Home Travel The West Is Returning Priceless African Art to a Single Nigerian Citizen

The West Is Returning Priceless African Art to a Single Nigerian Citizen

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The West Is Returning Priceless African Art to a Single Nigerian Citizen


In December, a German plane landed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja bearing 20 precious objects: artwork from the ancient kingdom of Benin, now incorporated into the modern republic of Nigeria.

Looted by British troops in 1897, auctioned in London soon afterward, and now dispersed worldwide, at least 3,000 pieces of art from the kingdom of Benin have long been the great prize in a fierce global debate over postcolonial restorative justice.

The name given to the works—“the Benin bronzes”—attests to their significance. Very few of the pieces are made from bronze. Some are carved from ivory; most are cast in brass. But the two artistic traditions most admired in 19th-century Europe—those of classical Greece and Renaissance Italy—both favored bronze for their statuary. The misnaming mingles respect and condescension: It salutes the pieces’ greatness by misidentifying them to fit European preconceptions.

I told some of the tangled story of the Benin treasures in The Atlantic last October. At that time, curatorial opinion had shifted strongly in favor of restitution of Benin art to Nigeria. (The modern African city of Benin is hundreds of miles west of the ancient kingdom and has no historical connection to it.) Scotland’s University of Aberdeen had surrendered its single piece, as had Jesus College at England’s University of Cambridge. Most of the holdings in Western museums, however, then remained in place.

Less than a year later, more of the pieces have begun to travel. The Smithsonian Institution, in the United States, has transferred ownership of 29 Benin pieces to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. Twenty arrived in Nigeria late last year. The Horniman Museum, in London, has handed over six of its pieces to Nigerian authorities. The German government has already transferred ownership of all 1,100 or so pieces that were in its state collections. Some will remain on long-term loan in Berlin, but most will be relocated.

Yet even as Western museums hasten to disencumber themselves of their Nigerian holdings, the fate of the artworks returned to Nigeria has abruptly been plunged into uncertainty.

Last year I reported on a three-way power struggle within Nigeria that would determine whether and where repatriated Benin artworks would be put on display. That internal power struggle has now been resolved, but not in the way hoped for by the Western museum community. We know who will control the objects that are returned to Nigeria. But we still don’t know what will ultimately become of the returned objects. It seems much less likely, now, that a proper museum for them will be built in Nigeria, or that the public will have much access to them in their land of origin.

At the peak of its power, 1450–1650, the Benin kingdom extended from the Niger River westward toward Lagos. Its ruler, the oba, commissioned what would become known as the Benin bronzes: masks, three-dimensional figures, and bas-relief plaques. For the Edo-speaking people of Benin, these items were imbued with spiritual and historical significance. The objects recorded great events in the kingdom’s history, portrayed its rulers and their queens, and were used to honor ancestors and worship gods.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari completed his second term on May 29 of this year. Shortly before he exited office, Buhari issued a decree recognizing the current oba of Benin, Ewuare II—the direct heir of the former ruling family—as the owner of any Benin artworks returned to Nigeria. The oba can decide where the pieces will be displayed, or if they will be displayed at all. The president’s decree explicitly allowed the oba to keep returned pieces in his walled palace compound. The oba has no obligation to show them to anybody. There seems little to stop him from selling them if he wishes, although the Nigerian federal government can impose export controls. The art will be, in almost every sense, the oba’s private property.

President Buhari’s decision rejected the two rival claimants to the pieces. One was Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, whose director had proposed in January 2022 a Benin museum in Abuja.

The other defeated claimant was the one in which most Western museums and governments had invested their hopes: a group planning to build a world-class museum in Benin City, the former capital of the Benin kingdom and now the capital of Edo State, one of Nigeria’s 36 federal states.

The independent museum project—formally known as the Edo Museum of West African Art—debuted to instant enthusiasm in 2020, heightened by the building design drawn by the British Ghanaian superstar architect David Adjaye. Adjaye’s previous accomplishments include the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., whose facade pays homage to the metalworking traditions of West African cultures. (Earlier this month, Adjaye was removed from a number of his projects amid allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which he denies.)

Proponents imagined the Edo Museum as more than just a single building. They imagined a large cultural zone where students would study art and where archaeologists would excavate the elaborate walls and moats that had once surrounded the city. An independent board of trustees would ensure the proper management of the museum and the protection of its collection.

The independent museum was politically backed by the dynamic governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, and headed by Phillip Ihenacho, a financier of African energy initiatives. The project responded to deep and long-standing doubts about Nigeria’s government-managed museums. When the country gained independence, in 1960, the British-created museum in Lagos was endowed with hundreds of important art pieces, including some 90 from Benin. More than half of them had been transferred from the collections of the British Museum. Over the next six decades, that collection would dwindle—by how much, nobody seems to know. I counted only about 20 Benin pieces on display during my two visits to the museum in 2021. The Lagos museum building has fallen into ruin, with only intermittent electricity and few visitors.

