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02.07.2019 Feature Article

You Cannot Go Very Wrong With Benin Artefacts: Made In Benin, They Belong To The Oba

Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.

One of the most noble incarnations of a people’s genius is its cultural heritage, built up over the centuries by the work of its architects, sculptors, painters, engravers, goldsmiths and all the creators of forms, who have contrived to give tangible expression to the many-sided beauty and uniqueness of that genius.

The vicissitudes of history have nevertheless robbed many peoples of a priceless portion of this inheritance in which their enduring identity finds its embodiment.

The men and women of these countries have the right to recover these cultural assets which are part of their being’.

A.M.M'Bow former Director-General, UNESCO, Paris. A Plea for the Return of an Irreplaceable Cultural Heritage

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Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Bode Museum, Berlin, on the way to Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany. How much more do German scholars still need to know about her before she can return home to Benin, Nigeria, after an exile dating from 1897?


We have recently received messages and links from friends indicating that there have been new voices in the debate over the perennial issues of restitution and that some of the new views and arguments deserve our attention. We looked at some of these new contributions and would like to state briefly our views and impressions.

We must state from the outset that we found no really new elements in the argumentation supporting refusal of restitution except that those coming new to these issues seem to think that nothing had been done or said before them. They seem to think that what appears new to them is in fact new. They may not be aware that for the last two decades there have been intensive discussions involving the high priests of the ‘universal museum’, James Cuno, Neil MacGregor and Philippe de Montebello; this trio of valiant defenders of Western museums and their illegal detention of looted cultural artefacts from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania, have dug out every possible argument to defend the withholding of the artefacts of those who have been subjugated by Western imperialism in its quest for world hegemony.

We shall not examine all the arguments presented recently since they generally repeat standard arguments in the imperialist arsenal. We will deal with only a few that must astonish all who have followed this debate in the last two decades.

The first and really disturbing argument is that the deprived nations have not asked for the return of the artefacts. This appears to be a favourite argument of Westerners. We have dealt with this in several articles and refer the reader to the internet sites of afrikanet.info, modernghana.com, museum security network.org. elginism.com We have had to write an article entitled How often does Nigeria have to ask for artefacts to be returned? Whilst a Nigerian minister was in Berlin to plead for the return of the Benin artefacts and other looted Nigerian objects, some were saying Nigeria had not asked for restitution. That the Oba of Benin sent in 2000 his brother to plead before the British Parliament for the return of the Benin objects, is merrily ignored by many even though the parliamentary records, Hansard, speak of the plea which is gone in history as APPENDIX 21 - publications.parliament.uk Representatives of the Ethnology Museum ,Berlin, and the Humboldt Forum boldly informed the Berlin Senate that in their meetings with Nigerian officials from the Commission on Museums and Monuments there was no question about restitution of the Benin artefacts. It makes you then wonder why they so often meet Nigerian officials and why the so-called Benin Dialogue Group exists at all and why the first document of this group bore the title. Benin plan of action for restitution

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Gold mask, 20 cm in height, weighing 1.36 kg of pure gold, seized by the British from Kumasi, Ghana, in 1874 and now in the Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom.

Many Western museum officials also conveniently forget that para 6.2 of ICOM Code of Ethics puts the obligation on the holding museum to take the initiative to start discussions on restitution of the artefacts: ‘Museums should be prepared to initiate dialogue for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin’. Therefore, the argument that some African peoples have not requested the return of their artefacts is not tenable. It should also be borne in mind that with imperialist despoliation and colonial loot, many African peoples have still today no idea about which museums are precisely holding their artefacts. How could they know? With discriminatory immigration rules, largely directed against Africans and the resultant refusals to grant visas for visit to Western States, how do Western museum officials think Africans would obtain knowledge about the whereabouts of their artefacts looted decades ago?

Another argument still presented is that given the existence of a modern State that is not coterminous with the people and culture that produced the artefact, where do we return the object? This argument is often presented with reference to the Benin artefacts, but it could also be presented in case of many other African peoples and cultures. Most people know by now that as a result of the callous division of African areas by imperialists powers in 1884, the boundaries of many African States run through the middle of many African cultural areas. This is evident in all West African countries. The same imperialists and their museums now ask where they could return artefacts, stolen a century ago. Dr. Mark Walker , the Briton who in 2014 returned two Benin artefacts to the Oba did not have a problem in finding his way. Could the museums learn from his experience?

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Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France, that has been recommended for restitution in the first phase of the process.

