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.
How to Watch
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.