“The question is not about location but ownership.”

Okeke-Agulu on the Looting, Market, and Restitution of Igbo Alusi Figures

June 26, 2020 By: Adenike Cosgrove

The Christie’s Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du Nord auction catalogue has been available for a much longer period than usual—the auction was originally slated to take place on the 8 April 2020 but was moved to 29 June due to the COVID-19 crisis. It is perhaps because of this extension that so much attention and scrutiny had been placed on the provenance of a number of lots featured in the sale.

Chika Okeke-Agulu, Professor of African and American Diaspora Art at Princeton University, is calling for the halt of the sale of two Igbo alusi figures, said to have been acquired in 1968-69 “in situ” by Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001). Okeke-Agulu stated on Instagram that “Mr Kerchache, went there [Biafra] to buy up my people’s cultural heritage, including the two sculptures you are now offering for sale. I write this so no one, including Christie’s and any potential buyer of these loots from Biafra, can claim ignorance of their true provenance. These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children.”

Should the sale be cancelled and the alusi figures returned to Nigeria?

In this podcast, we speak with Okeke-Agulu to discuss why he has strong reservations about the sale, the response he’d like to see from Christie’s, and the wider implications of this debate on private and public collections that house disputed artworks. But we start with a discussion on the meaning and importance of alusi figures to the Igbo.


A lot has been going on, a lot has been happening in the world of African art, especially classic African art. But before we dig into all of the different challenges and the dynamics that are taking place right now, I thought it'd be important for us to understand, first of all, the art, because this is what it's all about. It's about the art. So specific to alusi figures, what exactly are they and what is the cultural importance of these figures to the Igbo?

Well, alusi actually means "spirit forces" and so these sculptures are expressive forms that represent these spirit forces.

If you look at every single one of them, you would find that their palms are facing upward as if to receive something, and you'll find that they also don't have digits. So they are like plates and they are carved that way precisely because offerings are put on their hands, while in the altar. So during the ritual, [devotees] would make ritual gifts and place them in their hands. That's why I described them as "sacred sculptures" because they are physical manifestations of these "deific" and spiritual forces that are part of the Igbo pantheon. They are religious sculptures. You'll find them in personal and communal shrines. The taller ones would typically be in communal shrines in the centre of town, the centre of the village, or in the shrine to the major deities.

And so on particular times of the year, they would be re-decorated. Of course, when you find them in museums these days they are naked, but hardly are they naked [in their shrines], especially when they represent Ozo titleholders. You know the ones that are of high status by the scarification on their foreheads. Those are Ichi marks that Ozo titleholders in the past would be scarified with to mark their bodies as these living deities as it were. When you attained the Ozo title in those days, you were forbidden to lie. It's part of the obligations that come with the title, along with the social status and prestige and so forth. So it does not come free. So marking your body is a way to announce to people that you are an Ozo titleholder. So when you see these figures, some of them do have these marks on their foreheads, including the two figures that are up for sale by Christie's.

Igbo Alusi Figure, Nigeria
Attributed to the Master of Awka
H. 112 cm (44 in.)
Image courtesy Christie's Art Africain et Océanien Paris Auction, 11 December 2012
Igbo Alusi Figure, Nigeria
Attributed to the Master of Awka
H. 200 cm (78.7 in.)
Image courtesy Christie's Force et présence - Une Collection d'Art Africain et Océanien du Nouveau Siècle Paris Auction, 11 December 2014
Igbo Alusi Figure, Nigeria
Unknown Igbo artist
H. 165 cm (65 in.)
Image courtesy Sotheby's Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie Paris Auction, 02 December 2015

And are these objects and figures still used in today's societies? Do you still find them in altars or are they traditions that were practiced in the past?

Well, yes and no. Predominantly, as you probably know, the Igbo converted en-mass to Christianity very early on. But the practices, and this is my point in the New York Times article in 2017, the war caused a lot of transformation in Igbo society, including the mass destruction of the shrines and the deaths, this is very important, the deaths of the older men and women who would typically be the priests and priestesses of these shrines.