Those who invaded Benin in 1897 and robbed the Oba’s palace of thousands of artefacts now seem to experience difficulties in finding their way to the palace. They remind us that the government of Nigeria also exists and has claims. They forget that the State of Nigeria, of which Benin is an integral part, has a duty to protect the cultural artefacts of all Nigerian peoples, including those of the Edo people. Have the illegal holders of Benin artefacts ever indicated to the government of Nigeria or the Oba of Benin their willingness and readiness to return the looted artefacts if only they knew where to send them? The truth is that the co- existence of the modern African State and the various cultural groups and peoples within it offers a tempting ground for imperialists to practice their old game of divide et impera, to divide and rule as practised in the colonial period. The Nigerians have seen through this and work together. Where the Benin artefacts will be kept eventually is a matter that should be left to the Oba and the Nigerian government.

A variation of this pretence of not knowing where to return looted objects is to declare that the culture that produced the artefacts is now spread over two or three States. Akan, Senufo, Dan, Fang, Ewe, Mossi, and many other African peoples live in different States, thanks to imperialists manoeuvres. This apparently seems to present problems to Western holders of looted African artefacts. Have they ever informed the rightful owners of the looted artefacts that they are willing and ready to return the looted objects if only they knew which of the two or three States, they should send them to ? We need only to pose this question to realize that there has never been any desire to return the looted objects and indeed those now putting such arguments forward must know the answers the African States have received from Western museums. They only have to do a bit of archaeology of Western responses to African demands for restitution of looted artefacts. They will have to penetrate layers of obscurantist arguments.

What those who present the existence of two or three entities with probable claims to the same artefacts do not consider is the end effect of their argument. They say A and B may be entitled to ownership. We do not know to whom we should send the object and therefore do nothing. They do not consult both A and B and seek their advice. They presume there must be conflict between the two. In the end the museum which is the least entitled to ownership of the artefact keeps the object to the exclusion of two entities that have better claims to ownership. They should ask themselves who gave the imperialist museum the right to play judge in a case where it is holding a looted object. They must also realize that in fact they are determining and writing African history whilst depriving the owners the of the possibility to choose their path of development.

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Altar Group with Oba Ewuakpe. Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, German

The pretence of not knowing where to return looted African artefacts then appears very weak for in cases where there are no doubts where the objects should go, as in the case of Benin artefacts or Asante gold objects, the Western States have always refused to return the objects and have said so. They are still saying so even after decades of Resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly/ Unesco to return cultural property to their countries of origin. They are refusing to pay attention to . Emmanuel Macron's Declaration at Ouagadougou on 28 November 2017 to return looted African artefacts in French museums. They refuse to pay attention to the recommendations of the Sarr-Savoy report to return objects that were taken away without the consent of the owners. They have not advanced a single valid justification for not following the recommendations of the French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr .

In the heydays of the universal museum, the leaders of the imperialist ideology or if you prefer, imperialist museology, did not speak of provenance research in connection with the restitution of African artefacts. Both the imperialists and their victims knew where the objects came from and how they landed in the citadels of loot in Western Europe and the United States of America. No one needed to tell Neil MacGregor that the Asante gold objects in the British Museum came from the British invasions of Kumasi. David M. Wilson, MacGregor’s predecessor declared in The Collections of the British Museum as follows:

The Asante's skill in casting gold by the lost-wax method, and the use of elaborately worked gold to adorn the king and his servants is represented by many superb pieces which came to the Museum after British military intervention in Asante in 1874, 1896 and 1900.″ ( British Museum Press, 1989, p. 97). Similarly, MacGregor, just like any British citizen, knew that the Benin artefacts in the British Museum came from the British Punitive Expedition to Benin in 1897.

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Members of the nefarious British Punitive Expedition of 1897 posing proudly with looted Benin artefacts.

How Ethiopian artefacts landed in various Western museums, especially in British institutions, was part of the general education of the ruling classes in European countries though Tristram Hunt, Victoria and Albert Museum, has stated that his museum would have to examine the history of each Ethiopian artefact even though we know they all came from the invasion and plundering of Maqdala by the British in 1868.

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Portuguese soldier, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA

Indeed, nobody spoke about provenance research in connection with restitution of looted African artefacts. Previously, this concept of provenance research was largely used in connection with the restitution of Nazi looted objects. The main objective of this research was to trace how Jewish property was looted by the Nazis and to find the successors of the dispossessed person to whom the property should be returned. The original owners would have been mostly murdered by the Nazi.

