Two years ago, during a trip to Venice, the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor stepped out on a Sunday to see a sprawling exhibition by the British artist Damien Hirst, which was on view at two museums, the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi. Titled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” the exhibition purported to show objects salvaged from a fictional capsized ship—the Unbelievable—discovered, or so the story went, off the coast of East Africa in 2008.
While the exhibition’s premise was fabricated, the objects themselves were not, as Ehikhamenor, who was in town to represent Nigeria at the Venice Biennale, soon discovered. At the Palazzo Grassi, he found himself face-to-face with the sculpture of a woman’s head that was a replica of free-standing brass heads created during the 14th and 15th centuries by artisans in the Kingdom of Ife, which encompassed some of present-day Nigeria. A short bit of text accompanying the Hirst sculpture included a superficial acknowledgment of its origins, describing it as “stylistically similar to the celebrated works from the Kingdom of Ife.” In the museum shop, postcards for the exhibition featured the image with no attribution at all.
Ehikhamenor immediately objected to what he considered to be tantamount to theft, and he took to Instagram to express his displeasure. “The British are back for more,” he wrote, and then explained why he considered the Hirst piece so potentially damaging: “For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s.” The post went viral.
Hirst’s representatives insisted that the text accompanying the Ife sculpture was sufficient to convey the provenance of the work. But to Ehikhamenor and other Nigerians, the incident betrayed a widespread assumption among Western artists and critics that works of merit and value can’t possibly be wholly African; ultimately, they must belong, in one way or another, to Europe. This assumption was underscored by an excerpt from the exhibition text stating that Leo Frobenius, the German ethnologist, “was so surprised by the discovery of the Ife heads that he deduced that the lost island of Atlantis had sunk off the Nigerian coast, enabling descendants of Greek survivors to make the skillfully executed works.”The reaction to Ehikhamenor’s post fed into a broader, long-running debate in the global art world about who owns African art and artifacts, and where and how they should be displayed. It’s a debate that has taken on new urgency in recent months, following the release last November of a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The report, by the academics Benedicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal, recommends the return of African artifacts that are being held in French museums. Though its authors stressed that they don’t envision comprehensive restitution—the report advises the return of “any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions”—even partial restitution would represent a marked departure from the status quo.
As Savoy told The New York Times when the report was made public, the goal is to achieve “a rebalancing of the geography of African heritage in the world, which is currently extremely imbalanced, as European museums have almost everything, and African museums have almost nothing.”
Well before the Savoy and Sarr report was even commissioned, Nigeria was engaged in a similar debate related to the fate of its Benin Bronzes, a different set of prized artifacts that date to the 13th century. The Bronzes are a collection of over a thousand metal plaques commissioned by the Oba, or absolute ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin, to decorate his Royal Palace, in what is now southern Nigeria. They were archival in nature, establishing a record of events at the time and commemorating royal life, ancestry and trade.
They also reflected the prosperity of the Kingdom of Benin, a sprawling empire in West Africa with territory that is said to have reached present-day Togo and Ghana. Steered by a succession of Obas, it flourished thanks to a thriving trade in palm oil, silver, ivory, rubber and other commodities; it was also heavily involved in the slave trade. The Kingdom of Benin was doing business with the rest of the world, predominantly Portugal, long before colonial incursions into the African continent.
The Bronzes were stolen in 1897 by a British expedition that was part of an effort to overthrow the Oba, who had refused to bow to British authority. The British delegation burned the Royal Palace in Benin City to the ground and transported the Bronzes away by sea, depositing them in the British Museum. Some ended up in the possession of British officials who were involved in the expedition, and others were sold to European museums.
Nigeria has been asking for the return of the Bronzes since before it attained independence from Britain in 1960. Between 1950 and 1972, the British Museum sold 30 of the artifacts back to the Nigerian government; they are now in the National Museum in Lagos. The British Museum has also sold some artifacts, erroneously believed to be “duplicates,” to private dealers.
