BENIN TO QUAI BRANLY: A MUSEUM FOR THE ARTS OF THE OTHERS OR FOR THE STOLEN ARTS OF THE OTHERS?
Stolen art objects remain stolen objects even in a new museum.
The exhibition on Benin arts: Benin: Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria will be at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris from October 2, 2007 to January 6, 2008. This exhibition is likely to be a sensation in France as there has not been any big exhibition on Benin art in France since the 1930s. But what kind of museum is the Musée du Quai Branly?
“In our opinion, the Musée du Quai Branly is built on a deep and painful paradox since almost the totality of the Africans, Amerindians, the Australian Aborigines whose talents and creativity are being celebrated, will never cross the doorstep of the museum in view of the so-called selective immigration. It is true that measures have been taken to ensure that we can consult the archives via Internet. Thus our works of art have a right of residence at a place where we are forbidden to stay”. Aminata Traoré, sociologist and former Minister for Culture, Mali. (1)
When the museum was opened on June 23, 2006, there was a great rush on the part of the French and international museum visitors to see this museum and the objects on display. There were about 8000 visitors in the first week. I tried four times before I could gain entrance into the Museum. But why this great interest? This was the first great public museum to be opened in Paris since 30 years. Apparently, every French president must set up a monument before he leaves office and this was Jacques Chirac’s monument. But more important than the architecture by Jean Nouvel, is the main objective of the museum: to provide a museum for the arts of the peoples of Africa, Asia, America and Oceania, those arts which Europeans called “primitive arts,” now called “arts premiers” and to provide a place for dialogue between cultures. In his inaugural speech of 20 June, 2006, President Chirac declared:
“France wished to pay a rightful homage to peoples to whom, throughout the ages, history has all too often done violence. Peoples injured and exterminated by the greed and brutality of conquerors. Peoples humiliated and scorned, denied even their own history. Peoples still now often marginalized, weakened, endangered by the inexorable advance of modernity. Peoples who nevertheless want their dignity restored and acknowledged.”(2)
Chirac further declared that the central to the idea to construct such a museum was “the rejection of ethnocentrism and the indefensible and unacceptable pretension of the West that it alone bears the destiny of humanity, and the rejection of false evolutionism, which purports that some peoples remain immutably at an earlier stage of human evolution, and that their cultures, termed “primitive”, only have value as objects of study for anthropologists or, at best, as sources of inspiration for Western artists”.
Chirac condemned such views as: “absurd and shocking prejudices which must be combated. There is no hierarchy of the arts and cultures any more than there is a hierarchy of peoples. First and foremost, the Musée du Quai Branly is founded on the belief in the equal dignity of the world’s cultures”.
These are very important and remarkable words from the then President of France, a country which was, largely responsible, with Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Holland and other European nations, for the despoliation, looting, oppression and humiliation of the countries of Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. Only the future will tell whether these words express an honest desire on the part of France to abandon the traditional European policy of arrogance and violence towards other peoples and continents. But it may be significant that the then President blamed “History” in the abstract for the humiliation, violence and other exactions of the non-European peoples and not the European States that exploited those countries. The pseudo humanist tone and nature of the speech of Chirac will not deceive or impress all those familiar with the colonial system.
Even at this very late hour, it seems most Europeans are not willing or able to see the colonial enterprise for what it was: a gigantic evil and selfish project by the European powers to enrich themselves at the expense of other nations no matter the cost and to employ violence if necessary to achieve their objectives. The evidence for this is all over the place but Chirac and others are not willing or able to confess or admit fault or guilt. There are rare exceptions such as Michel Leiris. The Europeans hope that History will be forgotten. Like in the shameful preface in the catalogue of the Benin Exhibition, they expect Africans and others to forget their history and proceed on to the future. First it was said that Africans were people without history and now we are being asked to forget our history! What an illusion!
No genuine dialogue can take place without dealing first with the problematic past and present. A dialogue between Europe and the rest of the world with so many resentments, unexplained and unexplored past situations is not likely to be fruitful.
At about the same time as Chirac was inaugurating Quai Branly,
there was in Paris another museum, Musée des Arts Deniers, which was holding an exhibition on the theme, “Des hommes sans histoire” (“Peoples without history”) which tried to show the effects and cultural, political and artistic costs of colonial despoliations and looting of art, favoured by civil wars in African countries, most often supported or encouraged by European countries.(3) As stated in a recent book by Mathilde Annaud, Les arts premiers: Reflets sauvages d’Occident (4). “Les collections actuelles des musées occidentaux constituent le résultat d’une longue tradition de pillages organisé.” The Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, who recently held an exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly, entitled Le Jardin d’amour also declared in a book accompanying his exhibition that: “Quite a number of these objects were indeed looted and as such they are symbols of conquest.”(5)
In his contribution to the catalogue of the Benin Exhibition J-L.Paudrat gives examples of stolen or looted items now forming part of the stock of the Musée du Quai Branly. We may recall the well-known expeditions led by the German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius between 1904 and 1935 that brought thousands of objects to Germany and the French mission Dakar-Djibouti, 1931 to 1933 under the leadership of the French ethnologist, Marcel Griaule which brought some three thousand and five hundred pieces to the Trocadero Museum, Paris. All these missions were really intended to rob as many pieces of objects as possible from Africa. Odile Tobner, in an article entitled “Vérité sur l’art des colonies“ dealing with the works of art in the Musée du Quai Branly, declared “These works of art have neither been honestly received or acquired but have been stolen or extorted from their weak and deceived owners. If one wants a testimony, one should read, among a thousand others, the account given by Michel Leiris in Afrique Fantôme about the ethnologization of the Dogons by Marcel Griaule”.(6)
Michel Leiris should be thanked for leaving to posterity abundant information on the methods the French used in acquiring cultural objects from Africa. In some parts of his account we have the impression we are reading a novel or a thriller. Were these ethnologists also trained in criminal methods and activities? No doubt in their ethnology studies they took courses in field methods, explaining how to make notes, use questionnaires etc but did they also teach them what to do if the natives refused to surrender their cultural or religious objects? In the case of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition, like in all similar expeditions by Europeans, all the methods of criminals were employed: intimidation, coercion, blackmailing, straightforward stealing and robbing and the carrying of weapons. Religious objects were profaned and disrespectfully taken away, sometimes in the presence of frightened believers unable to prevent sacrilege and sometimes crying at their own powerlessness in the face of sacrilege.(7) An account of these methods is also to be found in an excellent book by Philippe Baqué, Un nouvel or noir : Pillage des oeuvres d’art en Afrique.(8) where the author describes the methods used by ethnologists, art collectors and art dealers to secure cultural objects from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Objects which were too big or heavy were broken into pieces to facilitate transportation. Pressure was used on villages to sell religious objects which were not for sale at ridiculous prices dictated by the French. Is that then a surprise that in many parts of Africa people are afraid of Europeans, after colonial rule had demonstrated the European capacity to use brutal force to achieve its aims?
The Musée du Quai Branly is a spectacular construction by the star architect, Jean Nouvel, who designed other remarkable buildings in Paris such as, the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Fondation Cartier. In the centre of Paris, in the very heart of Paris, at the foot of the Tour d’Eiffel, on the banks of the river Seine, is this innovative architecture which cost 233 millions euros; a complex of buildings situated in a marvellous garden of 18 thousand square metres. The total area of the museum is 40,000 sq.metres. The spaces correspond to the four continents from which the 303,500 works in the museum come. The new museum “received” works from the Ethnology Section of Musée de l’Homme (236,509 pieces) and the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens (22,740 pieces). The intrigues and the political fights and propaganda preceding the establishment of the new museum are well recounted in a book by Bernard Dupaigne, Le scandale des arts premiers - La véritable histoire du musée du quai Branly (9).
The Musée du Quai Branly has many of the African sculptures which must have influenced modern artists such as Picasso and his friends-cubists, expressionists, fauvists and surrealists at the beginning of the 20th Century. An influence that completely changed modern art and which is now, more or less recognized by specialists but which is not easy for the general European public to accept, giving the deep-seated European prejudice against all that is African.