Until fairly recently then, nobody raised an issue of provenance research in connection with restitution of looted African objects. It is only when the pressure increased on Western museums to return African artefacts to Africa that the concept of provenance research was advanced by German museums and institutions, followed by the rest of Western institutions, except French museums which seem to have gathered the necessary information in the last hundred years. Hermann Parzinger , President of the Prussian Foundation for Cultural Heritage, never tired of insisting on provenance research and German foundations began providing money for the necessary research. The German government provided this year E1.9 m for provenance research. When one considers the number of thousands of looted African objects in German museums, the sums allocated for provenance research make it is clear that it would take another hundred years to complete the work. Most museums have only one or two officials to devote themselves to provenance research of African artefacts. Even rich American museums with looted African objects do not seem to employ many scholars to work on this question. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston appointed its first official to do provenance research in 2011.

Once the concept of provenance research was linked to restitution of African artefacts, attempts were made to extend its area of application. It was no longer enough, as in the case of Nazi looted objects, to trace how the object was looted and who the successors to the owners are. The concept was expanded to cover all aspects of the looted object. Some even went so far as to suggest the need to find out whether those who produced the objects regarded themselves as slave workers or as creative artists. We know that the Benin bronzes were produced by a specialized guild of bronze casters with training and tradition who worked exclusively for the Oba.

The reason behind this extension of the concept is obvious: to delay restitution as long as possible and in the meanwhile the Western museums will continue enjoying their illegal possessions. African demanders of restitution have no control or influence over the process of research which is said to be expensive and time-consuming.

That the argument based on the need for provenance research can be a farce may be clearly demonstrated by a recent example from Germany. The Hamburg Kunst und Gewerbe Museum decided to do provenance research on its three Benin bronzes . The result was what I could have told them without any research: the three Benin artefacts were undoubtedly part of the artefacts stolen in 1897 by the British invasion troops in Benin. And what did the museum do with the result? Did they consider returning the artefacts to Benin City? Not on your life! It was decided to hand over the three objects to the Hamburg Völkerkunde Museum, now Museum at Rothenbaum, because it had a greater number of looted Benin artefacts,169, and could therefore offer the 3 objects a better frame of display.

The sudden demand for more provenance research raises the question what the Western museums have been doing since they got hold of colonial loot about hundred years ago. The sudden assumption of a posse of ignorance is rational and has a purpose.

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Relief panel with a battle scene, Benin, Nigeria, transferred from Museum für Kunst and Gewerbe, Hamburg, Germany to Völkerkundemuseum, now Museum at Rothenbaum, Hamburg.

New voices that re-present old imperialist arguments should look at the histories of their own museums. They would realize that despite the tide of world opinion in favour of restitution of looted African artefacts, their own museums have not moved much. They would also realize that however differently they may put their arguments, the effects appear to be the same: leave the looted artefacts where they are: in Western museums and institutions.

Much of what has been written often appears to be more a diagnosis of the weaknesses of the African museum rather than a genuine attempt at restitution of looted artefacts. They come mostly from Western sources, from the very museums that are illegally keeping looted artefacts.

One subject that seems to interest many of those discussing restitution is the readiness of Africans to receive back our looted artefacts. Do we have enough good museums, with good security that meets international standards? Nobody seems to pay any attention to the invaluable report on the state of African museums provided by the Sarr-Savoy report: ‘According to the various functions designated to them upon their return, the objects could find their place within art centers, university museums, schools, or even at the center of the communities for ritual uses, with the possibility of an oscillating use and return of the objects to local centers charged with their preservation. This is already the case in Mali where the National Museum regularly loans out certain objects to communities for ritual practices, and after these rituals have taken place, the museum will come and recuperate the objects in order to continuing preserving them in the National Museum, as the current director of the sites, Salia Malé was able to explain to us. Our fieldwork was thus also able to reveal that the distribution of objects of cultural heritage within social space could be conceived of in a variety of different ways and configurations, and that the model of a centralized museum for all objects of cultural heritage is only one possible example among many others’‘

It is taken for granted by many that African States must follow Western patterns. But must we? It may be recalled that the African artefacts looted by Westerners were not originally meant for museums and were not in museums when they were looted. Many were in palaces of kings or in religious places or public spaces. We might decide to return some objects to palaces or worship places. Many forget that African artefacts usually have functions and were not intended for the aesthetic contemplation of Europeans.

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Benin plaque, Nigeria, now in Musée du Quai Branly Paris, to be restituted to Nigeria/Benin in the first phase of restitution.

In one of his last interviews before he left us so soon, the great Okwui Enwezor, curator of curators, stated that we should not rush to start building museums everywhere for some countries may not need them; he suggested we should first consider what we want to do with the artefacts and there may be need for conservation or training for curators and conservators. We could develop new models. (Art, Das Kunstmagazin// Oktober 2018 pp.99-101.)

