Thanks to everyone who commented on my post regarding the Benin mask of Idia, and joined the African Cultural Patrimony campaign on Facebook. Sotheby’s issued a terse public statement yesterday canceling their planned sale of the Benin Iyoba Idia mask (the statement suggests that the consignees withdrew the artwork, which to me suggests that Sotheby’s itself is not necessarily concerned about its criminal involvement in the trafficking of stolen cultural patrimony. Would they have gone ahead with the sale if the consignees decided to brazen it out?). In that regard, it seems the massive public outrage of Nigerians and other supporters succeeded in preventing an overt sale of the artwork. Of course, the consignees could simply sell it in private but any museum or private collector that now buys the artwork is knowingly purchasing a contested object. For those who do, we will no doubt see legal challenges to several institutions that hold Benin cultural patrimony in due time.
My post on H-NET attracted responses from Jonathan Fineman and Alexander Soifer. Having never heard of Alexander Soifer before reading his response to my posting on on H-Net, I found rather uninformed the obvious ignorance of his statement that “Cultural Patrimony” debates represent the view of “those who shout loudest the contemporary politically correct slogans”. Demands for restitution of cultural patrimony form the basis of some of the most progressive human rights legislation of the 20th century, especially with regard to the issue of looted Holocaust art. The Nigerian government has been demanding the return of Benin art from Western museums for over fifty years. Far from being politically correct, “demands for restitution and repatriation” are in fact political hot topics, capable of destroying careers. Ungodly sums of money are at stake here and the struggle over ownership of cultural patrimony currently operates as a zero-sum game in which there can only be winners and losers. My goal in engaging this issue, especially regarding looted African cultural patrimony, is to mediate contending claims of both the African creators of these artworks and the Western institutions that currently hold them. However, when these Western institutions act as brazenly as Sotheby’s acted in this instance, it suggests a disregard for the African viewpoint that is as clear as a slap in the face. Moreover, Soifer misses the point of my analysis: while the Nigerian government may claim the Benin works as part of its national patrimony, I have always argued that they are looted private property that rightfully belongs to the reigning king of Benin. Oba Erediauwa has formally demanded that Western museums and collectors return the Benin bronzes. I have written about these demands at length on this blog and have even started an academic journal –Critical Interventions—specifically to engage the issue: the journal inaugurated a formal discourse on the aesthetics, politics and economics of African cultural patrimony as it affects African ownership of the intellectual property rights of its indigenous systems of knowledge and cultural practices. Interestingly enough, the current issue of the journal is in production on the subject of “Who Owns African Cultural Patrimony”.
Soifer’s other questions are a grab bag of the usual objections generally raised by people opposed to discussion of the cultural patrimony issue. These questions have been answered at length elsewhere (See Kwame Opoku’s rebuttals to these objections here and elsewhere online) but briefly: What gives Nigeria the right to the Kingdom of Benin is the same thing that gives any modern state rights over its constituent subjects and regions. If Britain can exercise claims over archaeological sites within its territory and France over the Lascaux caves, there is no reason Nigeria should not exercise a claim to antiquities found within its national borders. If Nigerian courts were to decide the issue of the Benin bronzes, they will undoubtedly rule in favor of returning them to Nigeria, in the same manner that British courts largely rule in favor of Britain. This merely demonstrates the inadequacy of current legal structures because it does not allow for interpretations outside of those established through British jurisprudence. We need a new way of dealing with African cultural patrimony issues that respects the rights of Africans to their bodies and resources.
How far back should we go to resolve cultural patrimony issues? As far back as is needed: the issue here is not mere repatriation of artworks, but ownership of the economic value and equity created by these artworks as a result of their current and future financial value. There is also the important issue of ownership of the intellectual property rights of these artworks, which should accrue to the Benin people by right. In other words, we need to go as far back enough as is necessary to obviate the loss of value and equity arising from the relocation of the bronze artworks from Benin to the West. Otherwise, we condemn Africans to a permanent underclass status and conversely support a clearly demonic order in which Western countries claim natural right of might to control and exploit the African continent. I don’t see how one can defend the status quo given the atrocities visited upon Africa in the past few centuries. This history is still largely unaccounted for.