Benin artworks are both enormously valuable and easily portable. The public market for Benin art has dried up as ownership has become more uncertain. But the British journalist Barnaby Phillips reports that one famous head changed hands in a private sale in 2016 for almost $14 million. Important Benin pieces could easily fit inside a carry-on bag. Meanwhile, Nigerian cultural officials are poorly paid, their salaries sometimes falling months into arrears.

During an audience that he granted me in 2021, the oba of Benin spoke of creating a royal museum in Benin City. The pieces he recovered, he said, would be displayed in a site he selected and in a building he approved. But the oba has many obligations. He supports five wives and many children, maintains his palace in the center of Benin City, and employs a retinue of courtiers and staff. His grant from the state government is not large, and his personal resources are reputed to be not much larger.

Modern museums consume money, a lot of it. The Adjaye-designed museum in Washington, D.C., cost more than $500 million to build. The smaller Chinese-designed and -funded Museum of Black Civilizations, in Dakar, Senegal, cost at least $34 million. Operating costs for any secure, climate-controlled museum run in the millions. In a country where nearly two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day, ticket sales won’t do much to cover them.

The Obaseki-Ihenacho-Adjaye group had imagined raising construction funds from international donors and corporations seeking business in Nigeria. Their governance plans were designed to assure foreign funders that the money would be properly used.

Raising international funds for the oba’s concept of a familyowned museum, operating without international oversight, would, however, seem more challenging. The oba has mused about obtaining the necessary funds from the Nigerian government, but Buhari’s statement granting him the art said nothing about this. Buhari instead held the oba “responsible for management of all places” where the objects are kept. The Nigerian government spends almost all of its revenues servicing its immense public debt; state support for a museum owned and overseen by the oba seems unlikely.

But then, perhaps government funding will not be needed. The Benin artworks that are coming into the oba’s possession will make him a wealthy man. Could he sell some of the pieces—to private buyers or museums in, say, the Persian Gulf—to build and operate a private museum in Benin City or meet other needs? The director of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments says no: “The artifacts of course can’t be sold, because in Nigeria it’s forbidden to sell Nigerian antiquities.” But the commission has been outplayed by the oba at every turn of this game, and Nigerian export controls have seldom worked in reality as they are written on paper.

Even if the present oba—who has a strong sense of royal and religious vocation—does not sell, his heirs will someday inherit these assets and face claims and needs of their own. It’s possible that the returned Benin works, having left old homes in Europe, may touch down for only a relatively brief interval in Nigeria before proceeding to new homes elsewhere.

(Illustration by Chantal Jahchan. Source: Getty and Smithsonian Library.)

Even as the oba was enjoying his victory over the Obaseki-Ihenacho-Adjaye group and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, another challenge to his claim was forming, and from an unexpected direction.

The ancient Benin kingdom got the brass for its art by trade. What it most lucratively traded was enslaved human beings. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann is a descendant of some of those enslaved human beings. Her grandfather grew up in South Carolina speaking the Gullah language, which combines English and West African words and grammars. His grandparents had fled a slave plantation during the Civil War.

As a young woman in New York City, Deadria Farmer (as she was then named) was jolted into activism by a shocking discovery: In 1991, while excavating ground for a new federal office building in Lower Manhattan, archaeologists discovered bodies wrapped for burial. The dig exposed the biggest slave burial ground of colonial New York—the resting place of some 20,000 people. Farmer hurled herself into a fight to ensure they were properly memorialized. Those efforts led to the redesign of the federal building and recognition of the African Burial Ground as a National Historic Landmark.

Farmer married, and earned a law degree to continue her work for reparations and restitution. Her research helped extract a public acknowledgment from Aetna for its corporate history insuring enslaved plantation workers in the American South. She investigated other financial institutions: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wachovia. She worked with legislators to enact state and municipal laws requiring U.S. corporations to research and disclose their roles in American enslavement.

In law school, Farmer-Paellmann had studied the slave-selling history of the Benin monarchy. As technology became available to trace genetic ancestry, she researched her own enslaved origins. DNA testing indicated that some of her antecedents lived in areas controlled by the Benin kingdom at its apogee.

As the debate over the Benin artworks intensified, Farmer-Paellmann became progressively more outraged. If it was wrong for Aetna, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wachovia to retain wealth from insuring and financing slave trafficking, why was it right for a royal African family to regain wealth from selling slaves in the first place? The art of the Benin kingdom, Farmer-Paellmann contends, represents the proceeds of a crime against humanity. The oba should not profit from the part his ancestors played in the crime.