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Museum of Black Civilisations, Dakar, Senegal.

Related to the question of adequate provision of museums on our continent is the question of security. Will the returned artefacts find their way soon on to the free market? What many tend to forget is that most of our artefacts had been securely and safely guarded for centuries until the Europeans determined to steal them. Benin artefacts had been in the Oba’s palace for centuries until the notorious British invasion of 1897. How come that some are nervous about security in our museums? We cannot guarantee hundred percent security in African museums but the panic of some, expressing a belief in an almost inherent incapacity of Africans for security must be condemned. We should recall that Western museums have also experienced from time to time thefts of artefacts. We will of course do our best to protect our artefacts but that is nobody’s business but ours.

What is remarkable is the assumption that Westerners must have a say in what we do with our artefacts if, and when, they are returned. Even some Africans seem to accept this. But are the artefacts that Westerners are to return African objects or are they European artefacts that we are borrowing? Since when are those who steal objects authorized to set the conditions under which they will return them ?

We maintain that the question of ownership of our looted artefacts has nothing to do with whether we are able to guard them securely or not, especially when those who have with violence stolen our artefacts in the past put out insecurity as argument for delaying restitution. And where do 90% of looted African artefacts end? If some African museums are not in the best conditions, we should ask ourselves how this came about. The very States that are now busy spreading this argument had been in charge of our countries for decades and did not do much. Their successors, the post-colonial governments, have mostly followed the patterns set by the colonial masters and have not been over-generous in their budgetary provisions for museums and other cultural matters. They seem to prefer to rely on the same colonialists for assistance.

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Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Will she finally be allowed to return home in Benin City from British exile since 1897? Will the British play the same game they played when Nigeria asked for the sculpture for FESTAC?

What critics could perhaps contribute would be to convince groups such as the so-called Benin Dialogue Group that temporary solutions such as loans of looted artefacts only prolong memories of historic injustices and ensure survival of feelings of profound resentments. They should urge the adoption of the only viable solution: restitution of a considerable number of the looted artefacts. We have no exact information as to who introduced the idea of temporary loan of three years. The logic of the situation and the policies of the European States and museums would indicate that they imposed the idea on the Nigerians. However, I read in a recent publication carrying an interview with one of the German directors in the group, Inès de Castro, Linden Museum, Stuttgart, responding to a question why there is a rotation model but no restitution, she responded:

‘As far as I know it was the wish of the Edo State Government and the Benin Palace. But we do not yet know in what direction it will develop. First a new museum will be built opposite the palace. But at our next meeting in July we will learn more’.

(Jetzt ist ein Rotationsmodell im Gespräch gewesen zuletzt. – Warum das und keine Rückgabe? de Castro: Das war, meines Wissens, der Wunsch der Regierung von Edo und des Palastes von Benin. Aber wir wissen noch nicht so richtig in welche Richtung sich das entwickeln wird. Zunächst wird ein neues Museum gegenüber dem Palast gebaut. Aber beim nächsten Treffen im Juli werden wir mehr erfahren.)

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The Benin Dialogue Group removed restitution from its agenda last October. Would they restore this item to their agenda when they meet this year in Benin City from which the artefacts were looted in 1897 and show respect for those who lost their lives in the notorious invasion?

After more than 100 years of holding looted artefacts, the game which consists of pretending that there are still many aspects of the Benin and other looted artefacts that scholars have to research, must stop now. In this connection, it is regrettable that members of the Benin Dialogue Group have not found it necessary to give us a complete account of the numbers of the looted artefacts they are holding and their whereabouts. That is the least we could expect from them. If we do not know how many Benin artefacts they are holding, how can we judge the adequacy of their contributions. Apparently, apart from the French, none of the European countries think we need to know the figures of their holdings. They must finally tell us the number of Benin and other African objects they are holding. One hundred years must be sufficient for such a task.

Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr have suggested in their famous report that the occasion of restitution of African artefacts offers an opportunity to rebuild African-European relations on a new, different basis, on the basis of consent and mutual respect. But it seems many Europeans have not understood this nor its implications. Many, at least those that represent Europe in such matters, have shown no sign that they see a need to rebuild Afro-European relations on any bases other than the bases that have prevailed so far: force, violence and the threat of violence that have prevailed through slavery, colonization and continue in a form of structural violence, an imbalance of power, that does not show its real nature but is the background that makes normally unacceptable proposals acceptable

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Altar group with Oba Akenzua I, Benin, Nigeria now in Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.

