Arts and Heritage: Who owns what? Why we have to (be) care(fully)?

What do you own? Have you ever inherited a piece of land from your grandmother? Or ever desperately tried to get your elder brothers´ red jacket, not only to wear but to possess it? So, ‘heritage’ is nothing voluntarily, more a task then a gift. And one of the oldest things of mankind.

Written by Franziska Bolz

But in the world of arts and culture nowadays, the term ‘heritage’ seems to be everywhere. Every country has its National Heritage, Tourist Guides are advertising World Heritage, the Cultural Heritage mostly meaning the normal way of life even of smaller groups is praised in the media … finally, I started wondering: If someone refers to ‘heritage’, is it about preserving traditional knowledge or is it about making money? What is this ‘heritage’ all about? Does an artist inherit something? Or a people? Or me, too?

Unesco illuminated Headquarter © Nicholas Guy

The most known organization concerned with ‘heritage’ is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Founded in 1945, this UN organization also cares about preserving and developing both natural, cultural and immaterial heritage.

The most important convention, the World Heritage Convention was introduced in 1972 and is now ratified by 189 State Parties, more or less by all states worldwide. At the moment, there are 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 so-called mixed heritage sites in 153 countries, mostly buildings or landscapes, national parks and the like.

After a long-going process of identification, application and elections in UNESCO’s headquarter in Paris, such sites gets heritage status. From this point, the Government is obligated to take care of it. If one fails to preserve it, the statues can be revised. Such a site attracts a lot of tourists, for example the Dome in my hometown Cologne in Germany or the Kondoa Rock Art sites in Tanzania.

Heritage as a method or creative expression

The most recent convention from 2003 is the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), like French Dinner or Bark cloth Making in Uganda. The idea behind is that heritage is not necessarily bound to a site or an object, but can also be a way of doing something or an other creative expression.

From Bark Cloth exhibition at the University of North Texas, 2011.

UNESCO’s defines ‘heritage’ by either ‘authenticity’, ‘great importance’, ‘historical’ or ‘artistic interest’. It has to be able to be conserved and somebody has to be in charge.

To make it short: To gain a heritage status something has to be clearly defined. It has to be of interest. But by whom? This is why heritage in culture and art refer not only to a national or ethnic identity, but straightaway to the concept of ‘property’ – that means owner and authorship.

Intellectual Property

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is also funded by the United Nations. Founded after the Second World War – in 1967 – the WIPO is foremost concerned to promote ‘intellectual property’ as belonging to an individual person with exclusive rights to this.

World Intellectual Property Organization © United Nations Information Servic

To include also objects and methods not fitting in this concept, the WIPO installed the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore in 2000. This is important not only for traditional healers, but also visual artists (in the broadest sense of the word).

The most known issues of Property Rights with people from developing or emerging countries are about traditional knowledge exploited by international pharmaceutical industries, e.g. the Devils Claw harvested by San in South Africa (see also this link).

To protect this artistic heritage, artists groups or communities have installed trademarks like the Seri people of Mexico – they use the “Arte Seri” mark to identify they work as unique. The Arts Council “Te Waka Toi” of the Maori of New Zealand introduced the Label “Toi Iho” to identify artists as “authenic and quality Maori artists”.

There are a lot more examples, not only from such big institutions, but also smaller ones. The principle of the procedure is the same – even if ‘heritage’ and ‘property’ seem to be contradicted. Something materialised through creativity or knowledge, like a dance or a painting method, has to be calculated in order to protect it. So people have to discuss about it, write it down, defined and codified.

From Conservation and Culture-exhibition at MishMash, March 2012.

This process can be great for a community or artist who at last get a fair return from the marketplace. And also for historians and siblings, who want to know all about traditional like. But is this the truth?

Is this always the right way to handle something traditional or inherited? Will these processes stop the normal development of Art – try and err, innovate, fail, succeed?

Or is this the only way for lesser known art to survive? Can Art be either be connected with an Art School or Movement, e.g. if it´s a painting?

My current research focus, the Tingatinga Paintings of Tanzania, is another example. Everywhere Tingatinga pictures are merchandised as National Art, the very own best art of Tanzania, but it seems that most of the Tanzanians don’t know even the name of this Art. What is Tingatinga then?

Tingatinga Paintings in Dar es Salaam © Franziska Bolz

Please tell me!

So please let me now: What to do?

Is there something which might be typical Ugandan or Tanzanian or Rwandan Art?

For example, in issue 018 of Faisal Kiwewa referred to the “rich cultural heritage”. Views on arts and culture differ a lot – more than ever in global and local view.

Who should be in charge to take care? What about the role of international and local organizations?

The most important thing is: Think about roots and dreams and what can be ‘heritage’. And never forget to listen to your elders. Make your own values, for yourself and the market, too.

From Conservation and Culture-exhibition at MishMash, March 2012.


Ms. Franziska Bolz is a freelance Ethnologist/Curator, and a Ph.d. Candidate at the Free University Berlin. Send her an email:

1 thought on “Arts and Heritage: Who owns what? Why we have to (be) care(fully)?

  1. I would like to reply with an anecdote about the first time I saw the most extensive collection of photograph so far in History In Progress Uganda (see facebook page, British Protectorate Public Relations Department albums). After browsing through it I expressed my disappointment to the person who is taking care of the material at the moment. The feeling I had came from the observation that this material showed an extremely colonial gaze. The reply from the person taking care of the prints, was that that could be the case, but didn’t make it any less important for contemporary Uganda(ns) to add their perspective to that gaze, and thus appropriate it.

    Whoever is, or puts him/herself in charge of finding an audience for ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ should be aware of – and transparent about his or her own position towards it. Specially in a context like the Ugandan one, where it could appear as if culture is made possible by expats and (other) mzungu’s.

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