No doubt African sculptures, just like other African arts, displayed an aesthetic unknown to Europeans when they first came into contact with this art, fascinated by the strangeness of the works and the talents of the artists. Nevertheless, they described these works as “primitive”, as emanating from peoples retarded and retrograde. Paradoxically, the Europeans used much violence and time to loot these art works. It is a fundamental contradiction and almost permanent feature in European cultural theory to denigrate all that comes from Africa even if the object shows undeniable beauty. Denigrate but at the same time, steal, if necessary with violence. This seems to be the Europeans’ motto in their relations with Africa.
The Musée du Quai Branly is, to some extent, a success from architectural and aesthetic point of view of Europeans. Jacques Chirac and the architect Jean Nouvel have given Paris a new beautiful building and created a new tourist attraction in the heart of the French capital. But certain questions remain concerning colonial and neo-colonial relations and the African artistic works in European and US American Museums. The Benin art works constitute a good example.
The new museum which is said to be intended as a place of dialogue opened its doors at a period in which Europe was closing its doors, in a period when Africans could not easily enter Europe as others can. A dialogue between cultures but without the Africans who are transported with violence out of Europe? The French have been particularly vigorous, under the then Minister of Interior, Nicolas Sakorzy now President, in deporting Africans with force out of France. A Europe which prefers to establish an armed force to guard its frontiers specifically against Africans (Frontex). A dialogue on African works of art but without those peoples who produced these objects?
The European and American holders of stolen African objects do not want to return them even though the UNESCO Conventions, which have no retroactive effect (and there is no prize for guessing correctly who insisted on making them non-retroactive) and the UN General Assembly resolutions, encourage them to find acceptable solutions with a view to returning these objects or at least solutions acceptable to countries from which these objects were taken. The Europeans and Americans now argue that these works are part of the Patrimony of Humanity and are better preserved in Europe or in the U.S.A. Most experts now agree that the best places to see African art objects are not Accra, Lagos, Kinshasa or Dakar but London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna or Amsterdam. Should one deny to Africans knowledge and information about African art that is easily available to Europeans?
The Musée du Quai Branly is an impressive structure but what is the legality and legitimacy of the whole project? As has been stated above, almost all the African art objects that are in museums in Europe and in the U.S.A are stolen objects or objects wrenched from their places of origin with violence or bought from dubious sources, knowing well that there are questions regarding their legality. Exhibitions at most European museums are like an invitation to view objects which have been stolen from our continent. Amina Traoré has expressed well this contradiction:
“At this time when the museum is opening its doors to the public, I keep wondering to what extent the mighty and powerful will go in their arrogance and violation of our imagination. We are being invited to day to celebrate with the former colonial power an incontestably magnificent architectural monument as well as our own decline and the complicity of those, African political representatives and institutional authorities who consider that our cultural objects are better kept in the beautiful edifices of the North than under our own skies.”
A true and honest dialogue between Africa and Europe requires the return and compensation for the art works stolen by Europe, conscious that what was being done with violence and intimidation was contrary to all notions of justice and morality. In any case, some forms of solution acceptable to the African, Asian, American and Oceanian countries must be found. In this context, we must remember that many countries in Europe participated in the slave trade and colonization. London, Lisbon, Liverpool, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Brussel, Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes, Marseille, and other European and American cities derived immense benefits from the spoliation of Africa and they still retain an infinite number of African art objects from this period. We can say with Aimée Césaire:
“And I say to myself, Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco,
not a single piece of this world which does not bear my digital imprint” (11)
The true attitude of the Europeans is illustrated by an example given by Aminata Traoré, former Minister for Culture of Mali. When it was recognized that an artwork which the French Government wanted to buy from the art market for the Musée du Quai Branly was a stolen object of non-clarified source from Mali, the representatives of Mali and France discussed a proposition that France should provide money for Mali to buy the object and lend it to France. The French representatives objected that they could not use the money of the French taxpayer to buy a piece of artwork! In the end, the Government of Mali purchased the object with its own resources and lent the artwork to the museum. We have here a most grotesque situation. One of the poorest African countries buying an art work stolen from its territory and lending it to a European country, a former colonial power that, in the final analysis, made such looting possible! Are there no limits to cynicism and shameless conduct? But such was the conduct of the “grande nation.”
In the meanwhile African art objects continue to be sold at very high prices on the free market in Europe. An “Ngli” mask from Gabon was sold for 5.904.176 euros in Paris on 18 June 2006, a few days before the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly. Does the increase in prices for African artworks have nothing to do with the establishment of the Musée du Quai Branly? The establishment of the Museum in Paris was no doubt the reason for art dealers such as Sotheby’s to transfer their sales in 2006 to Paris. The establishment of the Museum has increased the demand for art works from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. It has also encouraged more looting and illegal exportation of art works from Africa and Asia. This was demonstrated in a very embarrassing way when it turned out that three Nok and Sokoto artefacts bought in 1999 for the future Musée du Quai Branly from the art market belonged to the categories of archaeological objects identified on the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red List as being among the list of cultural goods most affected by thefts and looting.
These objects are protected by national legislation and banned from export and should on no account be purchases or offered for sale. Nigeria agreed to deposit these artefacts with the Musée Quai Branly, to be exhibited for 25 years (renewable) and France recognized Nigeria’s ownership. The ICOM recommended that visitors should be clearly informed of the precise status of these objects and the way in which they were discovered. I am not aware that the Musée du Quai Branly has followed this recommendation. From all that has been said so far, this is not surprising for there is surely a fear that they may have to do this for all objects in the museum. This also explains the general lack of information or explanation about objects on display. The aim is clearly to conceal the history of these objects and not, as it is sometimes said, that these objects can be admired on their own without too much detail which will confuse or distract the average museum visitor.
The dubious agreement between France and Nigeria regarding the Nok cultural objects raises many issues which have not been solved and may not be solved soon. A future Nigerian Government may want to re-examine the whole issue and the circumstances regarding the exportation of the items and the subsequent agreement to allow France to keep them for 25 years. Obviously, such items cannot be exported without the connivance of some officials and other persons from Nigeria. Certainly the renewal of the arrangement should not be automatic.
We should also note that what is authentic Benin art work and what is not is entirely determined by a group of experts in Europe and the U.S.A. These Europeans decide whether a piece of work can be accepted as a genuine work of Benin art without the involvement of the people of Benin. They accept normally only work produced before the end of the colonial period. Since most of the works of this period are already in the hands of European and US American institutions and private collectors, this means in practice that the value generated by the market stays in these circles. If new objects are found outside these circles, they will need their certification in order to be accepted as genuine. So those primarily responsible for the looting of African art, gain from the market.
It is also not irrelevant to note that Jacques Kerchache, the friend of Jacques Chirac who was said to be the main force behind the project of the new museum was himself an art dealer and at the same time an expert adviser to the museum. He advised and chose pieces to be bought for the Museum including some from his own stock. The obvious conflict of interest and the violations of French law on such matters did not and do not seem to bother the management of Quai Branly. Nor was anybody worried by the fact that Kerchache had been in conflict with the law previously and had been arrested in Gabon for allegedly trying to export illegally some art works. After all, the great André Malraux had also been arrested in Cambodia for stealing and trying to export archaeological goods from the country. Europe has, of course, a long tradition of regarding those who stole in the colonies and foreign land for the glory of the fatherland or for personal profit as heroes. Think of Sir Frances Drake and the like who were honoured by the British monarchy for looting others and bringing the booty to England. Jacques Chirac praised Kerchache when the art dealer died.
The Musée du Quai Branly, like many European and American museums, is looking for ways of legitimizing their possession of African and other non-Western art objects. The guests invited to the inauguration of the museum were obviously expected to provide some legitimacy: Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Abdou Diouf, former President of Senegal and Secretary-General of the Organization of Francophone and Claude Lévi-Strauss, the well-known ethnologist from France. It is to be noted that the Director-General of UNESCO who was also invited could not attend but was represented by a senior colleague. Kofi Annan, praised the French for creating a museum dedicated to the arts and civilizations of Africa, Asia, America and Oceania:
“…Like the United Nations, this museum dedicated to the arts and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, illustrates the universality of the human family”.(12)
The Secretary-General added that there was “another similarity between us and that is dialogue among peoples and civilizations. This museum was conceived with a dual purpose: on the one hand, to preserve, study and promote understanding of the works of humanity in all their richness and diversity and, on the other, to promote fresh dialogue and exchange between cultures, enabling each of us to understand in a more objective way both our own roots and the profound unity of mankind.”
