It was so successful it had to be hunted down, packed up and sent out again. The travelling exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria (tiresomely renamed “African Masterpieces” — but that’s another story) has come to Stockholm after it was already disassembled and back in Nigeria, having successfully toured nearly a dozen cities across Europe and the United States. It has by all accounts been a rip-roaring success of Nigerian (and Yoruba) nationalist PR, with journalists ladling on the justified hyperbole (“an exceptional exhibition … artworks that rank with the Terracotta Army, the Parthenon or the mask of Tutankhamun as treasures of the human spirit”) — made possible through close economic and social co-operation between some of the biggest, most powerful historical museums in the former colonizing powers and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. The latter owns the artifacts in the exhibit, packaged it, co-selected and co-organised it, and sends two officials to participate and learn throughout each exhibition period. The co-operation is to its significant benefit.

And yet — the shadows of the flames still flicker.

On February 18th, 1897, the British army perpetuated one of the greatest premeditated crimes against the world’s cultural heritage, well comparable to the burning of the library in Alexandria. In a pre-planned move, an army unit entered Ife’s huge successor city-state Benin and utterly destroyed it, wrenching its artworks off the walls and piling them as scrap, systematically burning down each palace in turn before reducing the king’s palace to rubble. Of the largest pre-colonial walled city in West Africa remained a burnt-out husk, and thousands of invaluable artworks were irrevocably lost. Others, some 2500 objects in total, were sold and now form a crucial part of the collections of African artworks at every European museum. All of the institutions involved here (including the Swedish Museums of World Culture) have, directly and indirectly, benefited enormously from the looting of 1897.

It is no wonder, then, that the exhibition has received significant criticism from inside Nigeria. How can the Nigerian government be willing to lend treasured objects to an institution that, just a few hundred meters away, still keeps the shameful products of colonialism’s crimes? The answer, from the government perspective, is quite sensible in some ways: it’s working, but silently.

“We’re using this exhibit to share Nigeria’s past with the rest of the world, modifying Nigeria’s image,” Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, told me at the press showing. “For institutions, we’re showing that even if the artifacts were returned, we’re still able to lend them out, they can still come back, they’re not disappearing inside Nigeria forever.” And they’re working quietly behind the scenes, co-operating, trying to find common ground: “We’re talking among our colleagues, holding a series of meetings. It may not be earth-shattering, but dialogue is really the only way that works in these matters. I firmly believe that one day, all the artifacts will be returned to Nigeria.”

The Nigerian government is using the co-operation built up during exhibits like this in order to try to get the desired results.

Fair enough.

But goodwill is a fragile hope indeed, and to an extent the co-operation is a two-edged sword: push too forcefully, and the exposure, the profitable exhibits and the training exchanges are going to disappear. Considering the power structures that prevail in the post-colonial world, perhaps this lucrative self-gagging is indeed the best use of a limited freedom of action for now, but will it really have the desired effect in the long term? It may be that the former colonial powers have too much of their conceptual position invested in the idea that they have the right to retain these objects. As art historian Jonathan Harris writes with respect to the British (p. 275, quoted in the article above):

To return [the Benin artefacts] would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts … Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy.

* The exhibition Afrikanska Mästerverk (African Masterpieces) is shown in the Skeppsholmen Caverns in Stockholm until February 2014.

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Johan Palme

Freelance journalist, curator and activist working out of Stockholm, Sweden.

3 thoughts on “Artifact Restitution and the Silken Gag of Co-operation

  1. Comparable to the burning of the Library of Alexandria? Not really.
    Benin at the time had a fascinating history of slave trade and human sacrifice.
    Are you thinking Benin city would be intact to this day with all its buildings and artifacts had the Brits not invaded?
    The bronzes should probably be returned, to be properly displayed as part of Benin’s rich heritage.

  2. And what “great civilization” didn’t? :) (Certainly not the British! Well, if you substitute “human sacrifice” for “wanton genocide”, or whatever. Doesn’t stop me admiring the works of Shakespeare.) And while it may not have had the impact of Alexandria, in some ways I find it more appaling: Rather than motivated by rapine and ignorance, it was a very deliberate act of cultural destruction. In that context, what Benin was or wasn’t matters little. It would be like bombing world-heritage medieval Dresden to get at Hitler. (Er. Wait… Hm.)

    Am I thinking it would be intact today? Well, contrafactual history is never really going to be answerable, but note that it had been intact for nearly 300 years by that point, what’s to suggest otherwise? Movements for archaelogical and historical-site preservation were already well underway by 1897, and even if the Benin dynasty would have subsequently died out, the impetus to preserve might well have prevaled. (Just look at what happened with the Ifé artifacts in this exhibition just 35 years later and the perfect state they’re preserved in today.) But then, we’ll never know, surely?

    The bronzes do need returning, though, you’re right. :)

  3. Thanks for highlighting this effort, it’s a mixed bag, It’s truly gracious that we share these works even as we try to reverse the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy that the larger stolen artifacts continue to represent.

    I’m angry that we have to negotiate for the return of our cultural heritage, how effed up is that? “Please oh former colonial master, please give us our heritage back! We promise we’ll still let you exhibit them.”

    It’s not enough that these avaricious scum purposefully destroyed the cultural heritage of an entire empire, what they did keep they refuse to return, and profit immensely from! The outrage! And priffe, show me any non-eurocentric sources for your “fascinating history of slave trade and human sacrifice” claim. Is that the only notable thing about the Benin kingdom that you can recall? you’re probably a racist.

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