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.”
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