A little reflection will show that the Secretary-General was mistaken. To say that those who looted most African objects are now going to protect the diversity of culture is certainly an extraordinary declaration. All our history and experience teach us the contrary. In recent times as well, European countries continue to rob African countries of art objects and the civil wars which are mostly fomented by European countries in Africa facilitate these robberies.
There are other questions that remain to be answered in connection with the stolen art objects in European and American museums. Who has the intellectual property in these objects? The African, Asian, American and Oceanian peoples that made these objects or the European museums that illegally holds their possession? In most publications on African art, we find indications that copyright lies with Musée du Quai Branly, with some French publisher, some British photographer or a German author or an American museum or University. Does that mean that a Nigerian who wants to use any of the photos on Benin art in these books for purposes other than the limited use of citation is obliged to ask the museum for permission? Does this mean that a person from a group whose art works have been stolen by the French or the British must ask the illegal possessor for permission to use photos of these objects? We must recall that the Musée du Quai Branly, like most museums, forbids the filming or photographing of any of the objects in the museum. The rational for this ban is not always clear. Obviously, some paintings should be protected from camera flashes but must this also apply to bronze, wooden, golden and other metal objects? One can only speculate that the ban is more for economic reasons than for conservatory reasons. Here again, the economic benefit goes to those who stole the goods and not to the owners of the art objects. Should one not at least arrange that all rights and benefits of copy right go to the original owners or their successors?
We have no illusion that the struggle to retrieve the stolen works of Art will be a short one. The infamous Declaration on the importance of Museums of Universal character was signed also by the Director of the Louvre where the Musée du Quai Branly still has objects which were intended to be the beginning of the new museum in its temporary abode, Pavillon des Session. Moreover, the President, Musée du Quai Branly also signed the Declaration in the Preface of the catalogue to the exhibition. This shows how determined the Western museums and their supporters are to hold on to their stolen goods even though all their actions are in flat contradiction to the alleged objective of seeking and fostering dialogue. It should be obvious to most observers and students of African art, especially the ethnologists that the question of restitution will not disappear. Ethnologists will be the first to explain that art for art’s sake was not really an important African art concept. Art always had a function. Mostly to record the history of the people or fulfil a religious function. It becomes clear then that a particular people will not rest until these objects have been restored. They are needed to complete the history and culture of the people. Some may even believe that the spirits of the ancestors will not rest until these pieces are returned.
A complete understanding of the phenomena of colonialism cannot be achieved without taking into account these art objects. Nor will the Africans ever be at complete peace with themselves until they are able to understand their past. It is also clear that the former colonial powers are not excited by the possibility of a complete account of colonialism and what specific peoples suffered. These art objects will always serve as reminder and indeed the constant claim and rejection is itself a reminder of the master and servant relationship under colonial rule. It also shows that slavery, colonialism and imperialism cannot be dismissed as matters of the past. For if they are not willing to erase all the remaining vestiges of the crimes against the countries of Africa, Asia and America and Oceania, how can we assume that the former colonial masters are sorry for those evils and are ready to atone for those crimes and sins?
Although the museum at Quai Branly has been established in a new building and its supporters are putting forward statements on a new approach to displaying and explaining cultural objects from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania, it is absolutely clear that this museum, no more than its predecessors, Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens, cannot escape from its social and historical contexts. It cannot escape the colonial and neo-colonial context in which all such museums were born. It inherited not only stolen objects but also the demonstrations of arrogance and feelings of superiority of Europeans towards others which has dominated the cultural scene of the world since the 16th Century. The evolutionist theory which President Chirac seemed to be condemning in his inaugural speech is as alive today as it was during the colonial period. “Arts primitifs” or “arts premiers” all suppose a scale of development on which the Europeans are at the top and the non-Europeans at the bottom.
A dialogue of equals is not envisaged by any of the European museum directors who remain impervious to all criticisms. The French may be more sophisticated than others in their methods of argumentation but no concrete changes or modification can be expected from them.
In a recent visit to the Museum of Quai Branly, I became very excited when I saw boldly written in front of the museum, “OBJETS BLESSÉS”, I thought finally they are going to discuss the topic that interests most of us, reparation or restitution for the loss we suffered for stealing our cultural objects and keeping them for so long. Alas! A quick look at the poster and consultation of the catalogue for the exhibition “OBJETS BLESSÉS – LA RÉPARATION EN AFRIQUE” disabused me of any illusions. “Réparation” in this context meant repair and not restitution or reparation as understood in the discussions on stolen cultural objects.
Is the Quai Branly a “Musée des bogus arts” as Flachara Gibbons entitled a report in The Guardian of July 3, 2006,(13) adding that “Quai Branly makes you want to cry” and questioned: “So how then have these artefacts from civilizations, continents and millennia apart bought, stolen or borrowed through 400 years of French colonial rule adventuring come to be displayed with minimal explanation in a dark, confused jungle echoing with the sound of distant tribal drums like the worst malarial European nightmare of the dark continent?”
Another journalist titled his article in The New York Times of July 2, 2006, (14) “A Heart of Darkness in the City of Light” and described the museum as: “enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle, downriver, where suddenly scary masks or totem poles loom out of the darkness and everything is meant to be foreign and exotic. The Crayola-colored façade and its garden set the stage for this passage from civilization”.
Personally, I am not very much disturbed by the jungle-like garden that surrounds the museum and the uneven landscape outside. What worries me is the semi-dark atmosphere in the museum as well as the uncertainty about which floor one finds himself. We are used to modern museums where daylight and an airy atmosphere prevail and one does not have to be distracted by the need to watch one’s movements. The spaces in the halls are too narrow. More seriously disturbing is the attempt of the architect and the museum management to create a jungle atmosphere and to present the non-European peoples as living in a jungle with little light and uncoordinated structures and unexpected objects. There is here a definitive intention to present non-European culture as irrational, exotic, and full of surprises and to some extent, dangerous. The dim light is used not to protect the objects in the museum but to reinforce the stupid European and US American prejudice that Africa is a “dark continent”. Even this year I read in an article by Time on African royalty entitled “The Dark Continent’s Royal Remnants”. Do they not know or realize that we in Africa have perhaps more sunlight than the rest of the world? Where then is the “darkness” except in the minds of some Europeans? Should a new museum not contribute to changing attitudes which the museums and ethnologists have been largely responsible in creating? That a famous architect and a group of well educated French men and women could in this 21st century spend 233 millions euros to create an image of Africa which we thought had ended with colonialism shows how deep eurocentricism is and how well anchored the foolish images conveyed by the ethnologists are in the European mind. They could have asked Africans and Asians to contribute ideas for the design of the new museum. The same Jean Nouvel who designed the Institut du Monde Arabe, an elegant building of enlightenment, designed the Musee du Quai Branly, a jungle structure. This perpetuates the European art history distinction of Egyptian culture as high culture and the rest of African culture as primitive culture, following Hegel and the European Enlightenment view that Egypt is not really part of Africa! Are we going to spend this century in fighting prejudices which have no basis in African culture but in European imperialist ideology?
A recent book on the subject confirms these suspicions: Benoît de l’Estoile, Le goût des autres:de l’exposition colonial aux arts premiers.(15) The success of the museum and its architecture with the French public is partly due to the fact that it corresponds to their expectations and prejudices. One cannot help feeling that images conveyed by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness prevail here. Somebody seems to have taken as a model The Jungle Book. A desire to entertain and amuse is very present here. If the French wanted to give equal recognition to the cultures of non-European origin, there would have been no need to establish a museum where European culture is absent. These works could have been put in the Louvre just as a few non European works of art were placed in the Pavilion des Sessions of the Louvre. But the great resistance and resentment against that experiment showed how deep the European believe that African art cannot be put on the same level as European art is. There is a clear reluctance to put European art in the same hall as African, Oceanian and American arts. The exposition of these cultures displayed in Quai Branly still displays the stigmata of European slavery, colonialism and imperialism. The new museum inherited not only the works of its predecessors but also many of their prejudices and functions. I do not think much can be done about this except by closing the museum and returning the art works to their countries of origin. Few can escape the basic features of their ancestors. This museum, like Ethnology/Anthropology itself is the fruit of colonialism and imperialism and there is no way of escaping this unless we wish to rewrite history.
