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Return of stolen Ijebu artefact raises restitution hope

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor (Editor, Arts and Culture)
21 August 2019   |   3:07 am
Returning African artefacts stolen by explorers, colonisers, and local looters has remained a serious issue in the Euro-African relationship. Calls for the repatriation of the continent’s plundered cultural heritage are consistently growing louder...

Some of the returned artefacst on display at the Awujale Palace

Returning African artefacts stolen by explorers, colonisers and local looters has remained a serious issue in Euro-African relationship. Calls for the repatriation of the continent’s plundered cultural heritage are consistently growing louder, with many rejecting the ‘infantilising ideology’ that former colonies cannot be trusted to preserve their own cultural heritage.

The calls gained traction in November 2017, when French President Emmanuel Macron undertook his first political visit to several African countries since the beginning of his mandate.

His tour began in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where he gave a speech at the University of Ouagadougou that planted the seeds for what is now one of France’s most sensitive cultural topics.

On November 23 of that year, Macron expressed his desire for the temporary or permanent restitution of African cultural heritage throughout the next five years.

Back then, this sounded like mere political politeness; but only a few months after his address to Sub-Saharan Africa, Macron commissioned a report, today known as the Sarr-Savoy Report, from academics and researchers Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr to implement the return of thousands of artworks.

It was published on November 21, 2018, and two days later, Macron announced that Benin’s 2016 restitution requests would be promptly answered with the return of 26 artworks that have been in France since the colonial period.

The Sarr-Savoy Report On the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Toward a New Relational Ethics is a 252-page bilateral agreement between France and certain African countries.

Since the publication of their report in October 2018, France has intensified pressure on other European governments to do likewise — and giving hope to other African countries.

However, Western governments, especially Britain, have been fighting against returning objects, even those on loan, claiming that they are custodians and conservers of humanity’s cultural and natural treasures, despite these objects having been unlawfully appropriated over the ages through conquest and colonialism.

Beyond the festivity at this year’s Ojude Oba, which held on Tuesday, August 13, the news that excited participants and observers were that the Council of Otunbas of Ijebuland has recovered 18 original artefacts carted away from Ijebuland to some European countries and the United States of America. Ojude Oba Festival had communication giant, Globacom, as its major sponsor.

The recovered artefacts included the original Osugbo Edan (the twin), Anago mask and other indigenous traditional and religious masks.

The Chairman of the Council, Otunba Fidipote of Ijebuland, Wahab Osinusi, announced this in his welcome address at the “Otunba Day” held at the Banquet Hall of the Awujale’s palace.

The display of recovered artefacts was the major highlight of the event, which saw Globacom Chairman and Otunba Apesin of Ijebuland, Dr. Mike Adenuga; FCMB Chairman, Otunba Subomi Balogun and former Governor of Ogun State, Otunba Gbenga Daniel honoured for their giant strides in commerce, investments and governance. The first set of Otunbas was appointed in 1985.

At the event, Adenuga, Jr. urged government at the federal, state and local government levels to work harmoniously and design strategies to nip security challenges in the bud to harness the huge tourism potential available in the country.

The business guru who stated this in his goodwill message to the 2019 Ojude Oba Festival read on his behalf by Mr. Folu Aderibigbe noted, “our tourism industry can only grow in an atmosphere of peace and security of lives and property.”

The returned artefacts, no doubt, would provide a boost to the local economy and provide the desired fillip to the recovering of thousands of others that are still in Europe and American museums.

Dr. Sola Adeyemi, a lecturer at Goldsmith College, University of London, feels the tourism advantage of having these objects at home “is enormous,” adding, “also, they are available to scholars and researchers to study.”

The academic does not believe arguments putforward by European museums that the artefacts are safer in Europe than Africa. “With proper management and care, the artworks can be made safe in Africa. An example is the Cairo Museum where Egyptian antiques are displayed. The exhibits are fascinating and better kept than the few relics at the British Museum. So, with qualification, the artefacts can be made safer in Africa where the cultural ambience can also provide more relevance than the themes museums of Europe where Benin head masks are displayed with Yoruba masks, where pots from Sudan, Mali, Gwari, Angola, etc are displayed like wares at Jankara market.”

