Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Benin Bronzes and Colonial Theft

In the movie Black Panther, Killmonger talks to a British museum curator, testing her expertise on various African artwork and artifacts. When Killmonger finds the item he's looking for and not so coincidentally tells the curator that she is incorrect about its origin, he informs her that she need not worry about such things any more as he is going to take it off her hands. 

She haughtily tells him that the item is not for sale. Killmonger asks her how does she think her ancestors obtained these items in the first place? Did they pay a fair price for them? Or did they, secure in their greater capacity for violence and total contempt for anyone not white, just take them. It's a powerful scene.

People, unfortunately especially people who are descended from colonizers and imperialists, often forget that much of the world's greatest art is in European museums not because of honest trade but because of violence and theft. I was reminded of this because of a recent NY Times article that detailed the halting and slow efforts of two people to convince European museums (in this case a British one) to do the right thing and return stolen art (in this case masks from Benin in what is now Nigeria).

In 2004, Steve Dunstone and Timothy Awoyemi stood on a boat on the bank of the River Niger. In the back of the crowd, Mr. Awoyemi, who was born in Britain and grew up in Nigeria, noticed two men holding what looked like political placards. They didn’t come forward, he said. But just as the boat was about to push off, one of the men suddenly clambered down toward it. “He had a mustache, scruffy stubble, about 38 to 40, thin build,” Mr. Dunstone recalled recently. “He was wearing a white vest,” he added. The man reached out his arm across the water and handed Mr. Dunstone a note, then hurried off with barely a word. 

That night, Mr. Dunstone pulled the note from his pocket. Written on it were just six words: “Please help return the Benin Bronzes.” At the time, he didn’t know what it meant. But that note was the beginning of a 10-year mission that would take Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi from Nigeria to Britain and back again, involve the grandson of one of the British soldiers responsible for the looting, and see the pair embroiled in a debate about how to right the wrongs of the colonial past that has drawn in politicians, diplomats, historians and even a royal family. 

By the end, Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi would have done more to return looted art to Nigeria — with two small artifacts — than some of the world’s leading museums, where the debate over the right of return continues. 

On Jan. 2, 1897, James Phillips, a British official, set out from the coast of Nigeria to visit the oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin. News reports said he took a handful of colleagues with him, and it’s assumed he went to persuade the oba to stop interrupting British trade. (He had written to colonial administrators, asking for permission to overthrow the oba, but was turned down.)

On Feb. 18, the British Army took Benin City in a violent raid. The news reports — including in The New York Times — were full of colonial jubilation. None of the reports mentioned that the British forces also used the opportunity to loot the city of its artifacts. At least one British soldier was “wandering round with a chisel & hammer, knocking off brass figures & collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot,” Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker, a British officer, wrote in his diary.

“All the stuff of any value found in the King’s palace, & surrounding houses, has been collected,” he added. Within months, much of the bounty was in England. The artifacts were given to museums, or sold at auction, or kept by soldiers for their mantelpieces. Four items — including two ivory leopards — were given to Queen Victoria. Soon, many artifacts ended up elsewhere in Europe, and in the United States, too.

“We were once a mighty empire,” said Charles Omorodion, 62, an accountant who grew up in Benin City but now lives in Britain and has worked to get the pieces returned from British museums. “There were stories told about who we were, and these objects showed our strength, our identity,” he said.

LINK (Very long story but worthwhile reading)

Because so many museums in Western Europe have benefited dramatically from European colonialism and the slave trade their representatives have not exactly been quick to respond positively to the moral imperative of returning stolen goods. It's important to point out that although this particular article and the activists it describes are focused on the Benin Bronzes, Western Europe in general and Great Britain in particular have amassed stolen art from across the globe, including but not limited to the entire African continent, the Indian sub-continent, China, Greece, Italy and several other locales.

Their argument in favor of keeping the stolen art is that art belongs to everyone and that the European museums and nations are best suited to keep these items safe. I don't find either of these premises convincing. If someone enters your home, steals your stuff and tells you that property should be held in common, will you agree with that? If someone steals your vehicle but puts new tires on it and keeps it in a nicer garage than yours will you agree that the thief is then justified in his theft? I'm betting not. 

Few people use those arguments against (white) Jewish people attempting to retrieve family property confiscated by Nazis in WW2. They understand that to even employ those arguments shows a certain level of contempt. So Europeans shouldn't use those arguments against Africans, Asians or others trying to get back their stolen property.