NA­TIONAL TREA­SURES

Financial Mail - - FEATURE - Carien du Plessis

The auc­tion in Paris last week of two Nige­rian arte­facts has re­vived the de­bate about the re­turn of African art­works

The 1967-1970 Bi­afran war was a bru­tal se­ces­sion­ist con­flict in Nige­ria in which up to 3-mil­lion peo­ple starved to death. Dur­ing that pe­riod, a large num­ber of sa­cred ob­jects were looted from the coun­try, and sold on to Euro­pean col­lec­tors. Among them were two wooden sculp­tures.

The male and fe­male fig­urines of Igbo deities, mea­sur­ing 1.5m, are cen­tral to a fresh con­tro­versy around the restora­tion of African arte­facts af­ter Bri­tish auc­tion house Christie’s put them un­der the ham­mer in Paris last Mon­day. They fetched €212,500 — well be­low the ex­pected €250,000-€350,000.

One of the lead­ing voices of protest against the auc­tion was Prince­ton Univer­sity art his­tory pro­fes­sor Chika Okeke-ag­ulu, who, la­belling it “Bi­afran blood art”, launched an on­line pe­ti­tion against the sale.

“My mother still mourns the overnight dis­ap­pear­ance of count­less sculp­tures from com­mu­nal shrines in my home­town, Umuoji,” he wrote on his blog. “Th­ese art raids … were spon­sored by deal­ers and their client col­lec­tors, mostly based in Europe and the US.”

Okeke-ag­ulu says his goal was to draw at­ten­tion “to the prob­lem of open buy­ing and sell­ing of stolen and looted art from Africa, and to dis­cour­age such com­merce”.

He be­lieves the mo­men­tum of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, sparked by the death of Ge­orge Floyd at the hands of US po­lice, could pro­vide the “winds … driv­ing the sail” of restora­tion.

Christie’s, how­ever, says there were no le­gal ob­sta­cles to the sale, as the fig­urines were “ac­quired by [art col­lec­tor] Jac­ques Ker­chache from an African dealer in either 1968 or 1969”.

“There is a le­git­i­mate mar­ket for th­ese stat­ues and the sale falls within our com­pli­ance and due dili­gence process.”

It’s a long-run­ning bat­tle, says Martins Ogun­tayo Akan­biemu, res­i­dent cu­ra­tor at the Oluse­gun Obasanjo Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary in the city of Abeokuta. “Nige­ria lost more than half of our cul­tural prop­erty through the ad­vent of Euro­peans, and th­ese were ob­tained in many clan­des­tine cir­cum­stances.”

Nige­ria’s 1953 An­tiq­ui­ties Or­di­nance made the trade of stolen arte­facts il­le­gal, and a 1970 Unesco con­ven­tion signed by Nige­ria banned the global trade in them.

But profit and sen­ti­men­tal value mean Western in­sti­tu­tions tend to hold on to the orig­i­nals, leav­ing African mu­se­ums with mere repli­cas, Akan­biemu says.

“They say the art­work is for mankind and not for Nige­ria alone, and by show­ing them where they are now it is pop­u­lar­is­ing Nige­rian art­work, which is in­sult­ing,” he says.

“We are say­ing they can­not pop­u­larise our art­work to the out­side world more than our­selves. It speaks more to us than them.”

Akan­biemu be­lieves the AU should is­sue a call for the re­turn of art­works, and em­bassies should ex­ert pres­sure to en­sure this is done.

In 2018, French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron an­nounced that the Quai Branly Mu­seum in Paris would re­turn looted trea­sures to Benin, and a num­ber of Euro­pean mu­se­ums com­mit­ted to do the same. But fears that the ob­jects would per­ish in African mu­se­ums meant that lit­tle ac­tion fol­lowed.

Clé­men­tine Deliss, as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor at the KW In­sti­tute for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Berlin and co-direc­tor of Lagosphoto Fes­ti­val, says there shouldn’t be con­di­tions at­tached to the re­turn.

“There is no way that any mu­seum with any kind of ethic to­day would make de­mands on the mu­seum in the for­mer colonised ter­ri­tory as to what they should do with their arte­facts,” she says.

Some, how­ever, are urg­ing cau­tion. Abu­jabased artist Numero Unoma calls Western col­lec­tors of stolen art­works “com­mon crim­i­nals dressed up in suits and [with] ti­tles”. But, she says, po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive po­lit­i­cal fault­lines — in­clud­ing re­newed calls for Bi­afran in­de­pen­dence — and the re­sul­tant eco­nomic des­per­a­tion could threaten the se­cu­rity of th­ese ob­jects.

“Gen­er­ally we [in Nige­ria] don’t have a track record of main­te­nance, be it build­ings, roads or schools,” Unoma says. “Eco­nomic des­per­a­tion” could mean “the few voices of rea­son will be drowned” and the arte­facts could be sold on again.

At the same time, the cul­tural value of re­turn­ing the ob­jects is im­mense. “Power is in be­ing able to iden­tify your­self, to be able to re­late your­self to a cer­tain group of peo­ple, and to val­i­date your iden­tity through an arte­fact,” says Oluwa­toyin Sogbe­san, an aca­demic at Ajayi Crowther Univer­sity in Oyo State.

She be­lieves such val­i­da­tion doesn’t have to wait for grand diplo­matic ges­tures but can start with “rapid resti­tu­tion”. It’s the theme of this year’s Lagosphoto, for which she is a guest cu­ra­tor. Or­gan­is­ers want or­di­nary peo­ple to post pho­tos on­line of per­sonal trea­sures as part of a “home mu­seum”.

African lead­ers and ac­tivists could rally around the is­sue of re­me­di­a­tion and heal­ing through the resti­tu­tion of cul­tural arte­facts, says Azu Nwag­bogu, direc­tor of the African Artists’ Foun­da­tion and Lagosphoto. “The cur­rent de­bate of­fers a light­ning rod for a new cul­ture-led form of pan-african­ism. The AU has an op­por­tu­nity to al­low cul­ture to drive a new unity.”

Getty Im­ages/afp/kelvin Ik­pea

Stolen her­itage: Two of the ‘Benin bronzes’, among those looted from Nige­ria by Bri­tish sol­diers dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, were re­turned in 2014 — a move that prompted calls for the repa­tri­a­tion of other stolen trea­sures

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