Which laws should prevail? So far, Africans have argued for their basic human rights in courts based on Western laws. If human rights laws are international, perhaps we should subject Western brigandage in Africa to African laws. The traditional penalty for invading the privacy of the Oba of Benin was death. This is why the original British envoys to Benin were killed: they had been warned not to enter the kingdom but were outraged that a mere African king should dictate to her majesty’s emissaries. By Benin law, anyone except the King or high priests who touches the ancestral altars automatically received a death sentence. Would anyone support the right of the Benin king to enforce this hallowed traditional law by condemning to death the curators and dealers who handle the Benin bronzes in various contexts? Of course not, but you keep hearing arguments that we should respect Western claims to African cultural patrimony merely because the artworks are currently located in Western museums and institutions. Moreover, Western courts have consistently failed Africans. Remember that Slavery, Apartheid, Jim Crow laws, and a host of other odious legislation that rendered Africans subhuman were once very legal in most Western countries. However, Africans are asked to continue to plead for their human rights in Western courts based on laws that supported their dispossession in the first place. This is like asking a victim to submit to a court controlled by relatives of his attacker. It is unjust and as Augustine of Hippo stated, an unjust law is no law at all.
Finally, Soifer raises the linchpin of all anti-repatriation arguments: if the artworks are returned to Africa, they will merely be stolen by Africans and resold to Western collectors. Maybe, but that is no reason to refuse to negotiate the return of the artworks. In a world in which all sorts of things are being trafficked, there can be no guarantee that repatriated African artworks will not be stolen. However, if scholars stop validating stolen artworks by refusing to write about them, and museums refuse to exhibit them, it might mitigate the allure of these artworks for art thieves and the disreputable dealers and collectors who traffic in stolen African cultural patrimony. But then this is the usual strategy of holding Africans to impossible standards: art theft is a global problem. Soifer should explain to me what measures of protection he suggests to stem the ongoing theft of art in Western museums and private collections. Interpol estimates about 34,000 stolen artworks are still missing, despite the gabililions of dollars spent on museum security everywhere (see the various art-loss registers online).
Jonathan Fine’s response was more significant, in that it shows some knowledge of the legal issues involved. The legal status of the Benin bronzes and the legality of trading in these contested commodities have never been adjudicated in a court of law. For the past three years, I have searched for a law firm in the USA willing to take on a test case on this issue to no avail. Obviously the cost of bringing such a case is far beyond personal means but I am confident in due time that a legal case will be made. For now, current laws protect Western collectors of these artworks whose “ownership” rests on assumptions that they acquired the artworks legally. They did not, and there is no case here that the legal owner of the artworks did not make an effort to recover them. All the Benin kings since Ovonramwen have called for return of the artworks to no avail.
I also disagree with Fine’s suggestion that “cultural patrimony” is the wrong lens through which we can view the issue. I have argued for the issue of stolen Benin bronzes as a case of clear theft of property. Since the British never formally declared war on Benin in 1897, we cannot view the subsequent looting of the King’s palace as “spoils of war”. I believe a legal case can be made that most of the other African artworks “collected” during colonial control of African countries were expropriated by coercion and plunder: colonized populations are victims of aggression and cannot be said to have acquiesced in the transfer of their artworks even if they sold them to the collector themselves. The reason is that transactions of this sort that occur under duress are ipso facto illegal. By dealing with this issue as a cultural patrimony issue, we draw attention to the mass plunder of African cultural resources in the same manner that its natural and human resources were plundered for the economic gain of various Western countries. In this regard, I have started a series of posts to the African Cultural Patrimony Facebook page to demonstrate the human cost of how various European colonizers collected artworks from various parts of Africa (click on “Photo Albums” here). This narrative is usually written out of our analysis of the artworks but they are relevant because the processes involved are quite traumatic. The point is that the colonial destruction of indigenous African cultures was a systemic protocol designed to render indigenous cultures bereft of life and liberty. Tons of artworks were destroyed and the remaining relocated to Western collections.
On the specific issue of the Benin bronzes, there can be no legal transfer of the stolen artworks objects while the rightful owners of the stolen objects are actively calling for their restitution. The Benin bronzes are not an amorphous product of “African art”. They are private property, bought by and paid for by the Benin kings through massive expenditure of national treasure, and constitute the wealth of the kingdom. These bronzes were commissioned for specific historical events, the artists who produced them were paid for their work, and the artworks were used in very prescribed manner and also as a store of value. The looting and dispersal of the Benin bronzes deprived the Benin king of his private property and deprives his descendants of equity in this stolen property. It deprives Benin people of any chance to benefit in any economic, political social or cultural manner from the value produced by these artworks and further denies them equal access to these artworks. Aside from what they see in images of the artworks in Western museums, young Benin people have no way of benefiting from the products of their ancestors. The artworks generate income for the various museums that hold them but this is not in any way shared with the Benin king of his heirs.
