There is nothing British in The British Museum
This column this Sunday is dedicated to Okwui Enwezor (1963 – 2019) another Nigerian who laboured in the international vineyard and the global cornfields to uplift the name of Africa in the world of art. I met Okwui once or twice in London and Venice. And Johannesburg? He was always impeccably dressed and soft-spoken.
Since I am ignorant about the world of art I could not hold any intelligent conversation with him. But I was excited to meet another African, (a Nigerian for that matter) having to do with Venice since Othello! Okwui was curating post-war art in the Venice Biennale. May his soul rest in peace. It is a mark of his importance and the importance of his work that the world of international art has vowed to continue his work by mounting an exhibit of post-colonial art.
But it is the appearance of a new book by the Australian public intellectual and international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson that inspires this piece. WHO OWNS HISTORY? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure argue that ex-colonial countries have moral claims on stolen works of art in the British Museum and in various museums in Belgium, France, Germany, and Portugal. Which means that Britain should return the Benin works of art stolen during the invasion of Benin in 1897 and other works of art looted from Ile-Ife and the rest of Nigeria to Nigeria now. A review written by the present chairman of the British Museum says Robertson’s “polemic is a misleading combination of moral outrage, half-truths, self-promotion and jokes.” Which means he does not take the book seriously. Yet, the issues raised in this book need to be taken seriously especially the in countries to which these artworks must be returned. For instance, Nigeria.
Does Nigeria have moral claims on these religious objects especially when the religions to which they were related are no longer followed in the country? Have these objects morphed into works of art? When did this morphing take place and where is the philosophical argument for it?
There was a time when art mattered in Nigeria. Publishing was vibrant, artworks appeared in exhibitions in major cities around the country. Today, publishing is no more. You hear of the publication of a book but you cant find it in any bookshop. There are a few bookshops where books especially new titles are to be found. There is the hole in the Airport Hotel Ikeja, which is usually good on new titles. There is the big bookshop in publishers row in Ibadan striving to stock new books including Yoruba titles. There are places which house bookshops across the country. I spent a day in Abuja, a few years ago, hunting bookshops in the capital city.
Those who hold the treasures of other countries in places like the Met, the British Museum, the V & A in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Getty in Berlin and the Humboldt Forum near Berlin Palace argue that these are war booties. They defeated these people in colonial wars and they are entitled to the spoils of war. They won them fair and square.
Roberson’s book argues that colonisation is a crime against humanity. We might not be able to right the wrongs of the past but these colonising countries should not continue to benefit and profit from them. By continuing to hold these artworks and continuing to exhibit them to the public and charging for them, these countries continue to benefit from the proceeds of crime, the crime of colonisation.
By continuing to imprison these artworks, these countries are depriving the young of the colonised countries from being inspired by the greatest creative endeavours of their ancestors. One might wonder if the ex-colonial countries care. Do they teach the history of their countries? How many Nigerians under the age of 18 know about the British Invasion of 1897? Anyway, Robertson Wold argues that that is not relevant. If the governments of today do not appreciate their arts of yesteryears, nothing prevents future generations from seeing things differently.
It must be a lonely struggle there in the fight for the artistic rights of countries that do not give a damn. It is as if in spite of these countries, those guilty of cultural crimes must be made to answer for their crimes in the court of international justice. Cultural crimes must remind one of Mongo Beti’s “the crimes of colonialism” (1955) which he said would be the subject of African writers into the future. Of the least written about the stealing and looting of colonial arts must top the list.
The only exception to returning a work of art, Robertson insists, is if the process of return the work of art would endanger the work of art. This was the excuse given by the British Museum in 1977 for not returning the Ivory Mask which was the face of the festival. A poet lamented:
The symbol of our festivity
Languishes in British captivity.
In 2014 Enwezor was ranked 42 in the ArtReview list of the 100 most powerful people of the art world. He had founded NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art which “focuses on publishing critical work that examines contemporary African and African Diaspora art within the modernist and postmodernists experience and therefore contributes significantly to the intellectual dialogue on world art and discourse on internationalism and multiculturalism.” It is published by Duke University Press.
Enwezor’s work has covered “the imperial ‘colonial withdrawal and the emergence of independent African states.” It is within this area that his role has been described as ‘catalytic’ “in raising the visibility of South African art, though the visibility of art from all of Africa and the diaspora world would surely, be very different without Enwezor’s evangelising over the 20 years since his first major curatorial projects.” One of his greatest publications is the “whopping” global survey Postwar – Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945 – 1965.
Will his work continue? Definitely yes. His colleague and fellow evangelist Chika Okeke-Agulu is one of a team of 2 editors of NKA while Olu Oguibe is also there as one of the art academics who collaborated with Okwui Enwezor .