Is It Time to Repatriate Africa’s Looted Art?
Protests have strengthened calls for Western institutions to repatriate priceless cultural artifacts. Museums in Africa are ready to receive them.
On the eve of Feb. 9, 1897, the ancient Kingdom of Benin, now part of modern-day Nigeria, stood as a marker for the achievement of Black civilizations. Archaeologists describe Benin City’s earthworks as the world’s largest built before the mechanical age, and its city walls were estimated to have been “four times longer than the Great Wall of China.” But the next day, the British military entered the city to overthrow Benin’s king by force. By Feb. 18, soldiers had burned Benin City to the ground. After Benin’s fall, the British donned blackface and faux native dress to celebrate.
The art from its royal palace and civilian homes was looted during a 10-day massacre described in the British National Archives as a “punitive expedition”—a punishment for the Benin king’s men killing seven British officials demanding control of regional trade. At least 3,000 artifacts—known as the Benin Bronzes—were stolen and taken to Britain, with 40 percent sent to the British Museum. The remaining loot was sold to private collectors and galleries across Europe and the United States. Much of it ended up in major Western museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
More than a century later, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy, but a large number of its historical artworks remain outside the country. It’s a familiar story across Africa: 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent, according to a 2018 report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron. Given the shameful manner in which African artifacts were taken and the collapse of the colonial empires that enabled the looting, it is time for European institutions to reevaluate claims of restitution. In Africa, there are a number of new museums planned with a mission to empower citizens with this cultural heritage that could receive the artifacts.
As Black Lives Matter protests spread globally in June, anger directed at statues memorializing slavers and colonialists soon turned to Western museum collections. Activists urged museums to return art and artifacts taken from African countries under colonialism or offer direct financial compensation. Last month, protesters unsuccessfully attempted to remove a 19th-century South Sudanese funeral pole from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. “I will bring to Africa what was taken,” the Congolese artist Mwazulu Diyabanza, who led the demonstration, said in a video posted online. “Most of the works were taken during colonialism, and we want justice.”
The protests have strengthened calls to decolonize museums, but little has happened so far in terms of restitution. For example, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum responded to Ethiopia’s request for the return of plundered treasures with an offer to loan the items to Ethiopia for the long term. Private auction houses have also come under fire for selling items removed during Nigeria’s civil war. Despite an online petition and a strongly worded letter from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments calling for Christie’s to halt the sale of sacred Igbo sculptures in Paris, the auction went ahead in June and fetched 212,500 euros (about $240,000).
The British Museum in London holds at least 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. France holds 90,000 artifacts, most of which were stolen during its colonial rule over much of the region. Belgium’s controversial Royal Museum for Central Africa holds more than 120,000 artifacts—mostly taken from the Belgian Congo during King Leopold II’s regime, which was characterized by slavery, rape, and mutilation and resulted in the killing of at least 10 million Congolese. Germany’s Humboldt Forum holds around 75,000 artifacts, including 10,000 objects looted by German troops during the Maji Maji uprising against colonial rule in present-day Tanzania. Around 300,000 locals were killed.
These Western museums have done little to recount the violence used to procure these artifacts or reflect on the millions of African lives lost. Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, expressed “solidarity with the British Black community, with the African American community, with the Black community throughout the world,” in a statement in June, adding that the museum would “continue to research, acknowledge and address the colonial history of Britain and its impact on our institution.” But critics described the response as performative. In an open letter, the visual artist Bayryam Mustafa Bayryamali wrote that he was disappointed that “it took the death of an unarmed Black man for you to join the conversation.” “The issue of repatriation is essential,” he said.
In practice, the British Museum has dismissed all restitution claims. Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent human rights lawyer, told the Guardian that “the trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property.” The “barbaric manner of the taking of the [Benin] Bronzes amounted to a war crime,” Robertson wrote in his 2019 book, Who Owns History?.
African countries that have sought restitution of artworks and artifacts include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Senegal. But in response to restitution claims, Western collectors have expressed concern that African museums lie semi-derelict and lack the security to stop the pilfering of their few remaining objects. Bernard de Grunne, the Brussels-based dealer who sold the controversial Nigerian sculptures to Christie’s in 2010, recently cited a common defense. By coming to the West, “these great works of art were saved for the world to admire at that point, instead of being burned and destroyed during the war,” de Grunne told the New York Times.
African countries have responded by constructing new facilities and promoting them as potential homes for repatriated art and artifacts, including Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilisations, completed in December 2018 and founded to address the “cultural devaluation” of Black achievements. A private museum funded by Yemisi Shyllon, one of Africa’s biggest art collectors, recently opened in Lagos, Nigeria. It houses more than 1,000 artworks donated by Shyllon, including treasures dating to the 16th-century Benin Kingdom. In Togo, the Palais de Lomé, a former seat of German and French colonial power, has been transformed into a space for cultural heritage. Others include Congo’s National Museum and the planned Benin Royal Museum in Nigeria.