The rallying cry for the African cultural patrimony campaign is “equal access to the artworks and equal value for the producers of the artworks”. This is because the location of Benin cultural patrimony in Western museums and private collections prevents the emergence of objects on equal value in Benin or other parts of Africa. Usually, scholars are quick to deride newer Benin bronze artworks as “fakes” which helps to sustain and increase the value of those Benin bronzes that can be traced back to the 1897 plunder of Benin. In this manner, the initial act of theft and vandalism is used as the primary context for validating the originality of Benin bronze arts in different auctions and museums. The bronze objects produced in Benin since the invasion are therefore prevented from gaining value mainly by being derided as products located outside the corpus of Benin art. More importantly, the claim that Western institutions that hold these artworks are “universal museums” holding the objects in trust for “mankind” is pure bumkum. The fact that Britain passed laws explicitly forbidding repatriation of artworks from the British museum shows that it regards the collection as an indispensable aspect of its imperial history. While the collection is accessible to international audiences that have the requisite access to global travel, it is not accessible to 99.999% of Africans who are unable to travel freely across international borders. As a matter of fact, there is no Western nation (including the USA) that will grant a Benin person a visa merely to visit the British museum for the purposes of viewing the bronzes, which enforces an active denial of access to the artworks to Benin peoples.
There are more practical matters at stake here and some of them are listed below.
FINANCIAL: The African cultural patrimony issue is as much a financial issue as any other. The possession of stolen Benin bronzes has financially enriched various Western museums. The current campaign that stopped Sotheby’s proposed sale of the Benin Idia mask also highlights this fact: it was expected the auction would fetch as much as 4.5 million British pounds. Recognizing the financial aspect of this issue shifts discussion about stolen African cultural patrimony away from abstract moral arguments about right and wrong to the more important argument about the financial impoverishment of Africans resulting from long-term Western looting of African resources. The estimated value of stolen African cultural patrimony in Western museums and private collections is worth several billions of dollars. This rises considerably if the economic benefit of holding stolen African cultural patrimony is factored into the discussion, i.e. the boost in tourism from viewing these artworks for instance, as well as the economic value from their sale, insurance, exhibition, publication and collection.
DISCURSIVE/ACADEMIC: The study of Benin art has been skewed by the dispersal of Benin cultural patrimony which has had the effect of locating Benin studies in the West and depriving Benin people any chance to develop their own discursive platforms. There is a need to redirect Benin studies (and African art studies in general) to take greater cognizance of actual cultural developments in Benin/Africa rather than its current focus of studying the reception of Benin art in the West. In this regard, the British invasion denied the Benin kingdom a chance to define its own destiny.
HUMAN RIGHTS: The looting of Africa to sustain the West is now a human rights issue. The looting of the bronzes from Benin in 1897 was accompanied by genocide resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Benin people during the British invasion, and countless more as a result of the scorched earth policy that the British army put in place for six months while they were trying to apprehend Oba Ovonramwen. The invasion destroyed the economic foundations of the Benin kingdom, reduced its inhabitants to penury and forced it into the British colonial state of Nigeria. More importantly, the artworks from Benin were flagrantly sold without consideration of their status as stolen goods. Specifically, the ivory pendant mask of Queen Mother IDIA was taken from Oba Ovonramwen’s bedroom; the other three were taken from his regalia when he surrendered to the British.
CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF THE ARTWORKS: The Benin corpus is the most clearly articulated case of stolen African cultural patrimony extant. The artworks were safeguarded in the palace of the Benin kings for over 500 years (ivory sculptures are even older than the bronzes) before they were plundered. If the British invasion did not occur, it is quite believable that they would still be secured in the palace using strategies that kept them safe for centuries. In any case, it is significant because if we can’t prove the African ownership of this corpus in a case as clear-cut as this one, then proving other cases may be nigh impossible.
CULTURAL: The current Benin King is interested in building a museum in Benin to showcase Eight Centuries of Edo/Benin cultural development. A way of resolving the issue of repatriation is to design a system of circulation that will allow the artworks to be shown periodically in Benin. If the king secures their repatriation, they can be exhibited in the new museum. More importantly, any settlement reached would need to be crafted to include international oversight of managing the museum in Benin and allowing it to share in exhibitions of the artworks (under firm agreements) thus giving younger generations of Benin people a chance to benefit from the cultural products of their ancestors.
I don’t deny that a successful legal challenge to recover the Benin bronzes appears improbable at this time. What is vital is that we must end once and for all the comfortable disregard for African claims to their looted cultural patrimony and disdain for those who dare raise this issue. The demand for cultural patrimony repatriation and restitution is one of the principal issues of this age. To think otherwise is to be foolhardy.