It must be said though that the French do not seem to have acquired many Benin artworks. J-L. Paudrat states that
“Compared to the wealth of the relevant museum collections in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, the US, the Netherlands and Russia,it became obvious that French collection, with some exceptions, for a long time hardly owned any treasures from the Benin kingdom. The economic crises at the end of the 1920 and early 1930s lead in England to the liquidation of art collections in family estates. This fact, on the one hand, managed to revive the local commercial supply, on the other hand allowed two visionary art dealers from Paris to bring together an impressive collection of artworks. By handling these in a strategicically clever way, they succeeded in formidably raising the value of the objects and in the course of the thirties practically obtaining the monopoly of the Benin art trade at this side of the Atlantic and beyond.”(16)
The real problem with the Musée du Quai Branly, as with all similar museums in Western Europe and in the USA, is the basic assumption underlying all such projects: that Africans are inferior and that this inferiority is not to be questioned or discussed. These museums are based on the belief that Africans will be flattered by the recognition now being accorded to African art by the very same Europeans who a few decades ago derided this art as primitive and inferior whilst stealing all they could lay their hands on. How else could we explain the invitation to come and admire our stolen arts which are presented as “arts premiers”? Since when do thieves show with pomp stolen property to aggrieved owners? Are we moving into a world without shame or conscience? If Europeans regretted the past misdeeds, they would be making efforts to return these stolen items and not erecting new buildings to house goods which belong to others. If Europeans had given up their unjustified belief that they represent the highest level of human development, as President Chirac seemed to be saying, there would be no need to build museums where only non-European art is displayed. It would not make sense to anyone. Are Europeans not human beings like the rest of us or do they belong to an entirely different species? This is the question that has to be answered?
It is noteworthy that Egyptian art and Islamic art are kept in the Louvre and not in Quai Branly which is supposed to cover Africa and Asia. Is Egypt no longer part of Africa or are the French following Hegel’s belief that Egypt was not part of Africa? Or is it because of the difficulty of including Egyptian art which has always been respected as representing a high civilization in a group which is essentially the same as those previously called “primitive.” The French who consider themselves very logical twist facts to suit their dubious classifications. One is reminded of the problems Cheikh Anta Diop had with his doctoral thesis, Nations nègres et culture when he presented evidence linking ancient Egypt to the rest of the African peoples and continent (17). It is also noteworthy that as far as Asia is concerned, the Musée du Quai Branly cannot be credited with making a representation of the art of that continent. That is already the function of the Musée Guimet in Paris which incidentally also holds thousands of stolen/illegal objects from China and the rest of Asia.
Modern African art, except occasional exhibitions, does not seem to be within the objectives of the Musée du Quai Branly since this would contradict the notion of “art premier” or “primitive art” which is still at the basis of this museum despite all denials to the contrary. Or is modern African art not part of African art? Does traditional African art, which is basically represented in this museum, contain all that there is to art on our continent?
Gradually, the rest of the world is coming to the conclusion that Europeans and US Americans are victims of their own propaganda and cannot bring themselves to accept any mistakes or failures. They are infallible. They are persistent in their ways even in the face of overwhelming evidence that a certain approach or policy is wrong. So they move from “primitive art” to “art premier” and then to “art extra-européen”. Everything is tried except give up the attempt to put themselves in one category and the rest of mankind in another.
When every argument fails, they take refuge in a refusal to make any moral judgement although all along moral judgements have guided their attitude and conduct. Thus in a recent book published by the Musée du Quai Branly, D’un regard l’autre (18) we are given a history of the European attitudes towards the others, i.e. Africans, Asians, Americans and Oceanians - those peoples whose arts are the main subject of the museum. All the information and evidence in the book demonstrate clearly the arrogant and condescending views of Europeans towards the rest of mankind. Fortunately, these attitudes are changing if not already changed. The book cites incidences such as when in 1930 seven African sculptures were judged as obscene and had to be withdrawn from an exhibition at the Galerie du théâtre Pigalle, entitled “Exposition d’art africain et d’art océanien”. Yet the editor of the book declares
“Ce retour du même n’est donc sûrement pas l’occasion de jugements sur l’Histoire imposées par des présupposés idéologiques. Ni directeur de (mauvaise) conscience, ni thuriféraire, on se garde ici de morale.” (19).
With such less than honest attitudes, there is no chance for a genuine dialogue. One should not be under any illusion that the ideas and systems imposed by Europeans in a situation of inequality, in terms of resources and power, including brutal military force and economic pressure, are accepted by Africans and the rest of the world. The tensions in the present situation are too obvious for all intelligent persons to see.
The organization of such exhibitions which demonstrate this inequality and the continuing European domination without a counterpart of restitution of the stolen art objects or at least a partial restitution will only revive and awaken resentments based on past and present looting.
Supporters of the Western museums and private collectors holding stolen
cultural goods should be advised to develop better arguments for still holding on to stolen goods. It is very discouraging to read the same old unconvincing arguments such as the following reported after the Conference on Repatriation of Cultural Heritage at the Greenland National Museum and Archives, Nuuk, 12-15 February, 2007.
“Jonathan King (Keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum, UK and responsible for some collections including 350,000 ethnographic and archaeological objects from the Americas and Oceania and Africa) stated in his paper ‘A View from the British Museum’ that we breathe the idea of repatriation everyday, but that it is the old paradigm. Repatriation leaves contemporary difficulties unresolved, and we need to find new solutions based on cultural diplomacy and interaction.
As an alternative to physical repatriation, the British Museum advocates for other solutions, virtual and visual return as well as long term loans, co-curated museum exhibitions and other forms of cultural interaction. King made the point that not only do museums create collections and so assist in the construction of identity, but without museums there wouldn’t be collections from the past. While museums in Ghana and Kenya serve nation building purposes, the British Museum has a universal scope. Consequently the Museum has an obligation towards all of humanity, not least in reminding us all of the tragic history of past and present phenomena such as slavery.”(20)
Equally remarkable are the views expressed by John Friede, a collector and specialist on Oceanic art, during a colloquium held at the Musée du Quai Branly a day after the opening of the museum. Friede who was a member of the acquisition commission for the museum declared; “I do not believe that the art works from New Guinea belong to the people of New Guinea. I am of the view that every work of man belongs to the whole humanity”.(21) He went on to criticise those countries which prevent their art works from being transported abroad and burry them at the back of a museum where no one can see them as failing in their responsibility to humanity. He also stated that his collection and the collections of most American museums will soon be accessible through the internet. John Friede has a collection of considerable number of art works from New Guinea.
If those illegally keeping our stolen art works refuse to return them, this is a matter for them and their conscience, taking into account what their reaction would be if we kept their stolen art works. But must they add insults to our injuries by underestimating our intelligence? Is the British Museum fulfilling an obligation towards humanity when it refuses to return the Benin art works taken by military force in 1897? What kind of humanity will that be that does not care for the rule of law and believes in the use of force as a way of achieving its objectives?
What is meant by “virtual and visual return which is offered as alternative to physical repatriation”? That we can see these objects via internet and also in the form of photos? What about the cultural objects we require for religious and ritual practices? Is the British Museum seriously suggesting that we introduce internet into our cultural and religious practices, including our dances and masquerades, instead of the physical objects which are kept in European museums and are not being used for any religious or cultural activities, except for visualization by museum visitors? Can someone tell me how we can dance with a digitally repatriated mask? Should there not be a minimum respect for the religious and ritual practices of others? Or has the British Museum and its management not yet understood the nature and the role of most of our art works which they have been keeping for ages? Do they not read what the British anthropologists say about African art works and their functions in African society?