At the second D.O. Fagunwa international conference scholars argued on the need for Europe to return stolen African Art in the museums of the West.

“Give back those works! What we do with them is our business,” Awam Amkpa, a professor of Drama at New York University and in Social and Cultural Analysis/Africana studies at New York University, had said.

An opinion also reiterated by the polemic and former Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) president, Odia Ofeimun, who noted, “every art is tribal, irrespective of where they’re done,” or kept.

Only on Thursday, July 4, 2019, a symposium at the French Academy focused on “wider cultural cooperation with Africa.”

Some 200 archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, curators and representatives of ministries of culture attended the conference from Europe and Africa.

Recently, from July 5 to 7, 2019 the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) held its sixth meeting in Benin City at the invitation of the Governor of Edo State, Mr Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki.

BDG is a multi-lateral collaborative working group that brings together museum directors and delegates from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom with representatives of the Edo State government, the Royal Court of Benin and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Nigeria.

A central objective of the group is to work together to establish a museum in Benin City that will facilitate a permanent display reuniting Benin works of art dispersed in collections around the world.

During the meeting, the BDG discussed the new Royal Museum in Benin City and joint exhibition planning. At the governor’s invitation, Sir David Adjaye led a discussion concerning the architectural vision for the museum in Benin City.

The group raised the need to continue work on sharing information concerning collections of Benin works of art as a basis for developing content, training, joint activities and initiatives to facilitate the creation of the Royal Museum.

At the meeting of Directors of Cultural Heritage and Museum of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which held in April in Cotonou, Benin, stakeholders, include African Union, ECOWAS Heads of State and Government, West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) member states were requested to take measures to ratify the UNIDROIT Convention as soon as possible, prepare official letters to countries in possession of these artefacts to return them, inform and raise awareness in order to mobilise national stakeholders.

They were also urged to provide adequate financial resources for the implementation of the action plan on the return of cultural artefacts in their countries, promote the introduction of legal instruments for creating business foundations by non-state actors in order to support funding of activities for returning cultural heritage and adopt a common position for nominating ECOWAS representatives in international decision-making bodies on culture.

The African Union, on its part, was asked to take ownership of ECOWAS action plan on the return of cultural artefacts and contribute to its implementation.

ECOWAS and UEMOA, on their part, were invited to prepare a draft international agreement on the specific issue of the return of cultural artefacts and establish a regional committee for monitoring the implementation of the action plan.

The meeting also urged them to organise an international conference on the return of cultural artefacts in order to inform, sensitise and mobilise all stakeholders, strengthen cooperation with professional organisations, particularly the International Council of Museum (ICOM) and mobilise the necessary financial resources for the implementation of the action plan on the return of cultural artefacts.

At the end of the meeting, the participants validated the ECOWAS 2019/2023 Action Plan for returning cultural artefacts to their countries of origin and recommended its adoption by the meeting of Ministers of Culture of the region.

Earlier in July, in a forum held in Paris, France, the report recommending a systematic and unconditional return of African cultural heritage was all-but buried.

The report’s authors Bénédicte Savoy and Felwin Sarr raised the alarm in French and European museums by recommending automatic restitutions to African states of all goods seized during the colonial era.

In his speech at the symposium on July 4, 2019, the French culture minister Franck Riester only pledged that “France would examine all requests presented by African nations” but asked them not to “focus on the sole issue of restitution.”

Seemingly for the first time in Kenya’s history, there is a movement to investigate the cultural artefacts stolen and kept outside the country’s borders.

The International Inventories Programme (IIP) is a research project undertaken by the National Museums of Kenya, the Nairobi-based arts collective The Nest and the German social enterprise Shift.

This international research and database project is investigating a collection of Kenyan objects being held in cultural institutions across the globe. Funded by the German cultural centre in Kenya, the Goethe Institute, the programme seeks to create a first-of-its-kind inventory of Kenyan artefacts held in public institutions abroad.

Once the objects are identified in museums in Germany, the UK and the US, the aim is to get these works to Kenya and to feature them in permanent or temporary exhibitions.