Fri, 09 Jan 2009 Feature Article

Response to "Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities"

Response to \

I enjoyed reading most of what Britt Peterson wrote in “Tales from the Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities” in The Nation* and strongly recommend to all who care about the debate on restitution of stolen/looted artefacts from Africa and elsewhere that are now in Western museums to adopt and ponder over Peterson's statement:

“Substitute Iraq for Egypt or Benin, and the selfish oversimplifications of Cuno's defense become clear. Sometimes the best test for arguments about the past is a more thorough look at the present.”

We must however point out that the following statement from the author is obviously wrong in many aspects

“For Cuno, however, to harp on this is to get hung up on ancient history. He reminds his readers that the Benin bronzes are divided among Chicago, London and various European cities, where they are loved and cared for and seen by many thousands of people every year. The idea of returning them to Lagos, one of the world's most dangerous cities, or anywhere else in Nigeria, with its poverty, civil unrest and ethnic violence, seems absurd, especially given that only ethnic Yoruba (about one-fifth of the population) claim any racial or cultural connection to the Benin Empire”.

I will not speak about Cuno since his views have been widely discussed by many, including this writer nor will I seek to underplay the chaotic nature of life in Lagos nor the existence of ethnic strife in Nigeria.

Lagos may not be the easiest place on earth and may appear chaotic to those coming from simpler or well-organized city. However, one should bear in mind, when talking about Lagos in connection with art that this is one of the most creative spots on earth. We recall that many famous African musicians, such as Fela Kuti were based in this bustling city. Bobby Benson and host of others made Lagos famous for High Life and Afro Beat. The number of night clubs that Lagos had at one time could not be counted. The number of theater plays that have debuted in Lagos as well as the many art galleries and artists to be found in the cultural capital of Nigeria should also not be ignored.

But Lagos is not in Edo and it should not be confused with Benin City. To talk about Lagos when discussing the return of the Benin bronzes is surely misleading. It is like talking about the congestion in Central London when discussing the return of Scottish national treasures to Edinburgh. What is the relevance of the London conditions? Since when have traffic congestion and physical conditions of cities been relevant to the question of restitution? Are deprived owners in congested and chaotic cities not entitled to recover their looted artworks?

What has the existence of ethnic strife in Nigeria got to do with the restitution of the Benin bronzes? Did anybody ever suggest that because of ethnic strife in Northern Ireland one should take away cultural objects from Britain or Northern Ireland.? What about the ethnic strife between the Catalans and the Spanish, the Basques and the Spanish? There is ethnic strife in France, involving the Basques, the Corsicans and the Breton. Would this lead to deny restitution to those living in France or Spain? What about the constant conflicts between the Flemish and the Francophones in Belgium? Will these ethnic strives in Europe prevent restitution of cultural objects?

Before one says anything about the Yoruba or any other African peoples, one must seek information about the people concerned. A great nation as the Yoruba, with their highly developed culture, whether in music, sculpture, theatre, poetry or literature should in no way be presented as related to chaos. The contribution of Yoruba culture to Brazilian and other Latin American cultures is no secret to those with access to the internet.

The view that the “Benin bronzes are divided among Chicago ,London and various European cities ,where they are loved and cared for and seen by many thousands of people every year” requires some comment.

It must be mentioned that after the British invaded Benin City in 1897, they sold many of the thousands of looted objects in the same year and they were bought by Europeans and Americans who were aware they were buying stolen goods. It not out of a desire of care or love that these looted objects are in the Western world. Caring for and loving stolen objects does not excuse or explain the initial wrongdoing. Love and care have been used by Europeans over centuries to convince the world that out of their nefarious acts in Africa, America and Asia, there has been some good. They learnt from the Romans that “Malum nullum est sine aliquo bono”.

It is very misleading to say that the Benin bronzes are seen by “many thousands of peoples every year”. Most of the Benin artefacts are not on permanent display in any museum. They are only shown in major exhibitions from time to time. True a few of these objects are on permanent or regular exhibition. Incidentally, most museums do not make available a catalogue or list of the Benin artefacts they hold.

One can hardly talk about people loving objects they hardly see. Indeed, very few people in cities like Berlin where the Ethnology Museum holds 580 Benin artefacts are aware that these objects are in their cities. Very few Viennese realize that there are some 167 of these objects in the Ethnology Museum, Vienna.

The statement that “only ethnic Yoruba (about one-fifth of the population) claim any racial or cultural connection to the Benin Empire” is surely wrong. The people of Benin, (not to be confused with the Republic of Benin), the Edo are living people, with a thriving culture and civilization under their king, the Oba who is a great-grandson of the famous king Ovonramwen, from whose palace the British stole these objects in 1897. His grandsons have recently renewed their call to the western museums for a return of some the looted objects.

We should not fall for the colonialist propaganda, spread by anthropologists that they were collecting and saving cultural objects from peoples who were about to disappear from the face of the earth. Most of those deprived of their cultural treasures are still in existence and demand their return.

Kwame Opoku, 9 January, 2009

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