By S. Okwunodu Ogbechie
Recent reports that the British Museum and other Western museums are trying to forge a deal to return looted African artworks to Africa have prompted a lot of discussion. BBCNews interviewed me on the subject on September 4, 2017 and a clip of the interview is posted here.
I have written on the subject of repatriation of looted African artworks on this blog for the past ten years, and it is nice to see that Western museums are now realizing that they can no longer carry on as usual pretending that they have legitimate claims to looted African artworks. The proposed summit is therefore a good development and hopefully, it leads to credible action to redeem injustices visited upon Africans in their encounters with the genocidal order of slavery, colonization and ongoing Western economic imperialism and predation of the African continent.
That said, I think it is important to clarify the issues at stake. I have argued that the real problem is not simply about returning looted African artworks to Africa, but about the need to secure for Africans the value and intellectual property rights of the artworks in the first place. To use the Benin corpus as an example, the intellectual property rights of Benin artworks need to accrue to the Benin kings, whose ancestors enabled the creation of the artworks in the first place. (There is a larger issue of how to ensure the Igbesanmwan, bronze casters who made the artworks in question, benefit from such arrangements and I will write about this later).
We are moving into a new context of image reproduction regimes, in which the images of actual objects become monetized in vastly different ways, and I contend that all forms of monetization of the images of African artworks should be subject to intellectual property rights arrangements that ensure those processes belong to and are controlled by Africans. Right now, the British museum and other Western museums make huge sums of money from selling and licensing images of the African artworks in their collections, and we need to define how to share these benefits with the African producers of these artworks.
I have also argued that the financial benefits derived from monetization of the image rights of Benin artworks, for example, should go towards creating cultural and research institutions in Benin where the full panoply of Benin arts and culture can be made available for study. Such institutions will in the future attract scholars who want to study Benin art within its original cultural contexts and ensure that the study of Benin culture respects the input of the original cultural producers above all. This will shift focus on the study of Benin art away from the West (where the reception of Benin art in Western museums is the primary focus) to Benin City where the implications of cultural production can be studied in full and with significant input from local actors. Benin City is a historically rich environment that deserves expansive study of its arts and cultures, which are some of the best produced anywhere in the history of the world.
My primary worry is that the British Museum and other Western museums taking part in the impending European summit to discuss the return of art looted from the Benin kingdom will fail to include knowledgeable African voices in their conversation. Too often, these meetings (and I have attended many) turn out to be echo chambers where European actors speak to themselves and make decisions that affect Africans without soliciting African input. It is this kind of mindset that created the contemporary situation we are in today: the 1886 Berlin conference carved up Africa among Western actors without any consideration for the impact of their decisions on the continent. It will be very ironic if a similar situation is repeated today, if the impending summit fails to include important African voices in its deliberations. The summit needs to include not only Africans who work in various national museum programs, but also scholars and other stakeholders who are able to provide expanded viewpoints on the issues at stake.
I agree with Kwame Opoku that the policy of quiet diplomacy that has been pursued by African national governments, Nigeria specifically, for the return of these artworks has failed. At best, such negotiations will yield the return of inferior examples of African artworks while the best examples continue to remain in Western holdings. Any negotiations on the return of looted African artworks has to include discussions about reparations due to Africans for the century-long display, sales and monetization of these artworks and I think that aspect of the discussion is not negotiable. The British Museum owes the Benin Kings serious reparations for holding on to these artworks and they need to explain how they plan to pay such reparations.