Maybe the British Museum and the Musée du Quai Branly could explain to the people of Benin the great advantages of the “virtual and visual repatriation” as opposed to “physical repatriation” and “long term loans”. How does one lend a stolen item to its original and rightful owner? But why do the Western museums not use the “virtual and visual” versions of these art objects and return the physical objects to Benin, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria etc? Could someone explain to the people of Benin how the virtual versions of plaques, the commemorative heads, brass shrines and other bronze works could function in their society?
The British Museum could perhaps explain this to all those Europeans who have fallen in love with the two famous old African ladies, Nefertiti, Egypt, now kept in Berlin against her will and the queen mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, abducted with military force by the British in 1879 and still kept against her will in the British Museum. What about the British Museum keeping the “virtual and visual” version of the Parthenon marbles and returning the physical version to Greece? That could be a great step forward in this question which will not die soon.
After the Greenland Conference at Nuuk where Jonathan King presented his idea of virtual and visual repatriation, the Director of the Greenland National Museum and Archives informed The Art Newspaper that Denmark had returned museum material to its former colony Greenland when Greenland achieved home rule, 1979, 35,000 objects had been returned, all through arrangements between museum professionals. Could this be a useful example for the Musée du Quai Branly and for the British Museum?
When one reflects on all these matters, one cannot escape the conclusion that imperialist domination and colonialist brutality have made many Europeans less sensitive to the feelings of others and reduced considerably the level of shame normally existent in most persons. How otherwise is one to explain the frantic efforts to offer justifications and explanations for the retention of art objects forcibly taken away by Europeans? Moreover, these obviously self-serving justifications are offered by scholars and other learned persons from whom one would normally expect better answers.
It is certainly not the business of this writer to advise the opponents of restitution on what arguments or how their case should be presented but in the interest of fair and fruitful debate it would be agreed by all that such arguments, like those in the so called Declaration on Universal Museums, are more likely to exacerbate the discussion than to contribute to solutions acceptable to all.
The Benin Exhibition will go from Paris to Berlin but we cannot expect any change in the incredibly arrogant and insensitive attitudes of the European Museum directors towards Africans as regards the question of the restitution of the stolen art objects to the African countries. We seem to be moving back to the colonial and imperialist days.
Nowhere is the absolute lack of respect for the African, his or her culture, religion and feelings so clear as in the question of restitution. After so many years of subjugation in slavery, domination in colonialism and exploitation of African resources one would have thought that the Europeans would by now finally be more sensitive to the feelings of Africans. On the contrary, the Europeans add insults to injuries and show in many ways that the colonial project, at least in its main objectives, has not been abandoned. There is here an absolute defence of some of the worst aspects of the colonial rule: insult the African as primitive being with degenerate culture and superstitious religion and at the same time steal the manifestations of this alleged primitive culture and when requested to return them, argue that the European knows better how to preserve these objects which allegedly had no value until the European became interested and stole them or that they belong to humanity and are better placed in London, Paris, Berlin or the USA. Where then is the right of self-determination for the African? If we cannot even determine where our art and religious objects are to be placed, what rights do we have except to create and produce for our former masters?
How will Europeans feel if all or most of the masterpieces of European art, works by Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, Turner, Goya, Michelangelo, Dürer, the expressionists, surrealists, fauvists, impressionists etc were seized by Africans who refused to return them and argued they belong to mankind and are better kept in Africa, in Accra, Kumasi, Lagos, Abuja. Dakar, Bamako, Abidjan, Timbuktu etc? How would they feel if they were told they could always visit these towns to see the art works even though the governments in these countries were making it difficult for Europeans to visit those cities?
The reaction of Europeans and US Americans to requests for the restitution of the African art works is surely a demonstration of a general attitude: the arrogance of the Occident.
EXTRACTS FROM AFRIQUE FANTÔME, MICHEL LEIRIS
Gallimard, 1951. Translations from French are by K.Opoku.
28 August 1931
“After the journey. Dinner at Sido (128km). Raid, as in the other village, of all that we can find by way of dance costumes, utensils, children’s toys, etc.” (Ibid. p.96)
“On the left, hanging from the ceiling in the midst of a crowd of calabashes, an indefinable packet covered with feathers of different birds and in which Griaule feels that there is a mask.
Irritated by the equivocations of the people our decision is quickly made: Griaule takes two flutes and slips them into his boots, we place the other things in place and we leave.” (Ibid. p.103)
“Griaule decrees then and through Mamadou Vad, informs the chief that since they are obviously mocking us, they must, as reprisals deliver to us a Kono (a religious object) in exchange for 10 francs, on pain of the police, said to be hiding in our vehicle, coming to take the chief and the important persons of the village to San where they will have to explain themselves to the Administration. What a terrible blackmail!
With a theatral gesture, I gave the chicken to the chief and as Makan has arrived with the canvas sheet, Griaule and I ordered the men to bring us the “Kono” (religious object). With everybody refusing, we went there ourselves, enveloped the holy object in the canvas sheet and went out like thieves whilst the panic-stricken chief fled and at some distance, drove his wife and children to their home with a baton. We crossed the village, which had become completely deserted, in a deadly silence, we reached our vehicles…
The ten francs are given to the chief and we leave in a hurry, in the midst of general astonishment and crowned with the aura of particularly powerful and daring demons or rascals .”(Ibid. pp.103-104)
“Before leaving Dyabougou, visit to the village and the taking of the second “Kono”, which Griaule had spotted by entering into the reserved hut surreptitiously. This time it is Lutten and myself who have the responsibility for the operation. My heart beats very strongly for since the scandal of yesterday, I realize with more clarity the enormity of what we are committing.” (Ibid. p.105)
“In the next village, I recognised a hut for a “Kono” with a door in ruins, I point it out to Griaule and the action is decided. As in the previous case, Mamadou Vad announces suddenly to the village chief whom we have brought before the hut in question, that the commander of the mission has given us the order to seize the Kono and that we are ready to pay an indemnity of 20 francs. This time, I alone take care of the operation and penetrate into the sacred small place, with the hunting knife of Lutten in my hand in order to cut the links to the mask. When I realise that two men - in no way at all menacing, have entered behind me, I realise with an astonishment which after a very short time turns into disgust, that one feels all the same very sure of one’s self when one is a white man and has a knife in his hand.” (Ibid. p.105)
“Towards the evening, the French teacher informed us that the mosque was the work of a European, the former administrator. In order to implement his plans, he destroyed the old mosque. The natives were so disgusted by the new building that they had to be punished with imprisonment before they would agree to sweep the building.” (Ibid. p.115)
“Departure to the Habés. From the first village visited problems. The Habés
are nice peoples who stand firm on their feet and do not seem to be ready to let others disturb them. Attempts to buy a few locks, even a purchase, they will protest and denounce a completed bargain; in a gesture of anger, Griaule breaks a “waamba” (a music instrument for the circumcised) which he had paid for and let it be said that he curses the village.” (Ibid. p.120)
“Yesterday, we were refused with shock several statuettes which were used to cause rainfall, as well as a statuette with raised arms, found in a sanctuary.
Taking away these objects would have been like taking away the life of the country, said a young man who, even though had been in the army, had remained faithful to his customs, almost crying at the thought of the disasters that our impious gesture would have provoked, and opposing our evil design with all his strength, had alerted the old men. Feeling like pirates: saying good-bye this morning to these affectionate old men, happy that we had spared them a disaster, we kept an eye on the huge green umbrella which was normally used to protect us but was today carefully bound. There was a strange bulge looking like the beak of a pelican: it contained the famous statuette with raised arms which I had myself stolen at the foot of the earth mound which served as its altar. I first hid it in my shirt… and then I put it in the umbrella… pretending to urinate in order to divert attention.