But in 2002, Brian Durrans, then the museum’s keeper of ethnography, lamented these transactions in a statement to The Guardian, saying the British Museum should have held onto the pieces. And to this day, the British Museum insists that the 700 Bronzes still in its possession should be returned to Nigeria only as part of a temporary loan program. The Savoy and Sarr report discourages such arrangements, saying stolen works should be returned outright.
Long before Macron became interested in the restitution of African art, Nigerians were campaigning for the return of the looted Benin Bronzes.The Bronzes are not the only items in the British Museum entangled in restitution fights. In a long-running dispute, Greece has been trying unsuccessfully to get the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, returned to Athens. In a statement in 2015 related to their fate, the British Museum indicated that it could provide the best home for such works. “The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allow a global public to examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected human cultures,” its trustees declared. “The Parthenon Sculptures are a vital element in this interconnected world collection. They are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries.”
But the implication here is that the West is the center of the world. Left unsaid is the fact that many Africans must navigate stringent visa requirements and finance expensive trips to visit institutions like the British Museum, where works from their homeland are presented out of context, divorced from local histories and seen instead through a decidedly Western lens.
Back in countries like Nigeria, meanwhile, the legacy of British colonialism and Western missionaries combined with the continued cultural and soft-power influence of the British and the West at large have created an environment that conditions local populations to devalue and neglect their own history, which is not taught in schools or otherwise celebrated. “Our minds need to be reconstructed,” Ehikhamenor said during an interview last November in his Lagos studio. “We have been taught to hate our own culture. Do we know the value of what we want back?”
To Loan or to Own?
Some Western scholars argue that African countries—the very homes of the people who created the art works being considered for restitution, and who had religious, cultural and communal functions for them going back many centuries before they were stolen or otherwise removed—need to demonstrate that they have the capacity to hold them today.
“There are some strong and dynamic museums in Africa, but many institutions have suffered, despite the dedication of staff, from underinvestment and the indifference of governments,” Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, wrote in The Art Newspaper in response to the Savoy and Sarr report. “The collections they already hold, and those that might be returned, cannot be made accessible, and cannot be of public benefit, unless there are sustained efforts to develop capacity and improve facilities.”
Other commentators have questioned whether artifacts that might be returned would be safe in Africa. There is usually little elaboration as to what the artifacts need to be kept safe from, though some express concern about the black market trade in antiquities.
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with children during a visit to a school in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Nov. 28, 2017. During the same visit, Macron announced that returning African artifacts would be “a top priority” (AP photo by Ahmed Yempabou Ouoba).
But if the black market is indeed a major source of worry, the solution to that problem rests outside Africa. “The black market is supported by Europe and America and powerful Asian countries, and exists because of the rabid collection passion of Europeans, Americans and Asians,” says Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of art history at Princeton University. “European countries know what to do to discourage those markets, but that is a separate argument.” He adds that there is no reason to assume that Europeans would be more preoccupied with the safety of, say, the Benin Bronzes than Nigerians are.
In the decades since the British Museum’s sale of 30 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, the clamor for the return of the rest of them has not abated. The subject of potential loan arrangements was first broached ahead of the second pan-African Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture, which was held in 1977 in Lagos. The Nigerian government asked the British Museum for the temporary return of a marquee piece: an ivory carving mask of Idia, the first Iyoba, or Queen Mother, of the Kingdom of Benin. The British Museum refused to comply with the request.
Two decades later, in 1997, Bernie Grant, a black British-Guyanan MP, established the African Reparations Movement, an advocacy group that pressed for the return of African artifacts, including the Benin Bronzes, to their homelands. Grant made his case both in the British Parliament and in protests outside it, but he was widely ignored.
In 2000, Prince Edun Akenzua, the brother of the Oba at the time, took his case to the British House of Commons, also to no effect.
Then, in 2002, Nigeria’s House of Representatives passed a resolution asking then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to formally request that the British Museum return the works. But the resolution was not acted upon by Obasanjo’s government.
