Artifact Art Restitution and Western “Co-operation”

How can the Nigerian government be willing to lend treasured objects to an institution tha still keeps the shameful booty from colonialism's crimes?

1300s - early 1400s. Copper alloy. Found in 1938 by construction workers during excavation of a house plot at Wunmonijie Compound, Ife National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, Nigeria. Image is Creative Commons Licensed.

It was so successful it had to be hunted down, packed up and sent out again. The traveling exhibition “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria” (tiresomely renamed “African Masterpieces” (Afrikanska Mästerverk) — but that’s another story) has come to Stockholm after it was already disassembled and put 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-organized 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):

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.

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