This evening, at Touyogou, where we are camping at a public place, my chest is full of earth:my shirt served again as a hiding place for a kind of double edged blade, as we left the cave of masks of this village.” (Ibid. p.156)
“In addition, the abductions continue and the informations. Sanctuaries and holes in which one throws old masks are systematically explored.” (Ibid. p.157)
“Our friends, Apama and Ambara brought us secretly costumes of fibres for masques which we had asked them. They requested us, above all, to hide them well. Today, I am preparing with them cards on these objects. Apama and Ambara are very attentive to the slightest noise. A child who wanted to enter was scolded. No doubt; our methods have set an example and the two nice boys went to take the costumes of fibres in the cave of masks where they were hidden. The influence of the European…” (Ibid. pp.157-158)
“In another cave, we were authorised to take one of these objects (objects destined for causing lightning to fall on the heads of thieves). But when we put our hands on it, the people turned away from us, for fear of seeing us terribly punished for our sacrilege… To the right of the cave, in a small sanctuary, a beautiful wooden sculpture. We did not look at it too much in order not to draw too much attention; but it was agreed that this night, Schaeffner and I, we were going to seize it.” (Ibid. p159)
Those who can read French are encouraged to read the full statement issued by Aminata Traoré, a great intellectual of our times, on the occasion of the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly` This text “Musee du Quai Branly et Immigration choisie: droit de cite” has been published at many places e.g. AFRIKARA-www.afrikara.com
« Talents et compétences président donc au tri des candidats africains à l’immigration en France selon la loi Sarkozy dite de «l’immigration choisie», votée en mai 2006 par l’Assemblée nationale française. Le ministre français de l’Intérieur s’est offert le luxe de venir nous le signifier, en Afrique, en invitant nos gouvernants à jouer le rôle de geôliers de la «racaille» dont la France ne veut plus sur son sol. Au même moment, du fait du verrouillage de l’axe Maroc-Espagne, après les événements sanglants de Ceuta et Melilla, des candidats africains à l’émigration clandestine, en majorité jeunes meurent par centaines, dans l’indifférence générale, au large des côtes africaines.
L’Europe forteresse, dont la France est l’une des chevilles ouvrières, déploie, en ce moment, une véritable armada contre ces quêteurs de passerelles. Or les oeuvres d’art, qui sont aujourd’hui à l’honneur au musée du Quai Branly, appartiennent d’abord et avant tout aux peuples déshérités du Mali, du Bénin, de la Guinée, du Niger, du Burkina-Faso, du Cameroun, du Congo. Elles constituent une part substantielle du patrimoine culturel et artistique de ces «sans visa» dont certains sont morts par balles à Ceuta et Melilla ou des sans-papiers traqués au coeur de l’Europe et, arrêtés, sont rendus, menottes aux poings à leurs pays d’origine.
Dans ma Lettre au président des Français à propos de la Côte-d’Ivoire et de l’Afrique en général, je retiens le musée du Quai Branly comme l’une des expressions parfaites de ces contradictions, incohérences et paradoxes de la France dans ses rapports à l’Afrique. A l’heure où celui-ci ouvre ses portes au public, je me demande jusqu’où iront les puissants de ce monde dans l’arrogance et le viol de notre imaginaire. Nous sommes invités, aujourd’hui, à célébrer avec l’ancienne puissance coloniale une oeuvre architecturale, incontestablement belle, ainsi que notre propre déchéance et la complaisance de ceux qui, acteurs politiques et institutionnels africains, estiment que nos biens culturels sont mieux dans les beaux édifices du Nord que sous nos propres cieux. Je conteste le fait que l’idée de créer un musée de cette importance puisse naître, non pas d’un examen rigoureux, critique et partagé des rapports entre l’Europe et l’Afrique, l’Asie, l’Amérique et l’Océanie dont les pièces sont originaires, mais de l’amitié d’un chef d’Etat avec un collectionneur d’oeuvre d’art qu’il a rencontré un jour, sur une plage de l’île Maurice. Les trois cent mille pièces que le musée du Quai Branly abrite constituent un véritable trésor de guerre en raison du mode d’acquisition de certaines d’entre elles et le trafic d’influence auquel celui-ci donne parfois lieu entre la France et les pays dont elles sont originaires.
Je ne sais pas comment les transactions se sont opérées du temps de François Ier, de Louis XIV et au XIXe siècle pour les pièces les plus anciennes. Je sais, par contre, qu’en son temps, Catherine Trautman, à l’époque ministre de la Culture de la France dont j’étais l’homologue malienne, m’avait demandé d’autoriser l’achat pour le musée du Quai Branly d’une statuette de Tial appartenant à un collectionneur belge. De peur de participer au blanchiment d’une oeuvre d’art qui serait sortie en fraude de notre pays, j’ai proposé que la France l’achète (pour la coquette somme de deux cents millions de francs CFA), pour nous la restituer afin que nous puissions ensuite la lui prêter. Je me suis entendue dire, au sein du Comité d’orientation dont j’étais l’un des membres, que l’argent du contribuable français ne pouvait pas être utilisé dans l’acquisition d’une pièce qui reviendrait au Mali…
Exclue à partir de ce moment de la négociation, j’ai appris par la suite que l’Etat malien, qui n’a pas de compte à rendre à ses contribuables, a acheté la pièce en question en vue de la prêter au musée. Alors, que célèbre-t-on ? La sanctuarisation de la passion que le président français partage avec son ami disparu ainsi que le talent de l’architecte du musée ou les droits culturels, économiques, politiques et sociaux des peuples d’Afrique, d’Asie, d’Amérique et d’Océanie ?
Le musée du Quai Branly est bâti sur un profond et douloureux paradoxe à partir du moment où la quasi-totalité des Africains, des Amérindiens, des Aborigènes d’Australie, dont le talent et la créativité sont célébrés, n’en franchiront jamais le seuil compte tenu de la loi sur l’immigration choisie. Il est vrai que des dispositions sont prises pour que nous puissions consulter les archives via l’Internet. Nos oeuvres ont droit de cité là où nous sommes, dans l’ensemble, interdits de séjour.
A l’intention de ceux qui voudraient voir le message politique derrière l’esthétique, le dialogue des cultures derrière la beauté des oeuvres, je crains que l’on ne soit loin du compte. Un masque africain sur la place de la République n’est d’aucune utilité face à la honte et à l’humiliation subies par les Africains et les autres peuples pillés dans le cadre d’une certaine coopération au développement. Bienvenue donc au musée de l’interpellation qui contribuera ¬ je l’espère ¬ à édifier les opinions publiques françaises, africaine et mondiale sur l’une des manières dont l’Europe continue de se servir et d’asservir d’autres peuples du monde tout en prétendant le contraire.
Enfin, je voudrais m’adresser à ces oeuvres de l’esprit qui sauront intercéder auprès des opinions publiques. «Vous nous manquez terriblement. Notre pays, le Mali, et l’Afrique tout entière subissent bien des bouleversements. Aux dieux des chrétiens et des musulmans qui ont contesté votre place dans nos coeurs et vos fonctions dans nos sociétés s’est ajouté le dieu argent. Vous devez en savoir quelque chose au regard des transactions dont certaines acquisitions de ce musée ont été l’objet. Il est le moteur du marché dit libre et concurrentiel supposé être le paradis sur Terre alors qu’il n’est que gouffre pour l’Afrique.
Appauvris, désemparés et manipulés par des dirigeants convertis au dogme du marché, vos peuples s’en prennent les uns aux autres, s’entre-tuent ou fuient. Parfois, ils viennent buter contre le long mur de l’indifférence, dont Schengen. N’entendez-vous pas les lamentations de ceux et celles qui empruntent la voie terrestre, se perdre dans le Sahara ou se noyer dans les eaux de la Méditerranée ? N’entendez-vous pas les cris de ces centaines de naufragés dont des femmes enceintes et des enfants? Si oui, ne restez pas muettes, ne vous sentez pas impuissantes.
Rappelez à ceux qui vous veulent tant dans leurs musées et aux citoyens français et européens qui les visitent que l’annulation totale et immédiate de la dette extérieure de l’Afrique est primordiale. Dites-leur que libéré de ce fardeau, du dogme du tout marché qui justifie la tutelle du FMI et de la Banque mondiale, le continent noir redressera la tête »
1. Aminata Traoré « Nouveau millénaire, Défis libertaires »
2. Allocution de M. Jacques Chirac, Président de la République.
à l’occasion de l’inauguration du musée du quai Branly.
