African Looted Artifacts Return From Europe — Opinion — The Guardian Nigeria News – Nigeria and World News

One of the unintended consequences of colonialism is the study of the social and political history of the colonized and the cultural preservation of significant numbers of artifacts from Africa.

Many of these artifacts were, if we use modern parlance, looted and taken to Europe where they adorn almost every European museum and many of the heritage estates of the colonialists. To this extent, the best place to study and see the marvelous art of Africa is no longer in Africa but in Europe.

Europeans followed a well-trodden path that may have begun during the Greek and Roman Empires of bringing the spoils of conquered peoples back to their own lands, thus a significant number of ancient Egyptian treasures ended up in Rome, Paris and the Kingdom -United. Napoleon, for example, took the famous Egyptian Obelix to Paris. Museums in France are full of objects looted in Italy. The recent controversy over the Elgin Marbles originally belonging to Greece but looted by Lord Elgin who took them to Britain and the British Museum.

Another unintended consequence of colonialism was the study and compilation of social, political, and cultural histories of conquered and colonized peoples, usually compiled under the rubric of intelligence reports. No one claims that these intelligence reports were accurate or accurately portray the social values, history and habits of colonized peoples. What he did was the explosion of the disciplines of anthropology and archeology. Thus, much of what is known about ancient Egypt comes from these studies. Similarly, the pursuit of original men and their evolution also stems from the founding work of the Blakey Brothers in East Africa. Margaret Meade’s pioneering studies in Micro Polynesia are also an indirect result of colonialism.

In India, where writing even predated Europe, there are wonderful stories and artifacts of the various powerful Maharajas. In some places, the palaces of the maharajas were stripped and irreplaceable artifacts were transported to Europe. Even the deplorable caste system of the untouchables was once again faithfully recorded in various East India Company intelligence reports and missives.

With the advent of democracy and its spread across the world, a new demand that all those looted or stolen or bought artefacts that adorn Europe today should be returned to their places of origin. For Nigeria in particular, the fight for the return of quintessential Benin, Ife, Lokoja, Igboukwu and a host of others to Nigeria. The good intentions of the supporters of this initiative cannot be called into question. Good African art should be located in Africa. And in the age of 3D printing, it is possible to reproduce the originals and exhibit them in museums in Europe while the originals return to their native country.

On the face of it, it’s a noble cause. In France, two presidents were known to have the largest collection of African art. President Mitterrand and President Jack Chirac. It would seem that these two presidents were ashamed to accept the moral argument that these works of art do not belong to France. In pursuit of their agreement in principle to return these artefacts to Africa, I was sent to negotiate the repatriation of these artefacts. President Chirac, although visibly pained by this decision, expressed concern that there is nothing in any of the African countries that comes close to the care and attention given to these objects in France. He accepted the return of these artifacts but pleaded that he would do so at the end of his presidency. He also raised the intractable problem of what we Africans would do to reclaim the thousands of essential African arts from private hands that we mostly have no idea where they came from. My response was that we will cross that bridge when we get there, but for now we will take what we can see and hope that public opinion will rise up to keep this issue front and center.

So what are we going to do with these works of art when they come back to Nigeria? Who do they belong to, where will they be displayed, and how will they be displayed? The people of Benin rightfully claimed that the Benin ivory face and other famous Benin carvings should return to Benin, but Beninese culture was so pervasive that it stretched from Benin west to the borders of Benin. Togo. He made important stops in Lagos, Ile-life and almost all of present-day Delta. The clerical staff for example that Benin used to send to a king who got up said in Lagos or Dahomey or Ode Itshekiri, who does this belong to? The famous Nok culture, where would we place that.

Do we really have the political will coupled with the resources to care for these priceless works of art? The department of antiquities that looks after our museums is a disgrace if not completely comatose. While I was busy struggling in France to recover these items, the massive new offices being built for the National Museum, at Onikan, King George V, St. in Lagos had been sold and are now a shopping mall. The land behind this particular building which belonged to the Nigerian Museum has been vandalized and sold and is now the site of a huge car park opposite the Yoruba Tennis Club.

Do we really have the right to bring these immense irreplaceable historical works of art to a people who, by their very action, will have despised museums and artifacts? What are the preparations for receiving these priceless pieces which must be kept at a certain temperature and lovingly cared for so that they continue to exist for posterity? Will they not be stolen and resold to rich Arabs or Europeans? Where are the trained archaeologists and master restorers employed to do the work of preserving these arts? These are questions that must and must be answered before going to find art objects which, if not properly maintained, will irreparably disintegrate.

I don’t see the political will beyond the resounding proclamation that this is our art and should come back. Come back for what? Are the programs of our schools sensitive to visits to museums that retrace our history? Will these art objects be turned to the Department of Antiquities or to the various kingdoms from which they were originally plundered?

London will return 72 artefacts, including the famous Benin Bronzes, perhaps some of the most remarkable artefacts in art history after the British Museum succumbed to pressure to return art looted from Nigeria.

The British have eased their conscience on this issue by the common belief that these items were looted from Nigeria in 1897. But 72 artefacts is a small drop in the scale of Benin’s looting, estimated at over 10,000. I have gleaned this information from the excellent book The British Museums by Professor Dan Hicks, given to me by former Guinness chief executive Keith Richards. It is estimated that these 10,000 objects are kept in 165 museums around the world. Germany went even further by pledging to return more than 1,100 items. If Germany returns 1,100, then Belgium who looted more than the UK and Germany must be in the thousands, so far Belgium had made no commitments and no one is holding them accountable.

Nothing will happen to Nigeria until 2025 when the West African Art Museum in Edo is ready. It may be just the beginning, but a country with a kleptomaniac political footprint and no strong commitment to history and art may not be ready for monumental change.

I know it’s unpopular to ask these tough questions, but you have to answer them and prepare for their good interview.

Dr Patrick Dele Cole (OFR) is the former Nigerian Ambassador to Brazil and Argentina

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