The colonial system does not appear to these Europeans as a terrible period despite its massacres, genocides, forced labour, wars and confiscations of property and other resources. The issues of restitution should normally open the eyes of all to the violent nature of the colonial enterprise. One only needs to ponder on the treacherous means used to seize African artefacts: wars at Abomey, Benin, Segou, Kumasi, Magdala and other places. Many Europeans do not, unlike President Macron, see the colonial system as an evil system, as crime against humanity and consequently do not understand why we want our artefacts back. They almost see such demands as declarations of war or as ingratitude for all that Europeans have done for Africa.

If our contemporary Europeans understood the great violence and injustice done to Africans, they would not even dream of offering temporary loans of artefacts they have stolen from us. But Europeans do not respect Africans and can therefore advance such proposals. They would never dream of offering to China temporary loans of the artefacts they looted in the infamous attack on the Summer Palace , Beijing, in 1860. Their respect for the Chinese excludes thinking about such proposals.

Europeans are not known for bold gestures of reconciliation and expressions of apology. Neither slavery nor colonialism has elicited an apology from many European leaders except Macron. Germany has still not managed to apologize for the horrendous genocide of the Herero and Nama. Since Independence in 1960, the Europeans have not found it necessary to make any reconciliatory gestures regarding colonialism and looted artefacts but have mostly offered insulting arguments that point to the inadequacies of Africans regarding our artefacts.

Imagine if on the occasion of a meeting in Benin City, the scene of European savage attack, looting and destruction, Europeans apologized for the horrendous loss of life, announced the restitution of a considerable number of the looted artefacts to the Oba, what the impact would be. But Europeans are not known for such magnanimous gestures. Mercantile calculations prevent such thoughts and gestures.

At the latest, by the current negotiations with European States and museums for the restitution of the Benin artefacts looted in 1897 , it must have become clear to all that Europeans are determined to have the upper hand in whatever they do with Africans. Even in matters of African art, they want to play the dominant role. They want to keep the symbols of African creative ingenuity by holding on to artefacts they took away with violence, thus limiting the possibilities of creative African youth and artists.

Europeans cannot bear the thought that these artefacts that represent Benin, African culture, are back home with the people from whom they were taken away. Free self-determination of the destiny of our artefacts is what imperialists, racists and their supporters do not accept for we thereby escape their control in the imaginative and creative spheres.

Many Westerners still keep to a firm belief in a God-given right and duty to supervise Africans and their resources, including their cultural productions. They have not yet accepted that Africans wish to tell our own histories with our own artefacts. Europeans claim they need the artefacts to tell our history.

The conquerors of yesterday came with different weapons but the aims of the present and the past conquerors are not contradictory: both seek domination and control.

Africans must draw the necessary lessons.
We will probably never understand the European mind in its unbridled quest for maximum profit at all costs. King Leopold’s cruel regime in the Belgian Congo that cut off the hands of children if their parents did not produce enough rubber is presented as bringing civilization to Congo. Those who stole with force and violence our artefacts now present themselves as saviours of African culture who generously offer to lend us temporarily some of the looted objects if we will build new museums according to their specifications. Ethnology museums, handmaidens of European imperialism, have quickly changed their names into world museums in order to present themselves as ready to play intermediaries between Africa and Europe without surrendering any of the looted artefacts.

‘We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically, with our past. As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.’

Late Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, on the opening of the exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals Court Arts from Nigeria in Vienna, 2007.

Kwame Opoku.
Post Scriptum.
Just as we finished writing the above article, we received from Hyperallergic https://email.hyperallergic.com/t/y-l-urfnk-tialtihlr-i/ and museum security network.org an article entitled One Museum’s Complicated Attempt to Repatriate a ‘Benin Bronze’. At first sight, the article may seem to contradict our view that ‘You cannot go very wrong with Benin Artefacts: Made in Benin, they belong to the Oba. On second reading however, I believe they confirm the position that valuable Benin artefacts all came from the notorious1897 plunder by the British. The curators at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) have done the right thing by consulting Peju Layiwola who is not only a bronze caster and artist but a professor of Art History at the University of Lagos and comes from the Benin Royal Palace. Layiwola has written extensively on restitution matters. We are happy that the RISD museum is thinking of returning the sculpture to Benin and not proposing temporary loan or any halfway solution. Restitution is the only just solution for the Benin and other African artefacts.

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Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Art, Rhode Island School, of Design, U.S.A.

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2019

This author has authored 248 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameOpoku

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