In 2007, at the initiative of Nigeria’s National Council for Museums and Monuments and the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, a consortium known as the Benin Dialogue Group was formed. The group now consists of eight museums in several European countries, including the British Museum. Since 2010 the group has met annually with Nigerian officials, including the leadership of the National Council for Museums and Monuments, to discuss how best to respond to requests for Kingdom of Benin-era works to be returned.
The latest push to bring the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria has come from the sitting Oba Ewuare II, a former ambassador to Sweden and Italy who ascended to the throne as Oba in October 2016. A contemporary Oba is the most powerful of Nigeria’s traditional rulers. Though Oba Ewuare II is unelected and exists outside the structure of the government, he wields considerable influence over local populations in matters of economics, politics and culture.
As a direct descendant of the royal family from whom the Bronzes were stolen over a century ago, Oba Ewuare II has made their return a top priority. He has joined forces with Godwin Obaseki, the governor of the state of Edo in southern Nigeria, within which the Kingdom of Benin now exists.
Recently, the restitution debate has returned to the possibility of “long-term loans.” In October, a month before the Savoy and Sarr report was released, the Benin Dialogue Group issued a statement providing an update on plans to create a museum in Benin City, the capital of Edo state, “where a permanent display of Benin art works from European and Nigerian museums will be shown.” The museum, known as the Benin Royal Museum, will be built on the grounds of the Royal Palace, which was rebuilt after being burned down in 1897.
Recently, the debate about returning Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes has focused on “long-term loans.” But the proposed arrangement has its critics.The group’s statement stressed that such an arrangement would not preclude a more comprehensive, and permanent, form of restitution. “This event occurs within a wider context and does not imply that Nigerian partners have waived claims for the eventual return of works of art removed from the Royal Court of Benin, nor have the European museums excluded the possibility of such returns,” the statement said. “However this is not part of the business of the Benin Dialogue Group.”
Enotie Ogbebor, a member of the Benin Dialogue Group’s steering committee and an adviser to Gov. Obaseki, says the current plan calls for the Benin Royal Museum to be established within three years. He says members of the Benin Dialogue Group have committed to helping the museum raise money and train staff. European museums that currently hold artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin will contribute artifacts from their collections to the “permanent display” on a rotating basis. It is unclear how long individual pieces will stay in Nigeria.
Though perhaps not ideal, these terms are satisfactory, for now, to the Edo state government and align with Obaseki’s vision, according to Ogbebor. “For the governor, it is a low-hanging fruit that needs to be utilized to bring back a sense of self, a sense of self-realization, and the pride of the people.”
In addition to campaigning for the return of the Bronzes, the Edo state government has instituted extracurricular culture clubs in schools across the state to teach the history of the Kingdom of Benin. It has also forged an agreement with a private educational consultancy to retrain teachers and overhaul the current curriculum. One objective is to improve the teaching of the Bini language, which is widely spoken in Edo state but not taught or preserved through education.
In 2017, the government launched an annual festival of arts and culture known as Edo Fest. The most recent edition, held this past December, included a photo exhibition in the the Royal Palace of images of the Benin Bronzes on display in different museums across the world. “We want to give further awareness to our people about the Bronzes and continue the advocacy for their restitution,” says Osaze Osemwegie-Ero, the state commissioner for arts, culture and tourism.
The state government hopes these various initiatives will re-establish Edo as a tourism draw for visitors from all over the world. But its plans have critics. Some have questioned whether the Edo state government is being made to jump through unnecessary hoops just to get its artifacts back.
“The Europeans have no right to determine for the Africans where and how to care for these objects,” says Okeke-Agulu, the Princeton professor. “Having said that, it is also in the best interests of the sovereign entities presumed to be the owners of these objects to make sure they mobilize their local publics to be part of the discussion about the fate of the objects and how to care for them in the best interests of their citizenry.”
Others, like Christine Mungai, a Kenyan journalist and commentator, have rejected loan arrangements outright. “There should be no cooperation, circulation, and long-term loans of these objects: just a clear, unequivocal, restitution,” she wrote in a December 2018 opinion piece for Al Jazeera. “And to restitute—for those in the West who are not aware—literally means to return an item to its legitimate owner.”
