He looked Whiteness in the eye
And with a steady hand
Turned it Off.
(For Virgil Abloh)
|Warrior Chief, 16th Century, Benin Kingdom. Now-returned by the Met|
This past Monday, according to news reports, The Metropolitan Museum of Art officially handed over two Royal Benin plaques to representatives of the Federal Government of Nigeria, following an announcement last summer that it was planning to return these two artifacts. Fantastic news! Bravo to the Met for keeping to its word. I wasn’t there, but I am sure the Nigerians were thrilled to get back artifacts that should not have left their care in the first place. But there is a problem with how that event seemed to have concluded.
Here’s the thing. The two objects returned this week have a different history from the 160 or so “Benin Bronzes” in the Met’s collection. According to the Museum, of these two, one was part of a collection it received in the early 1990s; the other was offered to the Museum recently. Both, it was discovered, had been in the collection of the Lagos Museum, after they were acquired from Britain by Nigeria decades ago. The Met, in other words, did not want to keep artifacts illegally removed from another museum (in museum-speak, they were never deaccessioned by the Lagos museum, and so had no business turning up in the international market). To be sure, most self-respecting museums would do the same as the Met. However, the news and festivity around the return of these two objects seem to have come at the WRONG time, if you ask me. Why? Well, because, it is being conflated with the restitution of Royal Benin Bronzes looted in 1897 and now scattered mostly in Europe and the US, including the 160 held by the Met.
|Junior Court Official, 16th Century, Benin Kingdom. Now-returned by the Met.|
Let’s be clear. The return of the two objects illegally removed from the Lagos Museum must not be confused with and is not equivalent to the announcement by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art that it intends to return the Benin Bronzes in its collection; or with the pledge by the German Government to return more than 1100 Benin Bronzes; or with the return two weeks ago by the French Government of 26 Dahomey Treasures to Benin Republic; or with the returns recently by Jesus College and University of Edinburgh of Royal Benin artifacts they once held. The Met has not said that it has any intention of returning any of the 160 objects in its collection. It appears to be sticking with the position that it acquired the looted objects legally. Reports from the Monday ceremony indicate that that position has not changed, and that is why no one should think otherwise.
Here is the part of the news reports that I am talking about. According to @hyperallergic and @observer, the Met and representatives of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments “entered into a shared agreement to collaborate on mutual loans of Benin objects and other “exchanges of expertise and art.” LOANS. Yes, the Met returned two artifacts that disappeared from the Lagos Museum, and while handing them over agreed with the Nigerians on a mutual loan of Benin artifacts! I thought that after nearly half a decade of debate and discourse on restitution, we have moved beyond the silly, dishonest, and arrogant notion of loaning looted objects to their original claimants. If there is going to be any loaning of Royal Benin Art, it will have to be done by their Nigerian owners, not some Western institutions that have so far refused to acknowledge the fact that they are keeping looted objected.
So, here is a big Thank You! to the Met for returning the two objects. To the Nigerian museum officials: keep your damn house in order! But the second part of the ceremony last Monday, the one about “mutual loan agreement” is most regrettable and must be rejected by advocates of restitution of looted Royal Benin artifacts. Others are moving to return and restitute; the Met is talking about loans. Are you kidding me?
Here is what Barnaby Phillips said back in June when the Met announced its plan to return to the Benin Bronzes. "But in returning these specific plaques, [the Met is] making an unacknowledged distinction between them and the rest of their Benin Bronzes. They are giving these two back because they were stolen from Nigerian Museums after independence, not because they were looted in 1897, This return is about PR and legality, not morality"
I could not agree more.