In December 2022, as director of the Restitution Study Group, Farmer-Paellmann brought suit in federal court to enjoin the Smithsonian from transferring the artworks. The case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on July 5. The historical arguments presented by Farmer-Paellmann, however, reverberate even though her legal action has stalled.

I spoke and corresponded with Farmer-Paellmann in late May, as she was preparing to leave for the Cannes Film Festival to present a film she had made about the slave-trade origins of the Benin artworks, They Belong to All of Us. “It feels like we are being sold all over again,” she wrote to me after we had spoken. “Western politicians and museum directors are grandstanding and preaching morality from the pulpit of decolonisation while completely ignoring that there are Black slave descendants in their own countries whose rights to these objects they have just waived without any thought or care. To be clear: it is not for them to waive our rights. It is not for them to make decisions without having engaged with the descendants of those who gave their lives so that these bronzes could be made.”

While there has never been serious doubt about the Benin kingdom’s complicity in slavery, the details are intensely debated by historians. Because the kingdom lacked a system of writing, historians until very recently had to rely on evidence preserved by the Portuguese traders who dominated the slave traffic with Benin from the 1480s until Britain’s Royal Navy suppressed the transatlantic trade in the mid-19th century. (Through much of that period, the Portuguese colony in Brazil was the largest slave-buyer in the Western Hemisphere. Only about 3 percent of the enslaved people who crossed the Atlantic were carried into what is now the United States, according to the Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s computation of figures gathered in the leading database of the traffic from 1525 to 1866.)

In the immediate aftermath of decolonization, many historians were eager to minimize the role of African ruling classes in the transatlantic slave trade. Open a book on the subject, and you will again and again encounter sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters carefully written in the passive voice: captives without captors, sales without sellers.

But the developing science of marine archaeology has brought important new evidence to light just this year that enlarges the scanty documentary record. Metal often arrived in West Africa in the form of horseshoe-shaped bracelets, known by the Spanish word manilla. Some of the Benin plaques depict Portuguese traders surrounded by manillas. Across West Africa, manillas were used as a form of money. They ornamented the arms and legs of upper-class women. And they were melted into art.

A team of German scientists analyzed 67 manillas recovered from eight shipwreck and terrestrial sites to trace the origins of metal from the great days of the Benin kingdom. The findings quashed suggestions that the Benin kingdom might have gotten its metal via intra-African trade: The brass had originated in Europe. It had been shipped to Africa by Portuguese merchants to be exchanged with the kings of Benin for plantation-bound human beings.

Farmer-Paellmann argues that the objects resulting from this exchange should be accessible to the descendants of the people enslaved and sold, not only the descendants of the people who did the enslaving and the selling.

The return of Benin art to Nigeria is advanced as a great moral reckoning. In all my many conversations with Nigerians, including those most scornful of their government, I have met very few who did not hope to see the Benin treasures eventually return home. Yet as it is being executed, the return is likely to end by converting public art collections into private wealth on a large scale.

Some proponents of repatriation argue that whatever happens next to the Nigerian treasures is nobody’s business but Nigeria’s. The New York Times reporter Alex Marshall recently quoted a spokesperson for the Smithsonian: It was, the spokesperson said, “none of the Smithsonian’s business” what Nigeria did with the Benin pieces. Nigerians can “give them away, sell them, display them … In other words, they can do whatever they want.”

It’s an argument that resonates with many in the West, especially if they do not linger too long over it. It depends on reading “Nigeria” as a single entity, erasing individuality from the story. It’s not going to be “Nigeria” that makes the choice to sell or to display the Benin bronzes. It’s going to be one person and one family, who prevailed in a fierce political contest for control of art assets together worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more. Among those parties fighting for control of the objects, there were few true innocents.

I concede that my own view is shaped by my culture and biography. As I mentioned in my original story for The Atlantic, my late parents, Barbara and Murray Frum, were collectors of African art (although not of the art of Benin). My family donated the highlights of my parents’ collection to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Obviously, I believe in Western museums and their purposes. I hope someday to see secure and accessible museums spread to places where they are sparse, sharing and swapping collections that each institution views as a trust for the common benefit of all people everywhere.

But there is something else my parents believed, and that may be the most fundamental issue of all here. They believed that African art is world art, fully as much as Chinese Ming vases or European medieval sculpture; that it deserves to be seen, studied, appreciated, and protected on equal terms. Art is often shaded by dark history. The Ming vase in a British museum may have been traded for opium. The medieval sculpture on view in New York may have been pillaged from a ruined monastery by Napoleon’s soldiers. Justice to the past is a strong imperative. But the future also has claims upon the present.

African art suffers from a unique vulnerability to nonartistic agendas—which puts the art at risk in ways that would never be tolerated with the art of China or Europe. In the name of reversing old wrongs, modern decision makers are in danger of committing grave new ones. The Nigerians of tomorrow will not thank us for dissipating their cultural patrimony today.

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