Because starvation was used as a weapon of war during the Biafran war, families had to decide whether to feed the young or the old. And so they made choices, in most families, to dedicate the very little foods that were available to feed the young and let the old move on. And so, a whole generation of priests and priestesses died during that war. And what that meant, apart from the looting of the objects of these alusi figures, a lot of the priests and priestesses died, and that meant an instant decline of Igbo traditional religious worship. You still find, in corners of Igboland, adherence to Igbo traditional religion and they do have shrine figures in these remaining shrines. So it's still there, but it's much less widespread than before the war.

So then now to the auction. So Christie's, they have two of these alusi figures, lot 47, that are coming up in a sale on the 29th of June of this year. You had mentioned on Instagram, some concerns about the sale and some concerns about these two specific figures. What are your concerns about the sale of the figures?

Well, it's about time that questions are asked about what happened in Biafra. One of the great tragedies of that war, apart from the decimation of my generation, the Biafran babies, few of us survived that war. Apart from that—the deaths, the hundreds or thousands or some figures say up to a few million that died—was the looting, the wanton looting of Biafran artistic and cultural heritage, but this has never been part of the conversation about what happened to Africa's cultural heritage in these debates about restitution. In part, because this happened in the postcolonial period and so it wasn't part of the rhetoric around colonisation and the evils of colonisation.

This happened in "independent Nigeria". But the problem for me and for my generation... because we are all coming now to the point where we actually have a voice to express what we had been thinking about privately among our peers, we're getting to the point where we have the platform to actually begin to ask questions about what happened to Biafran cultural heritage. And one of the ways to start that conversation is actually to ask, why are these looted objects being bought and sold in the open market. That's a very first foray into what is clearly going to be a long term project of discussions, conversations, debates, negotiations about the fate of these objects. So this is just the first volley, if you will, into what is clearly a very difficult, but previously ignored problem.


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In a 2017 op-ed article in the New York Times, I wrote about widespread looting of art from Eastern Nigeria during the Biafran War (1967-70), and that my mother still mourns the overnight disappearance of countless alusi (sacred sculptures) from communal shrines in my hometown, Umuoji, in Anambra State. These art raids from all indications were sponsored by dealers and their client collectors mostly based in Europe and the US. It turns out that later this month the venerable Christie’s will auction two of these impressive alusi (seen here) said to have been acquired in 1968-69 in situ by Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001). That is, Mr. Kerchache acquired these sculptures in the Nri-Awka area (a half-hour drive from my hometown) during the darkest years of the Biafran War. Dear Christie’s, let’s be clear about the provenance of these sculptures you want to sell. While between 500,000 and three million civilians, including babies like me, were dying of kwashiorkor and starvation inside Biafra; and while young French doctors were in the war zone establishing what we now know as Doctors Without Borders, their compatriot, Mr. Kerchache, went there to buy up my people’s cultural heritage, including the two sculptures you are now offering for sale. I write this so no one, including Christie’s and any potential buyer of these loots from Biafra can claim ignorance of their true provenance. These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children. #christies #warloots #biafranwar

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Since I posted the Instagram post about the sale, one of my friends who is also a Biafran, who was born right after the end of the war, pointed out, also on Instagram, that one of these objects that is at The MET in New York, had been taken, according to the provenance provided by the museum, from his hometown, in Abiriba in Eastern Nigeria, and that it was collected by another of these French dealer-collectors in 1968. And he has information from his hometown, that when his hometown fell to the Nigerian soldiers, that they came with some White men who were targeting art objects in Abiriba.

Igbo 'Female Figure from a Men’s House', Abiriba region, Nigeria
Unknown Igbo artist, 19th-century
Wood, pigment || H. 106 × W. 29.2 × D. 27.9 cm (41.7 × 11 1/2 × 11 in.)
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We're actually going to dig into the museum angle of this as well, because we did some research and discovered a number of different pieces. And we really limited our research to the Niger Delta, Southeast Nigeria, Igboland, to try and identify pieces from those regions in public collections. But we'll touch on that in a minute.

Now earlier, you mentioned 'loot' and the fact that they had looted these pieces. Now I want to read a section from the book, "African Arts and the Colonial Encounter" by Sidney Kasfir. In it, she mentioned that "in the Lower Benue region, during and after the Nigerian civil war (1967 to 1970), local Igbo and Hausa traders who supply regional dealers outside Nigeria extracted pieces from their usage contexts in exchange for cash. While this is usually represented as "art theft" in later accounts, it is rarely so bold as an actual robbery". She goes on further to say, "given the impoverishment of the local Idoma farmer, it is not so difficult as one might imagine to find someone who needs the money more than he values the sanctity of the objects". I read that because I wanted to define "loot" and "looting". Or is it an argument that's independent of whether the figures were stolen, and a more moral one that they were taken, under duress, during the Biafran war?

