‘There Cannot Be a Single Answer’ Chika Okeke-Agulu on the Rightful Location of African Artefacts

Though they are crucial to the movement, advocating for the restitution of stolen African artefacts cannot be left to sympathetic actors of the West, Chika Okeke-Agulu argues. He says, ‘It is no surprise that most of the important scholarly publication on royal Benin art have been by researchers overseas who have better access to museums and collections that benefitted, directly or indirectly, from colonial-era looting.’

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

In 2018, Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr, and French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy, published a restitution report. Commissioned by French president, Emmanuel Macron, if anything, the report formally kickstarted the Macron government’s ambition to return artefacts looted by the French army in 1892 to Benin Republic. It provided segments of the pro-restitution camp good material, as well as some convenient, though questionable soundbites, like the claim in the report that 90—95 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage are held in museum collections overseas,’ Chika Okeke-Agulu, who is a professor of African and African Diaspora Art at Princeton University, wrote via email. According to Okeke-Agulu, a prominent voice in academia and the art world pushing for the return of African artefacts, ‘provenance research is vital to restitution claims, especially where the origins and ownership of given artefacts are not properly and reliably documented.’  

The movement to return stolen Africa’s stolen art and cultural artefacts is a global movement; yet even among Africans, where exactly the stolen artefacts belong is a heavy debate. ‘“African artefacts refers to a wide range of objects with different histories, levels of significance, and cultural contexts,’ Okeke-Agulu said. So, there cannot be a single answer to the question of where and to whom repatriated artefacts should go. Western institutions have also often argued that African countries lack the facilities required to house these objects. In this regard, artist and art historian, OkekeAgulu, noted that, ‘the “poor facilities argument” sounded much like someone seizing and refusing to return a neighbour’s fancy BMW until the owner built a more appropriate garage for the car. 

It is also important to highlight how the limited availability of artefacts in African museums has continued to affect contemporary and future African artists. ‘An art student in Nigeria interested in drawing inspiration from the techniques, and aesthetics of classical Benin metal sculpture, cannot access the best examples of this artistic tradition unless they travel to the museums of Europe with far greater number of works than you can find in Nigeria,’ Okeke-Agulu said. ‘It is no surprise that most of the important scholarly publications on royal Benin art have been by researchers overseas who have better access to these museums and collections that benefitted, directly or indirectly, from colonial-era looting.’ 

Our full interview continues below. 

THE REPUBLIC

You once mentioned that pressure from African voices has in the past decade or so consistently compelled Western institutions to give up objects in their custody that were expropriated from Benin City. How is African advocacy important to the struggle for repatriation? 

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

I was referring to role of Africans in advocating for the restitution of looted artefacts. My point is that this work cannot be left to sympathetic actors in the West (though they are crucial). After all, if this matter is truly important to Africans, as it should be, then they—and I mean people in government, civil society, and the academia—must show up and joining the struggle. 

THE REPUBLIC

In the ongoing debate about whether African artefacts should be returned to local museums or local communities, where do you land on the subject of where African artefacts belong?

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

‘African artefacts’ refers to a wide range of objects with different histories, levels of significance, and cultural contexts. So, there cannot be a single answer to the question of where and to whom repatriated artefacts should go. For instance, objects that can be traced to specific communities who still have cultural, social and religious need for them could be returned to such communities. On the other hand, objects of which current representatives of the original owners cannot be traceable, or they do not wish to reincorporate such objects into their social lives, may have to be placed in museological contexts as resource for knowledge production about histories of our peoples.

THE REPUBLIC

As a visual artist and critic with interest in indigenous, modern, and contemporary African arts, why do you think it is important that African artists are involved in the movement to return looted African artefacts?

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

It is not only artists or Africans that have to be involved in the movement. Anyone, African or not, who cares about African histories and cultures, about the important role the visual arts play in the stories we tell about Africa; anyone concerned about Africa’s past and futures, whether you are a scientist, teacher, lawyer, trader or student, ought to support initiatives to recover, care for, and promote Africa’s cultural heritage. In fact, many of the most prominent advocates for restitution of African cultural and artistic heritage are neither artists nor African.

THE REPUBLIC

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

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU 

If you are training in any field, you must be exposed to the best examples of work relevant to that field. A physics student without access to the top journals or laboratories can only go so far in terms of the ability to participate in the elite circles of physicists. So, an art student in Nigeria interested in drawing inspiration from the techniques, and aesthetics of classical Benin metal sculpture, cannot access the best examples of this artistic tradition, unless they travel to the museums of Europe which have a far greater number of works than you can find in Nigeria. It is no surprise that most of the important scholarly publication on royal Benin art have been by researchers overseas who have better access to these museums and collections that benefitted, directly or indirectly, from colonial-era looting.

THE REPUBLIC

In your career, how have you navigated this dynamic?

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

Despite what I just said about training in art school, I don’t think local artists in Africa became any less creative or lost their imaginative verve because of the loss of aspects of their cultural and artistic heritage to colonial-era expropriation and looting. Because, even in the case of Benin, Oba Eweka II, upon the restoration of the kingdom in 1914, commissioned new work of high quality to replace some of the looted artefacts that were part of courtly rites. Having said that, it is extremely difficult, and in some instances, impossible, to teach the history and arts of Edo culture, without exemplary works. As a student and teacher at the University of Nigeria years ago, we had to make do with bad black and white, and occasionally colour, reproductions, which in turn compromised teaching and learning. Lack of access to original art and artefacts, impoverishes studies of any art tradition.

THE REPUBLIC

You are currently a professor of art history at Princeton University. What texts can you recommend on the movement to return stolen African arts and cultural artefacts.

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

There are quite a few but my top two are, Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks and Africa’s Struggle for It’s Arts by  Bénédicte Savoy. For a new account of the 1897 looting of Benin City, I recommend Paddy Docherty’s Blood and Bronze.

THE REPUBLIC

In 2018, Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr, and French art historian, Bénédicte Savoy, published a restitution report. This ground-breaking report has not only raised awareness on the issue of repatriation but has inspired further conversation. How significant is research like this to the movement to return stolen African artefacts?

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

The report, for one thing, helped President Emmanuel Macron of France and his government to initiate the process of repatriation a few, though significant, artefacts—the so-called Dahomey Treasures, looted by the French army in 1892—to Republic of Benin. And it provided segments of the pro-restitution camp good material, as well as some convenient, though questionable soundbites, like the claim in the report that 90—95 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage are held in museum collections overseas. In any case, provenance research is vital to restitution claims, especially where the origins and ownership of given artefacts are not properly and reliably documented.

THE REPUBLIC

Western museums have justified holding onto colonial artefacts because museums in the origin countries do not have the facilities to look after them. What is your take on this?

CHIKA OKEKE-AGULU

If these Western museums raise this question because they really care, then the question is: what are they going to do about that? Are they prepared to help establish such structures in partnership with institutions in the origin countries? Or is this simply a poor excuse for keeping stolen objects? In a 2018 interview with Deutsche Welle, at the sidelines of the Heritage Deferred: Colonialism’s Past & Present symposium in Berlin, I noted that the ‘poor facilities argument’ sounded much like someone seizing and refusing to return a neighbour’s fancy BMW until the owner built a more appropriate garage for the car. Of course, behind this stupid argument by partisans of the so-called universal museums in the West is the persistence of colonial arrogance and imperial hangover. It is sickening

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