In an interview, Berns, who retires from her post in June, said the Fowler and other American museums, spearheaded by the Smithsonian, have been discussing the creation of a working group to navigate the complicated process of repatriation of the stolen art. (In Europe, the Benin Dialogue Group is a similar consortium.) Objects in U.S. museums are one or two steps removed from a direct link to the theft, which adds layers of research and donor notification.
The Fowler has a board of trustees, for example, but it’s also under the purview of UCLA. The museum’s prominent collection is held by the UC Regents. Formal deaccession is a lengthy process.
In Nigeria, a Legacy Restoration Trust was established to coordinate returns to Benin City in Edo State. A plan for an Edo Museum of West African Art, designed by distinguished Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye and to be built adjacent to the Oba’s Palace, is underway.
Two events in recent years pushed Benin art repatriation, under sluggish consideration for years, into urgent overdrive.
First was a 2017 speech by French President Emmanuel Macron that for the first time recognized European restitution of cultural heritage to sub-Saharan Africa as a moral right. A subsequent government report laid out rationales, terms and procedures.
Second was a bombshell book, “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution,” published last November. Eminent anthropologist Dan Hicks, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, demolished Britain’s long-standing claim for the legitimacy of its retention of Benin art.
The old story was that the attack on Benin City was a valid punitive response to the unprovoked murder of an innocent British exploratory regiment on the orders of the Oba. The real story, which Hicks fully documented, is that Britain had been looking for years for an excuse to attack.
The Oba was blocking British corporate efforts to grab rubber and palm oil to keep the wheels of industrial power turning back home. Flouting an order from the Oba to stay away, a British expedition met fatal resistance. That became the excuse for the near-obliteration of Benin City.
“The War on Terror” is Hicks’ pointed chapter heading detailing Britain’s barbarous mass murder. The title conjures the sham Bush-Cheney administration rationale for a bloody 2003 rampage in Iraq as being a valid punitive response to 9/11.
In fact, the Iraq slaughter represented a similar corporate grab sought by neo-conservatives for more than a decade. Bush’s only major international partner in the travesty was the U.K. and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
What happened in Benin City, as well as in Europe’s museums and markets afterward, was not a byproduct of empire, Hicks astutely writes. It was instead empire’s aim. This terrible history is one chillingly foundational brick in the Victorian era consolidation of European white supremacy, which would lead to genocide and Holocaust at home.
Perhaps that explains why Germany is in front of Brexit-era Britain in understanding the urgency of the art’s repatriation to Africa. Today, looted Benin art kept in European and American museums stands as a colonialist assertion of white supremacy over Black people.
The Fowler is actively working to resolve its issue. LACMA is more passive. A museum spokesperson, sidestepping an interview request, issued a boilerplate statement saying LACMA is “closely following the recent discussions” and pledging appropriate action.
Thanks to Hicks’ damning book, any argument against Benin bronze repatriation is like arguing against the return of Nazi Holocaust loot — a moral profanity. The appropriate action is for museums to give the stolen art back.
Then, because exposure to world art outside its country of origin is a huge social benefit for all, a second step might be taken. With all humility, implore the Edo Museum of West African Art to make some long-term loans to Los Angeles from its inevitably incomparable collection of Benin bronzes. The decision is entirely theirs.
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