It's both. The reason I say that it's both is that in a social transaction, if you arrested someone in New York who is dealing drugs and that person had been sent by a warlord or a patron to go sell these drugs or to go buy these drugs in order to go distribute, if you stopped your investigation at this perhaps teenager who is running the streets with these drugs, who is probably a resident of that street and forget about the crime warlord somewhere in California or in Mexico, or God knows where, you probably wouldn't have very good chances of resolving the larger problem.

And that is to say that, we can place a number of French dealers in the Cameroonian border, during the civil war in Nigeria, quite apart from this information from Abiriba that indicates that the Nigerian soldiers were accompanied by some White people. We're not talking about Igbo or Idoma. The account from Abiriba says that the Nigerian soldiers were accompanied by some White men who targeted art objects.

Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001)

So here you have two scenarios—on the one hand, the possibility that you actually had some European dealers inside Biafra, along with Nigerian soldiers, seizing and carting away these objects. On the other hand, you had dealers who were at the Cameroonian border—you can place someone like Jacques Kerchache on the Cameroonian side during that war.

I have a verified account, I have photographs taken by a British woman [Anna Craven] who worked for the National Museum in Jos. After my 2017 New York Times article, she wrote to me from out of nowhere with 31 photographs that she had taken in 1970. She had found these dealers, "runners" as they call them in [the] African art [market]. They had been arrested in the town of Gembu in the Mambila region of Nigeria. Gembu is a few miles from the Cameroonian border. She had intercepted these traders heading towards Cameroon and had brought in the divisional police officers so the men [were] arrested. [Though the men were arrested, she believed they were later let go]. She photographed all these objects. So we have accounts of Europeans who were at the Cameroonian border, who are patronising your Sidney Kasfir's "poor Idoma farmer" to go into Biafra and get these things out.

So how do you define "looting"? Is it only when the Nazi, when Hitler or Himmler himself went into Jewish homes to seize their objects, or when they sent their minions to go seize them and bring them to their palaces for their own enjoyment. So the question is not whether it was directly picked up by these Europeans from Igbo shrines, cause there was a war so only the most daring—or if they were accompanied by Nigerian soldiers to guarantee their safety—could they actually go in. Otherwise, they would send people who needed money to go get them, pay them and then take [the pieces] to Europe.

So for me, I don't see the question of whether Jacques Kerchache... originally all the catalogues said that he collected these objects in situ. And then when I raised a question about that, Christie's takes out the "in situ", as if that then resolves the problem and claims that "we know that Jacques Kerchache never went to Nigeria". Of course, he might not have gone to Nigeria, but he was at the border of Nigeria on the Cameroonian side.

"How did he acquire these objects during the time of war?" That is really the question. And we may go into the very fact that the 1970 date is actually not significant, as far as these particular objects are concerned. The convention that protects the Biafran loot is the 1954 convention, not the 1970 convention.

And what is the 1954 convention?

The 1954 UNESCO convention on the Protection of Cultural [Property] in [the Event of] Armed Conflict. Nigeria [accessioned] this convention in 1961. So to the extent that there's any armed conflict in Nigeria, the cultural heritage in those places of armed conflict are protected by this convention.

I'm going to read Christie's response in the Artsy article where they said "in situ might have been confusing and that it has a different connotation in the African art category. In this category it's used as a term to designate the fact that the objects were collected by an African dealer before being sold to a foreign collector outside of the African continent".

It’s the most stupid thing anyone who pretends to know about African art could say. I'm a professor of African art so I cannot imagine who in Christie's knows about categories in African art more than I do. They should point me to the scholarship that redefines the Latin word "in situ" to mean something different when it comes to African art. I would like to see the scholarship on that.

But irrespective of the definition of "in situ", based on what you were saying earlier, it doesn't matter if it was collected in Nigeria or in Cameroon.

That's why I said it doesn't matter, but even if they want to quarrel with this... taking "in situ" as meaning something different, it’s completely nonsensical.

