Nigeria: On Our Stolen Art and Getting Them Back

29 November 2020

Some years ago, I was a guest at an event organized by the British Museum in London. One of the perks of being a guest of the museum was a private tour (with the other guests) of a select exhibit. I seem to remember that what we were shown were exclusively Nigerian. The director of the museum, I think it was, sounded very proud of them, proprietary even of the artefacts. You know the kind of pride a new parent has in their tone when they are showing off their infant? That tone. And then some. They were beautiful, mostly heads from my recollection (old age, memory like a sieve etc.) and anyone would be proud to have them in their collection. I was expected to share this sense of proprietary pride. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I wanted to, the overriding emotion I felt was not pride but something else.

I was embarrassed. Underneath that embarrassment was anger too. I didn't like that I was being shown/ told about these at a museum in London, and also being told that they (might have) held a deep religious meaning for the people who owned them. I felt the same way I did on my first visit to the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium years before. I was offended that traditional art a people considered holy was incarcerated behind display windows in a European museum for visitors to gawk at, devoid of context save for a few lines of text. My brother-friend, the hugely talented artist, Victor Ehikamenor writes in a New York Times op-ed of his first visit to the British Museum to view the artefacts stolen from Benin City by the British at the end of the 19th century. He felt a similar "emotional wrench [standing] before the columns of brass plaques suspended from vertical rods at the lower level of the museum as if they were washed old underwear left to dry in the wind." Even though I lived in Belgium for many years, and went to Brussels a lot, I have never returned to the Africa Museum. Now, in London, I must have asked how they'd come about the works, maybe some unarticulated accusation slipped out of the edges of my polite voice because I seem to remember the conversation expanding to include, perhaps defensively, the culture of preservation in Nigeria. I think someone mentioned a museum in Nigeria where artefacts- heads in particular- were not being looked after properly. There was something about the workers in that museum being Christian and not wanting to touch the heads because they were concerned about juju. I might have tried to offer up some defense, but I doubt it was much more than a well we aren't even talking about that now, which is the kind of pathetic defense one gives when one does not want to discuss a painful topic. I was most likely, at that point, thinking of my paternal grandmother's kitchen stool. I never met my grandmother and that carved stool was a piece of her that I enjoyed running my hands over. One day, we returned to the village for Christmas and a well-meaning relative had painted the wood a glossy blue to make it "modern."

My question about how the museum acquired the pieces I was supposed to be admiring might have been interpreted as rhetorical. It probably was. Afterall, it is public knowledge that many of such artefacts in European and American museums were pillaged. Prof. Chika Okeke-Agulu, writing in The New York Times in 2017 recounts the story of his mother looking through a catalogue of sculptures from major European collections and recognizing that similar sculptures had been taken from shrines in her hometown during the civil war. Apparently, the Linden-Museum (in Stuttgart) alone has 60,000 objects from Africa. According to the director of the Africa Museum, Guido Gryseels 85 percent of their collection - some of which were plundered during colonization- comes from the Congo (the country Belgium's King Leopold treated like his personal property, chopping off limbs of workers who were not as productive as they ought to be).

In recent years there have been calls for European museums to return art looted from Africa. It really is a reasonable ask. What has been stolen should be returned. However, in many cases, the law prevents the museums from returning them. They can however, loan them out. They don't say the law is an ass for nothing. The British museum is going to loan Benin bronze heads to Nigeria (to be displayed at a museum in Benin city expected to be ready in 2024). I am keeping my fingers crossed.

It is a massive loss to us that these artworks were taken away from the continent and they can only be seen by those with the privilege of flying across the seas to museums owned by the same people responsible for the theft. I am solidly in support of the calls for their repatriation. However, at the same time as we are asking for what has been taken from us to be returned (as is right and just), we should also begin to foster a culture that ensures that they return to a country where they would be protected as jealously as they were in the countries that stole them. They must also be accessible to the general public. With the dearth of (good) public museums in Nigeria, what is likely to happen is that they remain in private hands- accessed only by those with wealth and privilege. That would be almost as bad as having them stolen in the first place.

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