(Paris, 20 juin 2006)
3. Catalogue of the exhibition by Olivier Sultan, Des hommes sans histories? Musée des derniers arts, Paris, 2006.
4. Mathilde Annaud, Les arts premiers - Reflets sauvages d’Occident, Editions MILAN, 2007, Paris. p.8.
5 .Le Jardin d’amour, musée du quai Branly, Flammarion, Paris, 2007, p.20
6. Odile Tobner, “Vérité sur l’art des colonies” www.billetsdafrique.info
« Ces ouvres d’art n’ont été ni reçues ni acquises honnêtement, elles ont été volées ou escroquées à leurs possesseurs impuissant ou trompés. Si on en veut un témoignage, entre mille, qu’on lise le récit de l’ethnologisation des Dogons par Marcel Griaule, fait par Michel Leiris » (Michel Leiris, L’Afrique fantôme).
7. Michel Leiris, Afrique Fantôme, pp. 103-105. See also Annex I.
8. Philippe Baqué, Un nouvel or noir : pillage des œuvres d’art en Afrique, Paris-Mediterranée, 1999, Paris.
9. Bernard Dupaigne, Le scandale des arts premiers-La véritable histoire du musée du quai Branly, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2006.
10. Aminata Traoré. op.cit.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON THE BENIN EXHIBITION
Tension Mounts Over Benin Artifacts in U.S.
Daily Champion (Lagos)
19 September 2007
Posted to the web 19 September 2007
By Joseph Omoremi
Tempers are high among Nigerians resident in Chicago, United States of
Amercia (USA) following a planned exhibition of 220 royal artifacts
allegedly stolen from Benin Kingdom during the colonial and post colonial
But consultations have begun to stave off possible legal action or
confrontation between the affected Nigerians and organizers of the
exhibition, Museum Fur Volkerkunde, Vienna in Austria.
The exhibition is slated for between July 10 and September 21, 2008 and
would hold at the Arts Institute of Chicago (AIC).
A programme of events released by the institute recently listed “Benin Kings
and Rituals: Courts Arts of Nigeria” as one of the proposed exhibition.
The art institute which is both a museum and school, was founded in 1879 to
present temporary exhibitions that include loaned objects of art of all
kinds; and to cultivate and extend the arts by appropriate means.
Kingsley Ehi, president of Edo Arts and Heritage in Chicago is scheduled to
meet the exhibitors this week. “We have to choose our fight. We cannot
return fire for fire because of the legal cost, Ehi told the Chicago
Inquirer last week, adding “the artifacts don’t belong to them. We expect
them to return them to the rightful owner.”
Prince Iyi Eweka, one of the descendants of Benin King and professor in
neighboring Wisconsin will also be at the meeting. The meeting is being
arranged by Leah Hope, a broadcaster with ABC television in Chicago and a
member of AIC Leadership Advisory Committee.
Members of the Edo Arts and Heritage in Chicago were not particularly happy
with statements credited to the Vienna museum that the artifacts would have
been lost or stolen anyway if left in Benin, the capital of Edo State in the
present day Nigeria had they not taken it in the first instance.
“We thank them for keeping it but since they realized that they are not the
rightful owner, it should be returned to Benin. We are ready to work with
them to find an amicable solution,” Ehi who doubles as a real estate broker
Most of the artefacts to be exhibited in Chicago next year include finely
cast bronze figures, altar heads, wall plaques, and staffs of office;
sculpted ivories; royal regalia and jewellery in brass, coral, and ivory.
and other accoutrements of life at court.
“It includes many of the greatest Benin works now housed in collections
across Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Nigeria,”
according to a statement by AIC.
The exhibition is planned with unnamed prominent scholars of Benin art,
history and culture as well as the cooperation of reigning Oba Erediauwa and
the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria is expected to
bring international attention and new perspectives to Benin art. Nobel
laureate Professor Wole Soyinka had lamented how precious Nigerian artefacts
were stolen and replaced with
duplicates to deceive unsuspecting Nigerians and art lovers around the
He enumerated in his latest book “You must set forth at down” how
Ipakoelede, a prized Ile Ife art was lumped in British museum along with
other artefacts from Ile-Ife and Nigeria.
Hope is however ready to meet with other Nigerian organization to tone down
any opposition to the exhibition and participate actively in
There are over 100,000 Nigerian-Americans across Chicagoland and a revived
organization of Nigerian Community in Chicagoland (NCC.)
NCC scribe, Sam Aiwowo told The Chicago Inquirer that the Edo community
were open to discussions and that the United African Organization (UAO), the
umbrella organizations of Africans in Chicago would be involved in the
Most of the artworks were either looted and auctioned after “Benin Punitive
Expedition” captured Benin City in 1897 and burnt down the looted king’s
palace after a three day fighting.
A number of the loot were kept as souvenirs by the members of the
expedition, and about 2500 pieces according to British official figures were
taken to England, and were sold at auction in Paris (France) by the British
Admiralty to offset the cost of the invasion and destruction of Benin City.
The British Museum bought 289 pieces of the loot, 1,085 pieces were bought
by German museums and the rest by private collectors.
The majority of these stolen Edo artworks are today on display in many
European museums, whose curators insist that the loot in their possessions
were legitimately acquired.
STOLEN COLONIAL ART OBJECTS AND ARTEFACTS-COMMENTS ON TENSION MOUNTS ON BENIN ARTEFACTS IN THE USA.
The real question is why did it take so long to have such a reaction and how do Africans, not only Nigerians ,intend to pursue the issue of restitution of artworks/artefacts stolen by the colonial powers, Germany, France, Great Britain, Holland, Portugal, Belgium and their allies?
How do our African historians see this issue and when are they going to enlighten us on this? And where do our museum directors and specialists stand? Or do they prefer not to have any view on this matter for some reason? They should inform us about their own experience regarding the stolen art works from Africa that are now being proudly displayed everywhere in Europe by former colonial masters without any sign of guilty consciousness. In fact, when one reads catalogues of recent exhibitions on African art, including the current Benin Exhibition from Vienna which will soon be in Paris( 2 October) and later in Germany and the United States, it appears the European museum directors think they are doing Africans a great favour by showing our arts. But they forget to add that these objects are stolen objects, illegally acquired under the colonial domination and often by the most brutal methods such as the invasion, looting and burning of Benin City in 1897.
The reluctance of the present European museum directors to express genuine regrets for these illegal acquisitions and to present some apologies really surprises a lot of us. It seems as if most Europeans have either not understood the nature of the colonial system or are unwilling to condemn it. I have examined all the usual arguments presented by the Europeans for still keeping in their museums illegally acquired African objects. None of the arguments will stand even a cursory examination. The most ridiculous argument is when they pretend that these objects were acquired legally. The whole colonial enterprise was illegal and there was no rule of law and the colonial subjects were properly represented in the government or the administration. This excludes, of course, the reforms made towards the end of the colonial period. How can any body argue, for instance that Germans acquired legally, in South West Africa (now, Namibia) or in Cameroon, some of the huge art objects, many of them used for ritual purposes when we know that intimidation, beatings, imprisonment and death sentences were often pronounced and executed for any act of disobedience or resistance to the will of the colonial masters? We know from the writings of Michel Leiris that the anthropologists often stole many of these objects (See Afrique Fantôme). Think of Frobenius and the Olukun Affair.
As for the argument that Africans have no conservatory and security competence for the objects now in Europe, one can only laugh or cry at this argument. We were able to preserve these objects, some of them for as long as several centuries before the Europeans came and took them away. So who did the conservation until the Europeans appeared on the African continent? Some lost European tribe, perhaps?
They may have been a time when Europeans were genuinely curious about the inhabitants of the rest of the world and the need to gather information and collect cultural objects. But the collection frenzy of Bastian and Frobenius and the later day ethnologists was surely more for the purpose of strengthening European colonial domination. In any case, such an excuse does not hold any longer. Have they not studied us long enough for their exploitation? The keeping of African objects in European museums now has very little or nothing to do with the need to acquire knowledge about us. And what about Africans’ need to acquire knowledge about our continent and its people Or should we just remain ignorant forever?
We must act now or else future generations will never forgive us. They will think we were all men and women without any self-respect or national consciousness.