But then I guess a counter argument could be, where do we draw the line? Because you have Mumuye figures that also came out at a similar time from Nigeria close to the Biafran war. Should we bring those into this discussion as well?


Why not?

Because that will confuse issues. The Mumuye figures, if they were collected during the colonial period, belong in the larger question about colonial exploitation of the African continent, the colonial cultural expropriation across Africa. That is a category that you might think about the 1970 convention.

The objects that were taken out of Eastern Nigeria, that was the Republic of Biafra where the war happened, are protected by a different convention. So I don't want to mix [things], because that has been the problem all these years, whereby a specific history such as the looting of the Oba of Benin's palace... which has a date, we know who the actors were, there's the most substantial documentation perhaps anywhere in the world of colonial-era looting, because it's well documented, we know who owns it. So it's not a question of who owned it, who should it be returned to. The family from which these [things] where looted is still alive and kicking today.

And so we should not mix issues around the case of say Benin, with the general cases of African art that were taken to Europe, because often, sometimes we don't actually know how they got there.

So you want to focus on the documentation where there's clear evidence, or there's a clear timeline.

Because that's how to actually hope to achieve any success. If you can prosecute both in the public square—as is presently being done and hopefully by legal means, as I hope will happen sooner or later, if that can be successfully prosecuted—maybe it can provide models for pursuing other cases.

I think we're at a point now where we should be thinking about what is possible and what is fantastical. And I would that people like me and others who have been invested in these questions will pick very clear case studies and pursue them in the hope that they can be resolved satisfactorily and then move on to other less compelling, less well-documented cases and see where those will go.


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UPDATE: CHRISTIE’S RESPONDS So, here is @christiesinc response, courtesy of @artsy. I will tell you why I don’t buy it, shortly. ‐‐—————————————– The Igbo couple (lot 47) to be offered for sale was acquired by Jacques Kerchache from an African dealer in either 1968–1969. The provenance regarding this lot have been published several times and validated by well-respected scholars, collectors and dealers. It is known that Jacques Kerchache never travelled to Nigeria. There is no legal reason not to proceed with this sale, We do appreciate the catalogue terminology ‘in situ’ is confusing; it has a different connotation in the African art category. We are removing it from the provenance information as it does not refer to precise information of the actual place of acquisition. In this field, it is used as a term to designate the fact that the object was collected by an African dealer before being sold to a foreign collector outside of the African continent. There is a legitimate market for these statues and this sale falls within our compliance and due diligence process. These objects are being sold as part of a transparent, legitimate and legally compliant public sale process. https://www.artsy.net/news/artsy-editorial-christies-upcoming-sale-igbo-sculptures-subject-calls-repatriation #christies #biafra #nigerianart #alusi

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So what does success look like? You talk about a successful outcome. What would you like to see Christie's and other auction houses or dealers that find themselves in a similar situation do? What would you want them to do?

To stop buying and selling these objects for now because they are contested objects. I'll give an analogy to that. If someone is keeping a car or a house that is disputed by other family members—maybe it's a heritage handed down from parents or grandparents, and the siblings are quarrelling over who should get it or who that house belongs to; "was it given to you or to me?"—once you have a contestation on the status of that car, I don't think it makes sense for one of those siblings to say, "well, while we're quarrelling over who should get it, I’ll sell it".

This is really my point that the Benin objects, because I see a clear case to prosecute, should not be bought and sold. The Biafran objects and artworks should not be bought and sold until their status is determined.

Now, what does success look like you asked right? There are short-term and long-term goals, as far as I'm concerned. And this is really my position on this question on even the broader issues of restitution of these objects. The primary question is not necessarily the location of these objects, but ownership of them. Because location and ownership are not necessarily the same thing. Who owns expropriated and looted objects? It's as simple as that. Who owns them? Is it the person who is keeping them or the person from which those objects were looted?

