Q&A: Benin bronze heading home after 125 years
From Denver to D.C., museums are beginning to return African artwork looted in an 1897 British colonial invasion.
The Denver Art Museum is returning a centuries-old plaque to its African homeland, the Denver Post recently reported. The plaque is part of a larger collection known as Benin Bronzes, whose renowned works largely originated in the 16th through 19th centuries before being looted and trafficked in an 1897 British colonial invasion.
The DAM’s move is part of the process of “deaccession” or repatriation of these stolen primary-source artworks underway at cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania. The project addresses the 90% to 95% of African cultural artifacts housed in major museums outside the continent, according to a 2018 French study.
RED spoke with Douglas Mpondi, Ph.D., professor and chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Africana Studies, and Leila Armstrong, senior lecturer in the Department of Art, to discuss the impact of returning these pieces to the former Kingdom of Benin (now modern-day Nigeria), the history behind their removal and digital archiving for expanded access.
How do these items preserve a region’s story? What story do the Benin Bronzes tell?
Armstrong: The more important question for me is: Whose story is being told? Artworks are often tied up with politics and capital, since for a long time it took considerable resources to produce works of art.
The story of a work of art doesn’t end with its production, and the story of the Benin Bronzes is now wrapped up with Western imperialism and colonialism. When works like the Benin Bronzes were first discovered by European anthropologists, they couldn’t believe that works with such a high level of naturalism and technical skill could possibly have been made by Africans, and so they assumed a European origin for them (or that a European had come down to Africa and made them). They were taken through force (or sold by despots), and in the early days they weren’t considered art.
From about 1900 on, you could find African idols, sculptures, masks, etc., for sale at flea markets in Paris (it’s how a number of artists at the turn of the century came to own them). They were piled haphazardly in museums like the Trocadero (from which Pablo Picasso once stole an African mask). It’s only in the last several decades of the 20th century that they were reassessed and included in the discourse on art. All of this becomes part of the story, and now their repatriation does as well.
What has been the effect of the looting of cultural artifacts?
Mpondi: The impact of the removal of these pieces of art by the British shows the extent of the colonial control and the pillaging and plunder by Europe on Africa. It also shows the disrespect by the colonial powers toward African peoples and cultures. African property rights were violated, and the whole idea of putting stolen African art in European museums as their own underscores how Europe viewed Africa as its property or as an appendage of European civilization.
Armstrong: The colonial mindset hasn’t gone away. When the civil war in Syria was at its height of Western news coverage, there was a rash of articles about whether the “West” — the U.S., Great Britain, France and Germany — were the best stewards of ancient culture, since these treasures belonged to all of “us.” It’s still very much the position of Western cultural institutions that it is our duty to conserve these objects not only for them but for the world.
Many of these collections came to be through the wholesale destruction of a culture. A good example is the collection Belgium currently holds of objects from the Congo. They come from the time of King Leopold II. They are ritual objects, regalia and weapons. This is not a collection that was given willingly to King Leopold. Every single object in that collection is dripping with blood. And so it’s never gone on display — no one knows what to do with it all.
The Smithsonian originally removed their Benin Bronzes from exhibitions before announcing it would return 39 of them this past March. What do you see as the potential harm institutions may inflict if they continue to display them? Is removing them enough?
Mpondi: The potential harm is that people who come to view these pieces of African art at European museums would think they originated in Europe when in fact they were stolen from Africa. Removing them alone is not enough — they need to apologize and return them to Africa and pay for using stolen art. There are also still African human skulls and human remains at various museums. This is a crime against humanity.
Do you see the advent of contemporary justice movements as contributing to museums and curators acting now?
Armstrong: I think a lot of this work has been going on quietly for decades. Problems with museum display and collection have been a topic of conversation for a while. Contemporary justice movements have certainly lit a fire under some of these institutions. There’s a notion that art/artists tend to be leftists, but museums are much more conservative in their bent. I wonder how much of the repatriation is truly out of a sense of righting a wrong and how much of it is fear of protests outside their doors.
What might the repatriation of looted pieces mean to their locations of origin? What more should be done?
Mpondi: It means a lot to their locations of origin, as the children in these places will learn more about their history and their identities that had been stolen by the Europeans. … It is part of the decolonization process, as Europe and North America have been laying claim to pieces of art from other regions as their own.
Armstrong: Can art instill a sense of civic and cultural pride? Absolutely. But this also raises the question: Who are the objects going back to? If we’re speaking of looted objects at large, will they go into the hands of dictators? Will they be placed in a public museum where residents can see them for free? Art and art museums tend to be exclusionary. I’m not saying this is/would be the case with the return of the Benin Bronzes, but for them to mean something to the daily lives of people, the works must feel like they truly belong to the people.
Are there specific organizations or groups you believe are doing a good job of raising awareness about decolonization?
Mpondi: I would say all groups that fought for Black Liberation throughout Africa and the African diaspora have been doing a good job on this issue. However, student movements such as Steve “Bantu” Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, #RhodesMustFall in South Africa, the civil-rights movement in the 1960s in the U.S. and recently the Black Lives Matter movement have generally been calling for the dignity of the Africans and the restoration of Black Pride.
Any thoughts on projects such as Digital Benin to provide more access to information on the artwork and its history?
Mpondi: Digitalizing African art will provide more access to information on the artwork and its history. But let us also not forget that there are a lot of African children who have no access to internet to view these artworks, so there’s still a need to have museums that showcase them … along with cheap access to internet so that these pieces of art can be viewed far and wide.
Armstrong: I think projects like these are crucial as more objects do get repatriated. Unfortunately, sometimes museums are the only education on art that people get, so I think museums and their education departments will have to work harder to expose people to a broad swath of art, rather than a narrow collection of European/American paintings and sculptures.
As an art historian, I believe there’s no substitute for seeing an object in person. And how will we see them in person if they’re not in museums? What do we risk by removing them from collections across the West in terms of a global, diverse museum system and education? At the same time, they are not ours, and they absolutely should be repatriated. Could we travel to see them? Sure, but mass tourism is a significant driver of climate change, which disproportionately affects Africa, Asia, South America — many of the places they were stolen from.
Armstrong: I don’t think there are any easy answers here; there are a lot of gray areas, a lot of webs that need to be untangled, and each of those threads definitely begins with Western colonialism.
Mpondi: Europe and North America have benefited from African art for a long time and should help in the digitalization of African art — it is the only productive way of paying back for the plunder of African resources.