust. Her father, Samuel Weiss, died in a concentration camp.
"There was never a question that it was going back. It's just sad that we had to go through this experience," Gabby said. "It's ironic that I should have been so worried about keeping this painting safe."
Federal officials filed paperwork Thursday formally passing the painting from the FBI to the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Washington, which is turning it over to Ukraine's embassy.
"The looting of cultural heritage during World War II was tragic, and we are happy to be able to assist in the efforts to return such items to their rightful owners," U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu said in a statement Friday.
Officials at Ukraine's embassy thanked the Tracy couple and U.S. officials who helped recover the painting. A statement from spokeswoman Natalia Solyeva said it's the first time the two nations have worked together to recover stolen cultural goods.
"The Embassy of Ukraine was excited to work with its American partners on the case of returning the painting to its rightful owners — the people of Ukraine," the statement said.