If we can resolve that question, then you ask, what then happens to them? And there are different scenarios of what can happen. Now, the reason I prefer this argument and I take this position is as you probably know, one of the most supposedly compelling arguments that museums and their advocates in the West—scholars even often prefer—is, "well, the Africans don't have any place to keep it. They don't have museums, so where do we return them to?" Fair question, supposedly. But if we determine first, who owns these objects, then the question of where they are or where they can be, can be a medium and longer-term project. In other words, if we determine that the objects that were new looted from the palace in Benin belongs to the progeny of Ovonramwen, including the present Oba of Benin, then the matter of whether it is in the British Museum today, or in another fifty years, is then open for negotiation so long as we understand that what is now in the British Museum belongs to the Oba of Benin.

So the immediate thing that can happen is that they change the labels to say "The Property of the Oba of Benin". So, even if it is still there, perhaps because the Oba of Benin is not ready yet to ask for probably all of them, or he might say, "well, you can keep fifty and return 900", he might be that generous, but that would then mean that he's comfortable with the idea of receiving his valuable objects because he has a space for them in his palace, or maybe he would decide to build [and] expand the palace in order to receive these objects because the palace was redesigned and rebuilt from what it was when these objects were there. But that will be his decision as the owner of these objects.

Igbo Alusi Figures, Nri-Awka Region, Nigeria
Attributed to the Master of Awka
H. 161 and 166 cm (63.4 and 65.3 in.)

Images courtesy Christie's
Jacques Kerchache Collection, Paris
Ana and Antonio Casanovas & Bernard de Grunne, Madrid / Brussels, 2010
Important European private collection, acquired from them

Estimate: €250,000 - €350,000

And that was a question I was going to ask because there is the argument, two arguments in fact. First of all, some argue that Christie's is actually exposing all of these classic works of art from Africa that are currently still in private collections that nobody knew anything about. But the fact that it's now in, like you say, that open market, it's exposing these pieces so that we can have this debate and that potentially, it is an open market these different countries, nations or cultures can buy back their heritage.

Fantastic. So if it's up for the highest bidder, which is what auctions are, so we're going to be competing with the gazillionaires in Saudi Arabia who are willing to put down half a billion for a single painting? It still goes back to the same thing, it's up for the highest bidder. So if much of the world's wealth is parked in Europe and America, then these objects will forever remain in Europe and America because they will offer top dollar for them.

That is not the case with the objects that were looted by Nazi Germany. Nobody said, "let's leave it out in the open so the families who own them could go buy them in the open market". Instead, there were pressures put on the museums [and] the private collections that had bought them from the Nazis or the families of the Nazis who kept them. Pressure was put on them. And it wasn't just pressure for its own sake. There was political pressure. As you probably know, there was something called the Washington Protocol, that was enacted, that gave some legal teeth to the business of rescuing the Nazi-looted objects from private and public collections. So I don't see why things should be different.

This is not about trying to create an equivalence between the terribleness of the Nazi genocide and the fate of Benin. We're talking about the fate of objects that were taken from their rightful owners. That's simply that. So the idea of leaving these things in the open market does not resolve the question of ownership. And two, they can often come from the private collections and go back to private connections through the auction houses. In any case, it may be that when they come out of a private collection through the auction house to a museum, you would say, "well, we know where that is, it’s in a public space". Perhaps, but there's no guarantee that they will all end up from private to public collections.

But on the flip, you have the additional challenge now though, that you might have some private collectors that have these important cultural pieces that are spooked and will want to hide a lot of the pieces that they have and sell to other collectors privately without involving dealers or involving the auction houses.

That is also possible. But you know, what, if you make something toxic, well, if you want to spend half a million dollars, it's up to you.

I'm sure there are private collections that have done the same with Nazi-looted objects, right? But that's a greater risk that you're taking than if you're not made aware that what you're buying is contested and someone might come after you someday. There's only so much that you can hide.

And oftentimes these collectors, the reason they collect these things is to show them off to their friends. So yes, some private collections can hide these works so well that we may not know where they are, but there’s already a lot of them that are documented in private collections [and] published because they don't think there's an issue with publishing them. The work[s] in Christie's [are] from a private collection. We know what that private connection is and where [the figures] are.

