The curious case of returning African artifacts “on loan”

This columnist recent came across a news item on the Africanews website saying that, “Two British museums are returning looted gold and silver artifacts to Ghana under a long-term loan arrangement as U.K. institutions face increasing demand to hand over treasures acquired at a time when the British Empire ruled over people around the globe.”

The absurdity of the above arrangement is obvious to see. How could cultural items that are the legitimate properties of Ghana and were stolen and taken to Europe under colonialism can now assume legal status as properties of British museums whether they were acquiring through looting or were bought from third parties. This does not make sense at all.

According to the website, this was a special arrangement between the two parties in order to sidestep British laws that prevent the artifacts from being repatriated from their country of origin, which is Ghana in this case. “The loan sidesteps U.K. laws that bar the repatriation such cultural treasures and have been used to prevent the British museum to return the sculptures to Greece from which they acquired on loan.” The damage to the treasures was done twice; for the time when they were stolen from Ghana and then the second time when the British issued legislation to prevent the return of their artworks to their legitimate owners by issuing prohibitive laws that ignore the rights of the original owners. This is obviously more than a case of absurdity. It is one of criminality.

In an article in Foreign Affairs, a very influential American foreign policy publication, entitled, “Africa’s Stolen Art Debate is Frozen in Time”, it was suggested that, “As a result of violent plunder over the centuries, Europe-more than any other region in the world, including Africa-holds the largest collection of ancient African artifacts. The total number of African objects in museums across the United States barely reaches 50, 000. Yet, Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa alone has 100, 000 objects. Germany’s Ethnological museum has 75, 000. France’s Quai Branly Museum has almost 70, 000, the British Museum has 73,000 and the Netherlands National Museum of world Cultures has 66,000.”

Judging by the number and kind of artifacts of historical and cultural importance for Africa which are illegally retained by all European museums, we can safely say that Africa’s identity is still languishing in the museums or cultural prisons of Europe as they were during colonialism. Political colonialism is replaced by what we might perhaps call “cultural colonialism”. Not only that.

European museums which are government institutions have time and again refused to cooperate with African governments that had been asking for the repatriation of their legal properties. The absurdity of the situation is that European governments officially recognize that those artifacts are the properties of Africa and the African people but privately refuse to abide by their commitment to return them.

The magazine “Foreign Affairs” goes on to say that it has been 50 years since African governments, against a backdrop of hard-fought independence, started asking for the return of looted objects. Despite celebratory press coverage on returns and Western curators’ recent commitment to decolonize museums, very few items have been physically repatriated. According to the same sources, Nigeria welcomed back to Benin City just two statues out of more than 3000 Benin bronzes -a collection of sacred works made from ivory.

“In October 2022, the Nigerian government received another thirty-one Benin bronzes from these US-American institutions. The Smithsonian National Museums of African Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Rhodes Islands School of Design, London Horniman Museum returned six objects in November 2022.”

The Benin Bronzes are known to consist of several thousand metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom Benin, in what is now Edo State in Nigeria.

Another US museum has returned some of Ghana’s looted artifacts after 150 years. According to Afronews website, “Seven royal artifacts looted by British colonial forces from Ghana’s ancient Ashante kingdom and kept by a United States museum have been returned and presented to the kingdom on Thursday. The latest of a series of stolen treasured items being repatriated to several African countries.”

Although African governments and non-governmental organizations have been campaigning for the return of African artifacts over the last 50 years, the responses are less than satisfactory. There have been isolated cases of repatriation of cultural items but the overall result is disappointing. In the meantime, thousands of artifacts looted from Africa and taken to Europe have either disappeared or found their ways in the global black market in African arts that is controlled by governments as well as non-governmental Mafia-like underground business outlets.

These mostly illegal groups involved in black market transactions are moving the artifacts from one corner of the world to the other in their quest for growing profits. As older artifacts are more expensive than recent ones, the business in African art has become increasingly lucrative and buyers and sellers are transacting these works through Internet and websites particularly designed for this purpose.

According to the same website, “Looted from British colonized Ghana in the 19th century before being transferred to Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1960s, the artifacts included an elephant tail whisk , an ornamental chair made of wood, leather and iron, two gold stool ornaments, a gold necklace and two bracelets.”

European and Western government have been always resisting the repatriation of these artifacts to their legitimate owners, However African countries have been pushing for the pace of repatriation and this issue has now assumed a global dimension ever since it has been popularized by ‘cultural activists’ who are working full time to help secure the agreement of museums, universities and European governments and even individual art collector to collaborate with their repatriation efforts.

Although the returned items are only a few drops in the ocean of illegally kept collections, continued efforts have started not only to advertise the issue but also secure the return of a few items. These items are important to Africans not because they are commercial items but because they represent their heritages. A Ghanaian university lecturer who was involved in one of the negotiation for repatriation was quoted as saying that, “The repatriation of artifacts to Ghana signifies the return of our souls.”

The repatriation of these artifacts has always remained the dream of many Ghanaians. As one of them said, “Our fathers and our forefathers told us about the artifacts. And ever since, as a kid, I had the vision that one day we shall have all these artifacts back to our Ashante nation.” Western and European nations are resisting the repatriation of cultural artifacts because they have made them part of their collections, illegally of course. But for African repatriation is a burning issue because the artifacts, “hold significant value as they represent the culture and history of the land they derive from. It is within a museum’s moral obligation to return stolen articles to their country of origin.”

The arguments of museum curators in Europe and the West in general on the issue of repatriation can only be described as flimsy and wide of the mark. The fact these people consider themselves the custodians of African artifacts is simply ridiculous. African countries have the means as the relevant knowledge to keep their artifacts safe because the technology for their proper upkeep is widely available these days.

According to the museum curators, “The return of these artifacts cannot guarantee their proper safety, and preservation. They often argue that there is also the bigger concern of private companies and museums that would lose financial opportunities from the loss of artifacts.” The real issue behind their refusal to return those items is therefore more of economic interest rather than concern for the safety of the items.

The repatriation of stolen African artifacts is increasingly assuming unprecedented importance and is claiming the headlines everywhere in Africa and across the world. The struggle is a continuation of Africa’s liberation struggle that is still half fulfilled. Africa has political freedom but she has not yet achieved economic and cultural freedoms. The struggle is going on at various fronts and with various means. What is needed at this point in time is to take the struggle for cultural freedom to the global stage and lobbying to international organizations and coordination of actions by various stakeholders within and outside Africa.



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