‘Creativity on the Continent Has Always Been a Continuum’ Victor Ehikhamenor on the Resilience of Benin Artistry

African artefacts looted, stolen, and forcefully taken belong to the African communities they were taken from in the Africa continent, Victor Ehikhamenor argues. He says, ‘In discussing restitution, we must also let the world know that creativity on the continent has always been a continuum, there was no break.’ 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A New Chapter for African Artefacts?. Buy the issue here.

The movement to reclaim Africa’s stolen art and cultural artefacts is constantly evolving. Requests for reparations have been repressed by European museums and governments since the early stages of post-colonial political independence played out across Africa. Over the years, Western countries have suggested their reluctance to return these artefacts is driven by a lack of suitable storage facilities on the continent. To which, visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor, wrote via email, ‘who told them all of the works were supposed to be “looked after”?’  

Ehikhamenor’s recent work includes a 12-foot installation he staged at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the United Kingdom earlier this year, to commemorate the victims of Britain’s 1897 raid on the ancient Benin Kingdom. During the raid, British soldiers burned ruler, Oba Ovonramwen’s palace and looted thousands of Benin royal objects. Ehikhamenor, who hails from Edo State and whose ancestral community is the Benin Kingdom, explained that the West’s storage argument for withholding African artefacts is flawed because not all objects were meant to be stored. ‘Many of the works created by our ancestors were supposed to be ephemeral,’ he said. ‘They served the immediate purpose and were meant to return to the earth and regenerate afterwards. Why would anybody want to preserve a certain wooden funerary mask meant for burying a dead person?’  

European attitudes towards repatriation requests from African governments and other African stakeholders in the cultural landscape may have changed in recent years.  

However, the restitution conversation is still often presented from the perspective of Western museums being ‘forced’ to return plundered artefacts. According to Ehikhamenor, ‘the West have a tendency to dwell in their colonial hangovers when it comes to creative endeavours in their former colonies.’ Despite the debilitating impacts of colonial plunder on the cultural heritage of African societies, Ehikhamenor felt it was important to stress that African creativity never stopped. Like many contemporary artists, he benefitted from the resilience of post-colonial artists and artistry. ‘Growing up,’ he explained, ‘I was surrounded by all forms of art that inspired me and influenced me. Then encountering the works of Nigerian modernists like Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, I always felt I had more than enough to feed on.’ 

Still, in mainstream discourse, little is typically mentioned about those on the continent who are clamouring to receive the returned artefacts or the local artists who have been denied significant artistic and cultural reference due to unavailability of these artefacts. ‘The symbolic importance of their return to the rightful owners, beside the artists, is immeasurable,’ Ehikhamenor said. ‘Can you imagine looting the religious artefacts that helps strengthen the Christian faith from the Vatican?’  

Our full interview continues below. 

THE REPUBLIC

There is an ongoing debate about whether African artefacts should be returned to local museums or local communities. In your view, where exactly do African artefacts belong? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

This debate has spanned decades, even during the days of active colonialism, African communities have one way or the other asked for some of their very significant works of art looted or forcefully taken from them without adequate negotiations or compensations to be returned. However, in the past four years or so, restitution requests have surged due to multiple factors. African artefacts looted, stolen, forcefully taken or however you want to put it belong to the African communities they were taken from in the Africa continent.  

THE REPUBLIC

As a Nigerian visual artist known for works that engage with cultural heritage, why do you think it’s important that African artists are involved in the movement to return stolen/looted African artefacts? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

A ladder that has missing steps is a dangerous means of climbing a rooftop. Works of art created by our ancestors are important foundation for the contemporary African artist, either as a point of inspiration or a source of influence. If these looted works have influenced some of the old and even new canons of western artists, you can imagine the importance of the artefacts to generations of African artists who have been denied access for centuries. Also, the symbolic importance of their return to the rightful owners, beside the artists, is immeasurable. Many communities wrap their entire cultural cosmology around these works that were stolen. Can you imagine looting the religious artefacts that helps strengthen the Christian faith from the Vatican?  