Igbo Ikenga Shrine Figure, Abiriba region, Nigeria
Unknown Igbo artist, first half of the 20th century
Wood, paint || H. 116 × W. 30 × D. 30 cm (45.7 x 11.8 x 11.8 in.)
Provenance: El Hadj Moumie, Douala, Cameroon, 1967 || Pierre Dartevelle, Brussels, Belgium ca. 1970 || Jacques and Anne Kerchache by 1984; [Collection of Anne and Jacques Kerchache, Pierre Bergé & Associés, Paris, June 13, 2010, Lot 275] || Princeton University Art Museum, 2010
Image courtesy Princeton University Art Museum

So we've talked about the private collections. Now let's pivot over to the public collection. Because we did some research and the Princeton University Art Museum itself currently lists two Igbo Ikenga figures in its online collection. These two are also important shrine figures and one of them was also acquired by Jacques Kerchache. The MET has an Ibibio figure that was also collected by Jacques Kerchache in the 1970s, just at the end of the war. In addition, they have a Jukun headdress that was collected in Cameroon in 1968 or 1969 by Philippe Guimiot, again, collected during the war. We also know that the vast majority, a lot of Igbo communal figures that currently reside in public institutions, also have questionable provenance.

So what are your thoughts about these pieces of cultural importance that are currently residing in museum collections in the West and what should museums start to do about it?

Philippe Guimiot (1927- )

We just talked about what happens or what might or could happen where these objects go through the auction houses. They might end up in public or private collections. And you remember, I said, well if they end up in public collections, that means we know where they are. Public collections have a way of documenting, providing information, putting them on their online museum websites and so forth. So they're easy to find. In other words, the medium and long-term aspects of what I described as a long-term project, do not ignore the objects in the museum collections.

Now what can happen, and what I hope will happen, not just at the Princeton University Art Museum, but at The MET and the Musee du Quai Branly—where they have the Kerchache wing—is that they redo their labels about provenance. That is one place to start to make sure that they do not ignore the fact that these objects were [taken from] Biafra during the war. Let the label say so. What happens in the future about the fate of the objects depends on how successful the medium-term and longer-term project of determining their fate is concerned. We'll see.

So in terms of the public collections, and this is my hope, now that they cannot say that they don't know that these objects were collected in a place that was in a war, the labels must reflect that. I am not ignorant of the fact that many of these objects ended up in public collections but at least we know where they are. Part of the work that will be done is to document what is where, as part of the research that has to be done in the process of pursuing a resolution of the fates of these looted objects.

Igbo Agbara Shrine Figure, Nigeria
Unknown Igbo artist, 20th century
Wood, paint || H. 156.5 × W. 37 × D. 35 cm (61.6 x 14.6 x 13.8 in.)
Provenance: Jacques and Anne Kerchache || musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
Image courtesy musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac
Jukun Ancestral Headdress, Middle Benue region, Nigeria
Unknown Jukun artist, 19th–early 20th century or before
Wood, organic accretion || H. 114.3 × W. 30.5 × D. 30.5 cm (45 × 12 × 12 in.)

Provenance: Philippe Guimiot, Belgium, collected in Cameroon, 1968 or 1969 || Jacques Kerchache, Paris, by 1970, until 1994 || Private collection, 1994–2015
Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Now I'm going to go back to Sydney's book, and unfortunately there is no evidence of this naturally because this was pre-colonisation, but she argued that even before colonisation there were wars. [Wars] between different ethnic groups, between different ethnicities, even [within] the Yoruba, you had the Egba and Egbado that were fighting. Within those wars, you had different cultures that would loot pieces from the ethnic group that they conquered and they would take on-board, in fact, some of their beliefs and some of their religions... So, when you talk about works that were looted during war, there have been wars and in those wars, pre-colonisation, you did have different ethnic groups taking pieces. So why is it different for the Biafran war?

You probably need to ask UNESCO, why they thought it was necessary in 1954 to draft a convention.

So the difference is that there is a law, there is a convention.

You know, it's not an argument to say, "well, the Africans fought wars and destroyed the cultural heritage of their enemies or their rivals.” We're in the modern age, where you have nation-states. There are international laws and there happens to be a convention by UNESCO. There must be a reason why UNESCO thought that we cannot rely on an old order in the current and present dispensation. And there's a reason why nations around the world thought that this convention ought to be put in place and they signed up for it. And so we are operating in a new order, let's call it that. And that is what we have to abide by.