The debate about restitution and the ethics of Western museums’ owning African artworks collected during the era of colonization has never been more in the public eye. Most well-known, perhaps, are the “Benin bronzes,” artistic and royal heirlooms made since the 13th century by highly specialized metalworkers in the Kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria). In 1897, British forces sacked the capital of this prosperous kingdom. They tore sculptures and plaques from the palace walls, and took them back to Europe, where the looted treasures were sold to museums and private collectors. The royal court of Benin, Nigerian officials, and high-profile scholars such as Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu (Princeton) have been demanding their return for decades. Increasingly, museums based in the Global North have been listening to these calls for repatriation, and some have pledged to return works from their collections. To provide a new home for the repatriated works, plans for a new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), are currently in development with world renowned architect Sir David Adjaye leading the building design project.
On the occasion of Wish You Were Here: African Art & Restitution, a public investigation into our own collection at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), Sir David Adjaye and Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu will discuss their current and recent projects that address how works of art may re-enter the societies they were torn away from. Laura De Becker, Interim Chief Curator and the Helmut and Candis Stern Curator of African Art at UMMA, will introduce the event.
Sir David Adjaye OBE is an award winning Ghanaian-British architect known to infuse his artistic sensibilities and ethos for community-driven projects. His ingenious use of materials, bespoke designs and visionary sensibilities have set him apart as one of the leading architects of his generation. In 2000, David founded his own practice, Adjaye Associates, which today operates globally, with studios in Accra, London, and New York taking on projects that span the globe. The firm’s work ranges from private houses, bespoke furniture collections, product design, exhibitions, and temporary pavilions to major arts centers, civic buildings, and master plans. His most well known commission to date, The National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC opened on the National Mall in Washington DC in 2016 and was named Cultural Event of the Year by The New York Times.
In 2017, Adjaye was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and was recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the year by TIME Magazine. Most recently, Adjaye was announced the winner of the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Approved personally by Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Gold Medal is considered one of the highest honors in British architecture for significant contribution to the field internationally. Sir Adjaye is also the recipient of the World Economic Forum’s 27th Annual Crystal Award, which recognizes his “leadership in serving communities, cities and the environment.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, an artist, critic and art historian, is director of the Program in African Studies and professor of African and African Diaspora art in the Department of African American Studies, and Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University. His books include Yusuf Grillo: Painting. Lagos. Life (Skira, 2020); Obiora Udechukwu: Line, Image, Text (Skira, 2016); Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (2015); and (with Okwui Enwezor), Contemporary African Art Since 1980 (2010). He recently co-organized, with Okwui Enwezor, El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale (Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2019). He is co-editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, has written for The New York Times and Huffington Post, and maintains the blog Ọfọdunka.
His many awards include The Melville J. Herskovits Prize for the most important scholarly work in African Studies published in English during the preceding year (African Studies Association, 2016); and Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism (College Art Association, 2016).Okeke-Agulu serves on the advisory boards of the Hyundai Tate Research Centre, Tate Modern, London, The Africa Institute, Sharjah, and Bët-bi/Le Korsa Museum Project, Senegal. He is also on the advisory council of Mpala Research Center, Nanyuki, Kenya; serves on the executive board of Princeton in Africa, and on the editorial boards of African Studies Review and Journal of Visual Culture.
Laura De Becker is the Interim Chief Curator and the Helmut and Candis Stern Curator of African Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). A specialist in Central African art, she joined UMMA after a fellowship at Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. After many years of working with a team to research to envision a new installation of UMMA’s African art collection, De Becker’s We Write to You About Africa, a project that doubled the footprint of the African galleries at UMMA, opened in September 2021. De Becker’s work on the reinstallation led to Wish You Were Here: African Art & Restitution, a separate project grappling with issues of restitution, also on view at UMMA for the 2021 – 22 academic year.
Lead support for the UMMA exhibition Wish You Were Here: African Art & Restitution is provided by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Wish You Were Here: African Art & Restitution is on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (525 S. State St.) through July 3, 2022.
Presented in partnership with UMMA, with support from Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Our Fall 2021 Series is brought to you with the support of our partners, Detroit Public Television and PBS Books.
|Portraits of Kings Glele, Ghezo and Behanzin|
photo courtesy, BBC.com
|King Ghezo's Throne|
Here is the link to the CBC interview:
And here is the link to the TRT interview: