Bronzes to Benin, gold to Ghana … mu­se­ums un­der fire on looted art

After France made a move to re­turn colo­nial era ex­hibits, Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tions face mount­ing pres­sure to fol­low suit, re­ports Ruth Maclean in Dakar

The Observer - - News -

Thou­sands of African art­works taken dur­ing the colo­nial era line the cab­i­nets and halls of UK in­sti­tu­tions, from the Wal­lace Col­lec­tion to the V&A mu­seum. They in­clude the Benin bronzes, the Ghana­ian Asante gold, and trea­sures stolen from the Ethiopian em­peror Te­wodros II dur­ing the 1868 Bat­tle of Mag­dala.

Now, fol­low­ing ground­break­ing moves by France to re­turn some of the works looted by its colo­nial forces, th­ese mu­se­ums are fac­ing calls from the African art world for an au­dit of who has what – and how much longer they should keep them.

“It’s a step in the right di­rec­tion. France has taken a bold po­si­tion,” said Iheanyi On­wueg­bucha, a cu­ra­tor at La­gos’s Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art, say­ing that the UK should fol­low suit. “Even if it’s never ever im­ple­mented, it would be good to know, at least, how many ob­jects from Nigeria are in Bri­tish col­lec­tions.”

A re­port com­mis­sioned by France’s pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, and re­leased last month, called for French law to be changed and thou­sands of African ob­jects in mu­se­ums to be re­turned. Vis­it­ing Burk­ina Faso last year, Macron said that en­abling African art to be show­cased “in Paris but also in Dakar, La­gos and Cotonou” would be a pri­or­ity.

Many say it should also be a pri­or­ity for the Bri­tish govern­ment. Sylvester Og­bechie, a Nige­rian pro­fes­sor of African arts and vis­ual cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, said Macron’s re­port was the first time a ma­jor west­ern leader ac­knowl­edged there was some­thing wrong with Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions hold­ing looted works, and was a “very pos­i­tive step”. He said how­ever he was not op­ti­mistic other coun­tries would do the same. He said racist at­ti­tudes that un­der­pinned colo­nial­ism had mostly not changed. “The racial el­e­ment is the primary is­sue. We need to stop talking about ca­pa­bil­i­ties or moral­ity. We’re deal­ing with the con­text of white supremacy.

“The west­ern world for some odd rea­son has never ac­cepted that Africans have the rights to their bod­ies or their own re­sources.”

The for­mer cu­ra­tor of the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s Africa gal­leries, Chris Spring, said France had “ev­ery right and rea­son to make that re­port”, and the “very con­tentious col­lec­tions” in the UK should be looked at. But he said the Bri­tish Mu­seum was a “mu­seum of the world for the world”.

“If Africa is not rep­re­sented, that is a dis­as­ter. I think we need to re­mem­ber Lon­don is a global African city, ar­guably the big­gest African city in the world, if you think of all the dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It’s re­ally im­por­tant that peo­ple of African her­itage liv­ing in the UK and in Europe can see cul­tural arte­facts of their own her­itage.”

The best-known African pieces in the Bri­tish Mu­seum are the Benin bronzes – in­tri­cate metal plaques that dec­o­rated the royal palace of Benin but were looted from what is now Nigeria by Bri­tish troops in 1897. The mu­seum has long re­sisted calls to re­turn the bronzes, but sev­eral ex­perts thought the French move would in­crease the pres­sure on it. Days before the re­port was pub­lished, the mu­seum an­nounced it would loan some of the most cel­e­brated pieces for an ex­hi­bi­tion at the planned Benin Royal Mu­seum in Nigeria’s Edo State within three years.

Ethics aside, the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of po­ten­tial resti­tu­tion con­cern some. Giles Pep­pi­att, Bon­hams’ di­rec­tor of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary African art, said that com­mis­sion­ing the French re­port was morally right, but ques­tioned its vi­a­bil­ity. “It’s a laud­able prin­ci­ple, but is it some­thing that can be done in an or­derly and cor­rect way? It’s not as easy as Macron says – it’s a tiny bit re­duc­tive.”

On­wueg­bucha echoed those con­cerns, say­ing many African coun­tries needed to se­ri­ously up­grade their fa­cil­i­ties before they could re­ceive the works.

“Nigeria is not ready to re­ceive any­thing,” he said, de­scrib­ing run­down, leak­ing mu­se­ums and in­sect­in­fested stor­age fa­cil­i­ties. Years with­out in­vest­ment in cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions had taken their toll, he said: “It’s be­yond shame, what we have.”

RIGHT Ashanti gold mask, stolen from mod­ern­day Ghana in 1873, and held by the Wal­lace Col­lec­tion. LEFTOne of the Benin bronzes held by the Bri­tish Mu­seum. Alamy

Em­manuel Macron made his pledge in Burk­ina Faso, after meet­ing pres­i­dent Roch Kaboré.

LEFT Ethiopian crown thought to have be­longed to Em­peror Te­wodros II, now part of the V&A col­lec­tion.

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