But also, I don't know that Sydney Kasfir said that while the Ijebu and the Egba were fighting among each other, that the Ijebu in the process, looted objects of the Egba, collected them and were actually making money off of them. These objects are being economically exploited because they are seen as… they are looking at them as commodities. So, the private collectors, not only when they sell the objects, they make money off of them, they use them as collaterals to borrow money from banks and so forth. They loan them out and collect money for exhibitions. They sell reproduction rights for these objects. The public collections do the same. So, we might see museums as institutions that collect and keep our cultural heritage but there are financial transactions that go on in museums in terms of loans, they get paid when you borrow their objects, they make tablecloths, they make all kinds of things that they sell in their bookshops. It's part of what they use when they go to borrow money.

So we are in a new dispensation. It's not just that these objects were expropriated from the African continent, but that there's economic exploitation of them by Western individuals and institutions who are keeping them. I cannot imagine how much, let's say, the British Museum would have earned over these past hundred or so years that it's been keeping the Benin works. How many people went to the British Museum just to see those works and paid ticket prices to get in to see them. So they are economically exploiting them. Part of the reason I argue about the resolution of ownership is that let's say that that is resolved, that yes, they’re owned by the palace, that means monies that are being made from these objects by the museums, some of these should go to the owner while we wait for the day that the objects might or can return.

It might be that whoever owns it may say, "well, it's not just our cultural heritage, it's also part of our heritage writ large". In other words, it's also part of their assets. Because cultural heritage can be assets as well. And assets accrue value, including financial or pecuniary value. Can you imagine these two objects as being sold for a quarter of a million Euros? A tenth of that can make a lot of difference in some parts of the world.

Mumuye Iagalagana Figure, Nigeria
Unknown Mumuye artist, 19th or early 20th century
Wood || H. 99 cm (40 in.)
Provenance: Brought back from Cameroon by Philippe Guimiot & Jacques Kerchache in 1968 || Philippe Guimiot, Brussels, Belgium, 1968-1971 || Morris J. Pinto, Geneva/Paris/New York, 1971-1973 || Merton D. Simpson, New York City || Philippe Guimiot, Brussels, 1978 Jack Naiman, Los Angeles || Ernst Beyeler (1921-2010), Basel, Switzerland || Fondation Beyeler, Basel-Riehen, Switzerland
Image courtesy Foundation Beyeler

So it sounds like there are a number of different things that you're pointing to here. There's the restitution debate or repatriation debate, but that's not necessarily what you're calling for. You're calling for one, where it's clear that these objects were taken during war, or it's documented that they were looted, we need to have that debate and we need to have that debate now. Two, where it's being sold, and again, you have that evidence that it was taken during war, or that it was looted during the period of colonisation and there is documented evidence that it should not be sold. And three, there's then that longer term discussion of ownership, not necessarily "send it back", but to define the ownership of the piece back to its original owner.

Yes. That's my point. And thanks for summarising.

The reason why we summarise is because you talk to different collectors of classic works and you look at the debate that's taking place right now and it seems to be there are a few buckets of conclusions and resistance. One, "we saved them. We were the ones that saved them", two, "they will rot if they go back", three, "they are only going to end up back in the private market if we send it back", four, "they were often sold by those that converted to Christianity", and five, "give it back to who, these cultures no longer exist". Why do you think there's so much resistance?

So much resistance? Because they're keeping valuable stuff. If you saw someone's property and you coveted it enough to either seize it or use surreptitious means to buy it off the owner, you will have to be compelled to return it, either by force of moral argument—"it's wrong for you to have done this"—and then you have a change of heart and you return it. Or you're told, "well, you know, what you did is illegal and so you should return it". Maybe if you believe that if you don't return it you'll get into legal quagmire, so then you return it.

So I'm not surprised that there's a resistance and I'm not surprised that you have all these arguments about why they won't and can't be returned. I have often used this analogy—again I like to think in analogies because they tend to help clarify the issues—In 2018, I had this interview on Deutsche Welle TV in Berlin about restitution and this question came up again about the argument made by Western institutions; "They don't have a place to keep these things. They don't have climate-controlled museums. Even when they do have any museums, they don't have good enough staff. So why should we return them?" And my argument is the scenario where someone goes to a neighbour and seizes her BMW luxury car. And when asked to return the car to the owner [the thief] says, well, "look at her house! Does that house look like a place where you should keep a BMW? Unless she builds a new house that is the befitting of this BMW, I'm not returning it". That's what it sounds like in my ears. In other words, the person who stole and expropriated someone else's property is now determining or is insisting on conditions under which these stolen, expropriated, looted objects have to be returned. And my point is that you're not in a position to make such a demand precisely because you did something that is either wrong or illegal, depending on whether you're making a moral argument or legal argument.