BENIN IN PARIS: TRIUMPH OF THE AESTETIC OVER THE ETHNOLOGICAL?
The general impression we got from the Benin Exhibition, now in Paris until 6 January 2008, was that on the premises of the Musée du Quai Branly, the establishment of which had been seen by some as the victory of the French art establishment over the ethnologists and colonial historians, the aesthetic view point prevailed over ethnological presentation and historical depth.
To begin with, most of the materials and objects relating to life at the Benin Royal court, the national attires of the Edo, their dances and festivals were no longer visible. The videos and pictures which explained the process and creation of bronze objects and the artists at work were left out. The newspaper cuttings and photos showing Oba
Ovonramwen under British custody, on a British yatch on his way to exile as well as the photo showing British soldiers of the Punitive Expedition with stolen bronze and ivory art objects were left out. The modern bronze showing Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip with Oba Akenzua II was also left out. Most of the material objects relating to rituals and religion, including big altars, were also left out. Some small altars are included. The number of exhibits shown in Paris is definitely less than what was shown in Vienna. It cannot therefore be claimed to be the most extensive exhibition on Benin art as is claimed in one the leaflets distributed to visitors:
“Il s’agit là de la présentation la plus complète jamais organisée sur le patrimoine culturel du royaume de Bénin” (1)
Whereas in Vienna the objects on show were presented in halls which were not very well lighted and sometimes, in my opinion, did not permit the viewer to appreciate fully the excellent craftsmanship of the Benin masters, the Exhibition in Paris, city of light, were fully lighted, in white panels in a room with white walls. In short, the display is just what you will see in any modern art museum or gallery. Here, there is nothing like the red mud wall (or imitation thereof) we saw in Vienna and very little reminding the visitor of daily life in an African society. The viewer’s attention is absolutely focussed on the beauty of the objects and the craftsmanship that went into their making.
Is the emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of Benin art a way of avoiding the issue of restitution which could arise when the viewer has more information on the sources and methods of acquisition of these objects as well as their functions and their deeper philosophical, religious or symbolic significance?
Perhaps the partisans of the aesthetic approach did not want to relive some of the birth pangs of the Musée du Quai Branly nor the discussions on restitution that accompanied the exhibition at Vienna and which are still having effect in Chicago, well ahead of the exhibition there from 1July to 21 September, 2008, (2) after the exhibition in Berlin from 7 February to 25 May 2008.
It is noticeable that there was no discussion in the Musée du Quai Branly before or during the exhibition about the issue of restitution. Moreover, very little seems to have been reported in the French newspapers about the exhibition and definitely no mention of restitution in the papers. I read the French newspapers before the beginning of the exhibition on 2 October and during the days thereafter. There was not even a mention of the exhibition nor of the press conference which took place on 1October. I was told that there is no written record of the event! Very strange, I would say. One can
understand the Director of the Musée du Quai Branly and his staff for not wanting to discuss the issue since this museum has over 350,000 objects most of which are of dubious origin. But is this an honest intellectual approach to cultural matters? One of the functions President Chirac assigned to the museum on its opening was to be a place of dialogue between the diverse cultures:
“But it is much more than a museum. By multiplying viewpoints, the venue’s ambition is to render the depth and complexity of the arts and civilizations of all those continents. In doing so, it seeks to encourage a different-more open and respectful-view in the broadest possible audience, by dispelling the mists of ignorance, condescension and arrogance that were often found in the past and bred mistrust, scorn and rejection”(3)
It does not appear to me that the objective mentioned above is being fulfilled when the issue of restitution which interests most African States and in this context, the people of Benin, is not mentioned or discussed when the Benin artefacts are being shown in the Musée du Quai Branly.
It will be interesting to see what happens in Berlin where the Ethnologisches Museum has considerable number of Benin bronzes and some 75,000 African art objects. Will the museum choose a more Ethnology-oriented approach to display the Benin bronzes and thus follow the ideas of its founding fathers to gather as much objects as possible in order to explain the culture of a given people? Or will they, in view of their holding of many Benin bronzes and in order to avoid similar discussions on restitution as happened in Vienna, chose to follow the aesthetic approach?
Will Germany,Austria and Great Britain follow the example of Italy?
THE RETURN OF THE OBELISK TO ETHIOPIA: A VICTORY FOR ETHIOPIA, ITALY AND THE RULE OF LAW.
The return home of the final piece of the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia is an undoubted victory for Ethiopia, Italy the rule of law and democracy.
The Ethiopians must be congratulated for their persistent and unwavering struggle for the return of a cultural object and a symbol of their identity which was forcibly removed by the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini in their attempt to colonize Ethiopia some 68 years ago. Years of protests, anger and anguish have preceded this final and historic victory of Ethiopia. All Africans must rejoice with them, in the hope that this signals a new beginning in our relationship with former colonizing European powers as far as the return of stolen or illegally transferred cultural objects are concerned. France, Great Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Belgium and the rest of those countries, whether former colonizers or not, such as Austria and Switzerland, should take note of this historical event for which the Italians are to be congratulated.
It surely was not an easy task to convince many Italians who, like the rest of Europeans, have been subjected to false propaganda for many decades by the so-called experts who claim that it is legal and right to deprive others of their cultural objects through the use of force. They have been convinced that if you are strong enough, you can take whatever you want from another country, particularly, African and Asian countries and keep it despite claims for return by the countries of origin. They have been taught that Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, the Conventions of UNESCO and other bodies discouraging such practices and urging the settlement of outstanding disputes are not binding and should therefore be ignored.
They have heard important museum directors, from museums such as the Louvre, The British Museum, Musée du Quai Branly, Museum für Völkerkunde Wien, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatlische Museen zu Berlin, The Art Institute of Chicago, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Prado Museum, Madrid and others state that these stolen objects are now part of the culture of the countries which stole them and are now keeping them. The supporters of Mussolini’s fascists in Italy must have seen this return as a final and definite confirmation of the defeat of their racist ideology which places the African at the bottom of their racist ladder of human development: a return to Africans of the 160-tonne obelisk which the Duce himself has ordered to be taken to Rome as a war trophy. The return of such cultural objects to their owners should be seen as part of a long-term process to discard racist and imperialist superiority complexes. These racist complexes have hindered in the past the observance of the principles of equality and the respect for human rights in Europe and elsewhere. Some may consider the return of these cultural objects as a necessary catharsis.
The return of the obelisk is also a triumph for the rule of law and democracy. The rule of law is incompatible with the use of force and certainly the acquisition of cultural objects, whether in war or in peace through the use of force cannot be considered as compatible with democracy. You cannot preach democracy and resort to the use of force to deprive other nations of their cultural objects. I am well aware that there are many voices in the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and elsewhere who do not think the use of force to remove cultural objects from Asia and Africa have anything to do with the rule of law and human rights.
The return of the obelisk also gives the lie to those museum directors who act as if the removal of stolen cultural objects from their countries will somehow affect their cultural identity. Italian culture will surely survive the removal of the Axum obelisk. Will the British, French, German and Austrian cultures survive the removal of stolen African cultural objects from their countries? Will Berlin survive the return of Nefertiti to Cairo?
What can the reader do to help this process of restitution? The main problem, as far the average reader is concerned, is the absence of information on what objects have been stolen from which country and by which country. Many museums do not even list most of these items in their handbooks or catalogues and keep them safely in their depots.
A first step would be to consult the internet sites of movements such as the African Reparation Movement to see the list of stolen items from your country or other countries. If there are museums near where you live, visit them to see if you can look at some of these objects and try to ask questions. You should also look at the UNESCO homepage to find some literature on the subject.
The main problem for us as Africans is the lack of interest on the part of most of our governments for this issue. Many have not even bothered to request from the former colonial governments for the return of our cultural objects which were taken away during the colonial period. You must ask why. Many of our intellectuals and museums experts have also kept a deafening silence. Many of our countries have not even bothered to ratify the UNIDROIT and UNESCO Conventions on this matter. It almost looks as if our leaders are not interested in cultural matters. Where then is the famous pride in our culture?
Kwame Opoku,Vienna,29 October