Shyllon, a Yoruba prince from Nigeria’s southwest, began his own collection of more than 7,000 African artworks—mainly contemporary—when he was an engineering student at the University of Ibadan in the 1970s. For now, he isn’t advocating for restitution: Shyllon is eager to see better state funding of Nigeria’s cultural sector beforehand, he said. At present, he wants a deal in which the British Museum acknowledges Benin City’s rights. “They will pay us royalties for those works because they acknowledge our legal ownership,” Shyllon told Foreign Policy.
As in Benin City, British troops mounted a punitive expedition against Ghana’s Ashanti people in 1874, looting several gold treasures from the king’s palace that were largely auctioned off, with the rest obtained by London’s Victoria and Albert and the Wallace Collection. The artifacts include a nearly life-size gold head, which Ghana’s government requested back in 1974. It came as no surprise that the British government reaffirmed its position that items in its collections cannot be returned.
But the Ghanian writer Nana Oforiatta Ayim has called the repatriation of some objects “inevitable.” She curated Ghana’s first ever presence at the Venice Biennale in 2019 and has created a different concept of the exhibit in Ghana: a traveling museum that hands over the control of narratives to communities. She is also a part of the Open Society Foundations’ four-year, $15 million initiative to help African nations get back cultural objects from Europe.
Whether this monetary might will force institutions to reconsider restitution claims remains to be seen. Twelve African heads of state, including major players such as Nigeria and South Africa, recently added some foreign-policy weight to the repatriation debate by committing to “speed up the return of cultural assets” during the African Union’s summit in Addis Ababa in February.
But action from European institutions has been polarized. In 2019, Germany agreed on guidelines for restitution and set aside more than $2 million into provenance research of objects held by German institutions. Likewise, Macron equally positioned himself as a leader willing to hear demands on restitution. “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums,” he tweeted during a 2017 trip to Burkina Faso. After commissioning the 2018 report, which recommended that African treasures in French museums be returned, Macron vowed to repatriate 26 looted objects to the country of Benin—not to be confused with Benin City in Nigeria.
But the president hasn’t yet delivered on this promise. So far, only one repatriation has occurred: the temporary return of Senegal’s saber, owned by the 19th-century leader Omar Saidou Tall. That is because final parliamentary legislation is needed to return treasures: European laws forbid museums from giving away items in collections. Macron also faces scrutiny from museum professionals. That report “cannot be a blueprint for policy,” Emmanuel Kasarhérou, the head of the Quai Branly, said recently.
Even so, these initiatives still reflect a shift in government thinking with which the United Kingdom is increasingly out of step. British institutions there are pushing various loan terms rather than restitution. The British Museum presented such a deal to the Benin Royal Museum, set to open in 2023—but in all agreements, the British institution would retain legal ownership of all artifacts. Talks have been ongoing for over a decade.
The Nigerian government has previously purchased small Benin Bronzes from the British Museum, but there is growing resentment among Nigerians toward repeating such a move. The loan suggestions have been met with criticism. The Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of European museums and the Nigerian government, has called the arrangement an “insult.” “These loan agreements assume that they have a legal right to those works,” Shyllon said. “When somebody is possessing something that doesn’t belong to him or her but insists on lending it to the owner of the works, I think it is odd.”
The Benin Bronzes, which include carved ivory, bronze statues, and brass plaques commemorating various conquests, are an integral part of Nigeria’s national story. The British Museum has possessed the artifacts for more than 100 years, but the institution has no Black curators. And ordinary citizens lack a fundamental understanding of Nigerian history: Indeed, one-third of Britons believe that countries are better off having been colonized by the British, according to a YouGov poll.
African countries with developed economies deserve to tell their own stories without a European filter. Western museums could offer curator residencies to African historians, with the ultimate goal of reuniting some artifacts with African people in the countries they were taken from. After all, the British Museum exhibits just 1 percent of its 8 million objects, while the rest are hidden in storage. Around 100 Benin Bronzes are displayed out of a bounty of 900 items. It can afford to repatriate a fraction.
In Lagos, Shyllon’s own living room is dominated by an 8-foot-tall statue, with intricately carved figurines that recount Earth’s creation according to Yoruba folklore. Part of the story goes that Olodumare, seen as the supreme being, authorized the deities Obatala and Oduduwa to create land between the sky and the ocean below. In exhibits across Europe, I have often seen the bronze heads of Oduduwa, regarded as the founder of the kingdoms of Ife and Benin, displayed entirely devoid of this cultural context. Shyllon said these works “represent our civilization. They represent what our forefathers were able to contribute.”
Museums now face a moral reckoning over artifacts stolen by people who took colonial violence and racial superiority as a given. It is time to start having honest conversations about righting those wrongs.