Saturday, February 9, 2019

On Looted African Art: Are US Museums Playing the Ostrich?

When it comes to the question of returning looted African art and Benin Royal treasures, American museums are playing the ostrich. But for how long?
Collection: Ethnological Museum, Berlin
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Just about ten years ago, influential voices in the US artworld told us that art and cultural heritage from anywhere in the world belong to all humanity and therefore must be kept safe in fabulous universal museums in Europe and America that had amassed them primarily during the era of colonization.

It did not matter much, the argument went, how these objects, many of significant value to the communities, cultures, nations and states that originally owned them, ended up in these well-heeled museums. They all but wanted to be patted on the back as generous caretakers of global artistic and cultural heritage. Thankfully, few believed there was something strange, wrong and arrogant about this argument. But they were seen as purveyors of fringe thinking, inebriated by left-brewed, postcolonial theory Kool-Aid. Not anymore.

Two recent developments in Europe, one by the French government, the other by the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), established by a handful of major museums, have returned this debate to the center stage. But the Americans are MIA!

On November 28, 2017 in Ouagadougou, capital city the West African nation of Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron made history. First, he, the leader of a leading European nation, acknowledged that colonization was, for the colonized, a bad experience.

Second, he demolished the notion that European museums had a duty and right to keep art objects that filled their storage rooms and galleries, mostly acquired as part of Europe’s colonial-era pillaging of Africa’s cultural heritage. “African cultural heritage,” he said, “can no longer remain a prisoner of European Museums.” Holding on to these objects, Macron implied, perpetuates the violence and injustice of colonization, and is thus indefensible. In five years, he announced, these prisoners should go home! This is huge.   

But many were skeptical. What politics moved the French president to apologize for the evils of French colonialism and promise to return his country’s vast holdings of African art? Whatever made him do this, there is no question that it is a game changer.

This November, two scholars—Senegalese, Felwynn Sarr, and Benedicte Savory, French—appointed by Macron released their much-awaited report, a sort of action plan, on the restitution of African cultural heritage in French collections. Macron not only accepted it, he announced the immediate return of several prized royal objects looted in 1892 by the French army from the Dahomey Palace in today’s Republic of Benin.

Whereas the Macron-French solution to the problem of looted African art is dramatic, and quick-paced, and, some say, too precariously tied to the whims of their current head of state, that of the BDG is, well, in slow mo.

The decade-old BDG, eight museums in all, led by the British Museum London, Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, and the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK), Hamburg—Europe’s heavies—is concerned only about Benin Royal art. There is good reason for this. In 1897, in a so-called Punitive Expedition, the British army burned the vast Benin palace in today’s southern Nigeria. They looted thousands of centuries-old brass, ivory and art objects, and within a year the state auctioned off the entire thing to pay for the military campaign. The BDG museums now hold a lot of these looted stuff, and so are American big players like The Met, Chicago’s Field Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.

The BDG, critical of the Macron-French plan, see theirs as the real thing. They point to the fact that representatives of the Benin King and the Nigerian government are in the group. That one is the outcome of a presidential fiat, a one-man show; the other a dialogue of partners. They have a point. And just a few months ago, they announced their big plan: to support the building of a royal museum in Benin City in three years, train its staff and--here’s the deal--loan some of the looted objects to it. 
Collection: Ethnological Museum, Berlin
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

This sound great.

But there are is big problem with the BDG solution. How do you lend stolen objects back to its owner? Might not the Nigerians, by accepting these treasures on loan, be giving up their inalienable ownership claims? The group insists that this is not the case, but many are rightfully worried, still.
Say what you will though about the Europeans, they are engaged result-oriented actions, to right a historic wrong. Americans do not seem to think current restitution hoopla is their cup of tea. On this side of the Atlantic there is an indefensible silence. Perhaps they are waiting this out, comforted by the silly idea that their European cousins supervised the looting of African cultural heritage in the age of empire and must clean up their postcolonial mess.

In truth, American opinion has changed somewhat. Now it goes something like this: only in Europe where museums are state institutions, art and culture socialized, could the Macron type of political intervention be possible. They say that US museums, owned by private and corporate entities, cannot be bound by the government-level decisions, negotiations and agreements of any type. This at best is a convenient excuse. At worse they care less about African concerns.

Twenty years ago, representatives of forty-four countries, gathered in the US capital, signed the non-binding but historic Washington Principles—a set of guidelines for the return of art treasures looted by the Nazis from Jewish families. And just two years ago, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act became law to power up restitution claims that have had mixed results two decades on.
The point here is that US government and US museums have in fact seriously engaged in return of stolen cultural properties, but not those from Africa. Why? Perhaps because the African claimants do not have the kind of voice that gets to the ears of American cultural establishment? Or maybe Africa doesn't matter that much to them?

Last November at a symposium on colonialism and looted African cultural heritage at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, I heard someone justify the American commitment to the return of Nazi loots and not African treasures seized by European colonial powers. It was said that their restitution is necessary because, apart from doing the right thing for Jewish victims of Nazi terror, and possible because there’s good information about specific owners of the seized items. The same argument can be made for Africa.

African colonization was accompanied by systematic violence—of the killing, burning, and sacking of communities and kingdoms--but also destruction of cultures, traditions and social systems that sustained them. Moreover, we know when and where many expropriated African treasures came from and which public museums (and private collections) in the US and Europe have them.

So, here is a renewed call to trustees of American museums and the state-owned Smithsonian: since the loots from Benin palace in 1897 are very well documented, and the kingdom has repeatedly demanded the return of its art treasures, it is time to do the right thing. Either they join the BDG, emulate the French, or come up with their own better plan, binding or not. The clamor for the return of Benin Royal and African art is not going away; time’s up.   

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