To Return or Not? US Museums On the Repatriation of Looted African Art

To Return or Not? US Museums On the Repatriation of Looted African Art

The colonization of sub-Saharan Africa by European countries left in its wake a myriad of problems and complications that remain untangled to this day. Decades after the last African country achieved independence from the colonists, the ripples caused by decades of political and cultural domination and high-handedness of the colonial forces have reached past the shores of the colonialists and colonized territories to countries that were never involved in the colonialism campaigns. This is the case of plundered art and artifacts from African countries found in museums in the United States and Canada and the moral question of repatriating these African art collections in their possessions to their origins across the Atlantic.

Over the past years, with momentum building up to actionable resolutions this year, some European national and private museums have admitted the nefarious history behind the way some of the priced art objects in their African collection were acquired and have decided to return them to the African countries they were taken from. With Germany leading the way in pledging to return the Benin bronzes which were looted in an invasion of the old Benin Kingdom by British troops in 1897, as reported in Aworanka in July, other museums such as those in Belgium, The Netherlands, Scotland, and the Met Museum in New York have also followed in their stead.

While many of these major European museums are directly implicated in the colonial-era looting of artifacts from Africa and face growing pressure for repatriation, U.S. collections and museums are facing a whole other set of ethical and legal questions, especially as they are not burdened with the same colonial legacy of looted artworks as they came to own these questionable art objects through donations and legal purchases.

The moral dilemma for U.S. art institutions now is to what extent they should examine their own collections for traces of duplicity and theft and then reconsider who may be the rightful owner. And as the Christian Science Monitor reports, this marks a change for cultural institutions that have acquired artwork from auctions or collectors that may pass through multiple hands along the way.

According to Chika Okeke-Agulu, the director of Princeton University’s Program in African Studies, U.S. museums deflect criticism by arguing that Africa was colonized by European powers “and therefore ... restitution of objects that were taken during the colonial period was largely a European problem.” But Okeke-Agulu argues that that’s a “nonsensical” approach.

Echoing Okeke-Agulu’s sentiments, Carlee Forbes, an art historian in charge of identifying stolen art pieces at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, says it shouldn’t be a tough decision to reach. “Don’t keep the stolen things. Like, that’s it. It’s kind of a no-brainer,” she says.

But not keeping “the stolen things” is often easier said than done just as Ms. Forbes, who is the beneficiary of a grant that has allowed the museum to research the provenance of its African collection, has discovered. Even though she and other museum researchers have identified works from South Africa and Ghana as potential items for restitution, as well as six Benin Bronzes, which they’ve determined were looted in 1897 and another 14 bronzes which have been identified as “likely stolen”, Fowler researchers had to be picky. The museum hosts roughly 30,000 pieces in its African collection. The grant covers only a subset of 7,000 pieces donated in the 1960s. Researchers zeroed in on 800 items that were deemed important and had some documentation.

For other institutions with large collections and scant documentation for objects, the task of investigating and potentially returning artifacts is daunting. Still, curators say that there’s no turning back to the era when U.S. museums would snap up global artifacts without asking too many questions.

In June, Aworanka reported the announcement by the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art of the repatriation of looted African art objects in the form of two Benin Bronzes and a brass head from the city of Ife. But the museum has kept mum about the status of their other holdings from Benin, estimated to number somewhere between 150 to 300. 

Still, the recent willingness to put action to promises of repatriation of looted African art objects counts as progress.

“We’ve had quite a number of American museums reaching out to ask how they could [return] some of the works in their possession,” says Enotie Ogbebor, a Nigerian based in Benin City, Nigeria, where a new museum is being built to house repatriated artifacts. Mr. Ogbebor works with institutions and governments to facilitate the return of stolen artifacts.

The Met’s decision to return three art objects to Nigeria has made Mr. Ogbebor optimistic of more to come. “We know that once there’s a groundswell, once this thing starts blowing ... when we follow it up with a lot of diplomacy and continuous interaction in America, we’ll get better results,” he says.

He further hopes that greater awareness in the U.S. and Europe about the issue will keep it alive. “There was an injustice perpetrated 130 years ago. It’s time to close that cycle, so that the people who own this culture, these cultural artifacts, can get them back, be able to see them, study them, learn about them,” he says.

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