THE REPUBLIC

You’ve previously mentioned that ‘current conversations around restitution need to evolve to add contemporary artists to the conversation so it is clear to the world that African artists who started making works post-colonialism didn’t emerge from a vacuum.’ Can you expand on this? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

The West have a tendency to dwell in their colonial hangovers when it comes to creative endeavours in their former colonies. I have visited so many museums that have thousands of classic African artworks and artefacts (either looted or collected during the years of colonialism) but the same museums cannot boast of more than ten modern or contemporary African artists in their museum. That tells me that they have the mindset that Africans stopped producing art when colonialism was truncated. Also, the West’s thirst for blood art is almost unquenchable; because the more violent the narrative of how the work was gotten from Africa the more value they slam on such works. So, in discussing restitution, we must also let the world know that creativity on the continent has always been a continuum, there was no break. That the West ignored a large part of African modernism and contemporary creations does not negate nor diminish their existence and importance.  

THE REPUBLIC

As a Nigerian artist, how have you been affected by the limited availability of indigenous arts and cultural artefacts in Nigerian museums? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

It has been a bit frustrating that, in Nigeria, one cannot really boast of many local museums to go and replenish or reference or learn what has existed or been created. That is fast changing now with the emergence of some institutions that are getting built. I am very optimistic that a new generation of Africans are taking matters into their own hands to rectify this. Our crop of leaders has failed us in numerous ways when it comes to building long lasting art institutions, but I cannot blame them because you can’t give what you don’t have. A lot of them are culturally bereft, they have constantly and continuously accepted mirrors as a means of exchange for their diamonds.  

THE REPUBLIC

And how have you navigated the shortage of local access to artefacts in the course of your artistic career? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

Here, I have to paraphrase the late Moshood Abiola, who when arrested by Abacha hoodlums was asked by BBC why he is still able to talk. He told them that they did not arrest his mouth. Yes, colonialism robbed us of uncountable things, but they only dented what we have. There is still much to be referenced. Like I said earlier, Africans never stopped creating. I am lucky to have come from the art-making kingdom, Benin, which never ceased to create. Growing up, I was surrounded by all forms of art that inspired me and influenced me. Then encountering the works of Nigerian modernists like Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, I always felt I had more than enough to feed on, which I am eternally grateful for.  

The sad part of this question is that I have to travel thousands of miles to engage with some of the meaningful work from my community, and a large number of these works are locked away in storage, some rotting away in these so-called well-run Western museums.  

THE REPUBLIC

Your work as an artist is largely inspired by pre-colonial Benin arts and culture. And the Benin bronzes have served as emblems of the struggle to reclaim African artefacts. Do you think the return of more pre-colonial Benin works would further inspire your artistry? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

Yes. Not just only me, other artists and bronze casters in Benin Kingdom. Moreover, a lot of the works have spiritual importance that cannot be over emphasized, we need them back for those purpose as wellnot just art for art sake. 

THE REPUBLIC

For years, Western museums have justified holding on to colonial artefacts with the view that African countries do not have the facilities to look after such artefacts. What is your take on this argument? 

VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR

How were the works looked after for centuries before they were looted? That is the biggest cow dung argument they have used to hold on to stolen works and perpetuate their colonial barbarity. The argument no longer holds water, especially when Africans have had the opportunity to visit the many storages where they keep the looted items and have seen the disintegration of these works. Also, who told them all of the works were supposed to be ‘looked after’? Many of the works created by our ancestors were supposed to be ephemeral, they served the immediate purpose, and were meant to return to the earth and regenerate afterwards. Why would anybody want to preserve a certain wooden funerary mask meant for burying a dead person? Keeping such works in their museums is like preserving a wet diaper just to show that a diaper is capable and great at holding shit!

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