Ogbebor insists that the Benin Dialogue Group is not imposing burdensome conditions on the state. “The return of the works is not predicated on the building of the museum,” he says. “If the works are returned tomorrow, there are many safe places to keep them until we feel it is appropriate to display them.”
The experience of the Greek Elgin Marbles, however, suggests that Ogbebor is perhaps overly optimistic. In 2009, Athens opened the Acropolis Museum, a step widely seen as a precondition for returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece. A decade later, they remain in the British Museum.
This history might go some way toward explaining why Theophilus Omogbai, the curator of the National Museum in Benin City, says long-term loans, rather than permanent restitution, represent “the most practical solution for now.”
“It will be a tall order for museums to empty their collections.”
A visitor walks past a door of a palace from the Kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin, on display in the Quai Branly museum, Paris, Nov. 23, 2018 (AP photo by Michel Euler).
Outside the Museum Walls
Beyond merely getting the Benin Bronzes back to Nigerian soil, there is the question of how they should be displayed and used. Just because the Europeans have put them in museums doesn’t mean that’s the only answer, says Victor Ehikhamenor, the artist who took issue with the Hirst exhibition in Venice. “The works are not supposed to be behind glass,” Ehikhamenor, who hails from Edo state, adds. “They were more functional and represented deities. They were not art for art’s sake.”
Okeke-Agulu similarly argues that even though the contemporary context is radically different from when the Benin Bronzes were made, their former uses should not be completely overlooked. “They are objects that the original owners might determine are still important in their religious rituals and cosmological system,” he says. “In which case, they should be involved in the discussion of the return of such objects.”
There is some precedent for this kind of restitution. In 1973, the Afo-A-Kom, a beaded, wooden statue created in the 1920s by the Kom Kingdom in northwestern Cameroon, was returned to the Kom people after it turned up at an art auction in New York. The statue was allocated to the Kom people’s royal collection and resumed its function as a ritual object, which is still displayed annually during festivals.
Ogbebor believes the museum planned for Edo state could provide a somewhat similar service, in the sense that it would reconnect the region to the history and power of the Benin Bronzes.
In addition to Nigerian museum-goers, there are others who stand to benefit from the Bronzes’ return: the descendants of the men who created them in the first place. In the heart of Benin City, a guild of artists known as the Igun Street Bronze Casters keeps the tradition of the Benin Bronzes alive. Their base is situated next to the site of the National Museum in Benin.
“Imagine if Buckingham Palace was attacked, the Queen overthrown and the crown jewels stolen and sold. That was what happened to the Benin Kingdom.”These days, the bronze casters take orders to replicate iconic works such as the Queen Idia mask, or to create new masks in the image of the clients who commission them. The level of public interest is not what it could be, according to Nosa Omodamwen, who comes from a long line of bronze casters and owns works created by his ancestors dating back to the 19th century.
As someone who has devoted his life to bronze casting, Omodamwen, 35, regrets that local awareness of the history and significance of the Benin Bronzes has diminished throughout the years. He points out that a large portion of his clientele are European tourists.
If the return of the Bronzes to Edo state could reverse that trend, so much the better, he says. He hopes that by bringing the fabled Bronzes back to the region, the government will reignite appreciation among people in Edo and help inspire modern-day casters to improve their craft.
“We do not create with the patience that our fathers used to,” he says. “They could spend months, years on an artwork because they were creating works for a king and had the highest possible standards.”
Ogbebor, for his part, attempts to illustrate the value of the Bronzes another way: by evoking a scenario in which artifacts were targeted not in Nigeria but in the West.
“Imagine if Buckingham Palace was attacked, the Queen overthrown and the crown jewels stolen and sold. That was what happened to the Benin Kingdom,” he says. “Imagine if Western civilizations didn’t have their Van Goghs, Mozarts, Beethovens. What would that have done to their civilizations?”