African artefacts are increasingly being returned to African governments and, with this, the debate on the repatriation of African artefacts from the West is evolving. Our latest issue, A New Chapter for African Artefacts?, looks at the African ideas, politics and stakeholders shaping this debate. Purchase the issue here. We ship worldwide.
Following a long history of demands from African activists, artists, governments and scholars, the West appears to be changing its position towards repatriating looted African artefacts. Most recently in August 2022, Oxford University and Cambridge University announced their intention to return over 200 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria—should it happen, it will be the largest of such returns the UK has made to any African country so far. The ‘restitution movement’ as it is sometimes called is often presented as sudden, but—at least for Africans—it is an old movement. Indeed, Africans had called for the return of looted artefacts as early as the nineteenth century, following Britain’s 1897 raid on the Benin Kingdom, and throughout the decolonization era. But why are we only now seeing traction? And what are the politics of these returns?
Experts estimate that over 90 per cent of African artefacts are held in Western custody. This figure, like Princeton professor, Chika Okeke Agulu told The Republic, may demand some scrutiny. However, along with the 2018 Savoy-Sarr report from which it originates, this figure has undoubtedly helped create urgency and necessity around returning Africa’s stolen objects. For years, the West has propped its reluctance to return these artefacts on at least two arguments: first, historical uncertainty, or the inability (due to a lack of records) to tell where each artefact belongs and, therefore, where they must go. Second, infrastructure, the notion that African countries lack the facilities to preserve these objects—to which Africans have often responded, but were these objects intended to be preserved? Neither of these arguments hold weight and that such arguments gained prominence and have persevered reveals the extent to which mainstream discussions of African artefacts have historically prioritized the Western worldview.
Among the Africans who expect to receive their artefacts, the debate is even more complicated and certainly more interesting. Africans agree as much as we disagree on the questions of whether to care about artefacts, where the artefacts belong and where the artefacts should be kept. What is certain, however, is that the restitution debate is not simply a conversation about the past, or one solely about ‘objects’, but about the future of the continent’s very essence. This visceral nature of the debate might just as much be its limitation as it is its major strength. To close out 2022, we asked our authors to reflect on the these political dynamics and the broader restitution movement.
Ore Ogunbiyi launches the issue by taking us behind the scenes of the African-student-led movement that persuaded Jesus College at Cambridge University to return the Benin Bronze cockerel, ‘Okukor’, to Nigeria in 2021. The movement began as a conversation among students six years ago and has contributed to much larger Oxbridge repatriation efforts. However, according to Ogunbiyi, ‘That an 800-year-old institution changed its mind is not because we asked politely.’ She explains that, ‘the decision to repatriate the cockerel was made when it was convenient, when it fit into Cambridge’s broader agenda to rebrand as truly diverse, multicultural and forward-thinking. The credit that they get for it must be scrutinized through that lens.’
Desola Olaleye explores the philosophical dimensions of African restitution movements, in making what she calls an ‘existential argument for the restitution of African cultural heritage’. For Olaleye, the struggle for the restitution of Africa’s artefacts from Western museums reflects the necessary undoing of imperial domination. It is not merely political but also existential—it is a fight for the ‘spirit of Africa’. She notes that, ‘Many Africans see themselves in their cultural artefacts and to hold them in detention is to corrupt their sense of self, to disrupt their being-in-the-world. Restitution, therefore, goes beyond simply returning and receiving looted items. It, more importantly, entails restoring the spirit of plundered nations.’
Aby L. Sène extends the discussion of dispossession and restitution into the conservation landscape, where similar infrastructure-deficit arguments have been made to justify Western encroachment into local African communities. Sène argues that conservation has historically served as a pretext to dispossess local African communities for imperialist expansion and capitalist development. According to Sène: ‘That the demand for cheap commodities in the global North is driving biodiversity loss in Africa is not a convenient truth for imperialist expansion. Transnational conservation engages the global apparatus that plunders and tramples over indigenous sovereignty as the imperialist core ramps up efforts to allegedly save African wildlife, forests, and rangelands for the world.’
In an interview, Victor Ehikhamenor weighs in on the restitution debate. 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 Ehikhamenor, responds, ‘who told them all of the works were supposed to be “looked after”?’
In another interview, Chika Okeke-Agulu pays close attention to the question of where African artefacts belong. According to Okeke-Agulu, there is no one answer. ‘“African artefacts” refers to a wide range of objects with different histories, levels of significance, and cultural contexts,’ he explains. ‘So, there cannot be a single answer to the question of where and to whom repatriated artefacts should go.’
Our final issue for 2022, this issue also includes feature essays and interviews on subjects ranging from the arts to science and technology. This issue also includes some of our coverage of the COP27 climate conference that held in November 2022, as well as a special interview with climate activist, Vanessa Nakate. Since our previous issue, The Republic has received funding and capacity-building support from Africa No Filter (ANF). We have also won the Google News Initiative’s Innovation Challenge. ANF’s support contributed towards the production of this issue. Additionally, Google’s award will go towards helping us to build ATLAS, a photo discovery and licensing platform.
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