But you know what, what is the guarantee that if Nigeria decides tomorrow to build a world-class museum and then says to the Quai Branly and the British Museum and the ethnological museums in Berlin and in Vienna and to The MET, “see, we’ve built a world-class museum. We’ve hired all the staff, climate control, everything. Give us back the works now that we have [a place to keep] them.” Do you think they would all come running to return the objects?

Ask the Egyptians and ask the Greeks. The Greeks built more than a world-class museum in the run-up to the Olympics in the hope that the Elgin Marbles will be returned. Has it been returned? I don’t think so. The Egyptians did the same. They’ve built one of the best museums in the world today. Has that made people change their mind? So, this is classic delay tactics. Changing the terms or changing the goalposts. So if you do this, they will say, “well, perhaps you don’t have well-trained staff or they have not gone to school in the West to understand how the West cares for art.”

Or that it's now cultural heritage that the world deserves to see.

Let's call it in gentleman's language, BS. And why is that so? So you have all these museums in the United States, in Britain and so forth, and it's the world's heritage—whose world? When was the last time you heard of any Nigerian who went to the US embassy and said; "you know, I need to go to the US to go and see artworks at the MET. Could you please give me a visa to go and share in the world's heritage." They would think you must be crazy. So the idea that this is the world's heritage, it's the world's heritage if you have passports that can travel.

So it's, again, the kind of argument people in power make. The hegemonic power makes such an argument that says "hey, how come you're not travelling to see the exhibitions in all these so-called global cities in Europe and America."

Final question. So I'm a collector. I'm passionate about the work, specifically Yoruba art, but I'm passionate about classic African art [more broadly] and I think more people should collect because we don't have enough collectors in this field. I see an Ikenga figure in your room. What would your advice be, because we're not telling people to not collect classic African art, so what are we telling collectors? What advice do you have [for] collectors that want to continue to collect works of classic African art?

Like I said earlier, there are lots and lots of African art objects that came out of the Continent by means that are less fraught. Actually there are probably more of those than the more difficult case studies. And so to the extent that you have these objects out there, I can't say don't buy and sell. That would be nonsensical. That's never my position that all classic and traditional African art can't be bought and sold. I have never made such an argument. I will never make such an argument.

What we're talking about is that there are very clear instances of acts of expropriation that injured the cultural memories of the peoples who owned them, those are what I'm interested in more than anything else. And so those are the kinds of objects that I am against the buying and selling of, those contested objects. It's not all Igbo art that should be forbidden from being bought and sold because lots of them came from conditions that are not very clear—from missionaries who went in and were given stuff, there were lots of stuff that were given as gifts. So we can't conflate all of these and that's my position.

And so I do collect as, as you can see, I do collect myself. In my personal case, my hope is someday these things will go back to Nigeria. That's why I'm collecting. I hope that people who are also collecting have those kinds of intentions—if and when they're comfortable that there is a place for these objects in Nigeria. And you're seeing private museums being built in Nigeria today. So I'm optimistic that the Nigeria we know today might not be the Nigeria of tomorrow.

When I look at what happened to the UAE, in 1975, if you told someone that the United Arab Emirates, someday, would be interested in getting back, their cultural heritage from all over the world, someone might think you were probably tipsy because they had pretty much nothing. Well, it's only taken about forty years and they have arguably some of the best museums in the world today. And they are aggressively getting back a lot of their cultural heritage by diplomatic [and] financial transactions, to get these things back and populate the museums for their people.

That is my long term goal. And that's why I said in my Instagram posts that I may not live long enough to see the final resolution of this but that's not the point. It's actually to begin in the hope that the next generation would take and continue this and maybe in the context of a much more forward-looking Nigeria. Because as you very well know, the Nigerians also have to do their own part. It's not all about the West and the collectors in the West. We do have institutions in Nigeria and as I'm pushing on one side, I'm also pushing on the other side, which is the administrators, the governors, the National [Commission for] Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. They have their own part to play in all of this.

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