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Commentary: Two LA museums hold art looted during an African massacre a century ago

Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES – At least six sculptures, potentially as many as 19, stolen during an 1897 massacre by British colonists in Africa have been sitting quietly in two Los Angeles art museum collections for the past half-century.

That status is likely to change. Pressure has been building for longer than a decade for the return of thousands of objects looted from the Royal Palace in Benin City, located in what is southern Nigeria. Repatriation of Benin art is as essential as restitution for art looted during the Holocaust, which this theft resembles.

Britain’s invading imperial forces were after natural resources, especially the rubber and palm oil necessary for industrial expansion, when they targeted the palace. Mass murder at the seat of the Edo peoples’ nonindustrial African kingdom, together with the city’s virtual erasure, confiscation of its sacred relics and their triumphal display in Europe’s museums, carried with it a symbolic assertion of the superiority of Queen Victoria’s white Christian realm.

Most attention has focused on demands for repatriation from major museums in London and Berlin, capitals of countries directly engaged in African colonization at the end of the 19th century. Germany’s Foreign Ministry is reported to have recently begun negotiations for the return to Nigeria of more than 250 Benin sculptures in state museums. (A formal agreement is expected by summer.) The British Museum has been more equivocal.

Sacred plaques, carved ivory tusks, royal body ornaments and other objects are in the collections of at least 161 global museums — two-thirds of them in Europe — in addition to an unknown number of private collections. But stolen Benin art has been scattered far and wide over the last 124 years.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., snared a record public price for a Benin sculpture in 2007 when it notoriously sold a deaccessioned bronze head at auction for $4.74 million. (The price was more than three times the high estimate.) The Sotheby’s catalog said it had been “owned by a member of the British Punitive Expedition, 1897-1932.”

At least 38 American museums house more than 120 examples. Some of the largest and most significant holdings are at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

By comparison, the number found in Los Angeles museums is modest. The relatively small quantity, however, makes ownership claims no less potentially illicit.

The most imposing sculpture is a 17th-century metal plaque showing the figure of a royal courtier in high relief. It was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1974 in anticipation of its 10th anniversary.

The plaque, 19 inches high and 7.25 inches wide, is decorated with an incised pattern of quatrefoils that appear as stylized river leaves. The stippled pattern is associated with Olokun, a spirit the Edo believe resides in a palace beneath the sea and rules over water deities. Olokun signifies wealth.

The courtier stands frontally, feet planted firmly yet miraculously on thin air. He holds what appears to be an ekpokin — a circular gift box in which tribute payments were made to the oba, or king, and the oba made presents to courtiers.

LACMA’s collection website identifies the plaque’s material as bronze, but it’s more likely to be a copper alloy such as brass. Copper is plentiful in Nigeria, as is zinc. Tin, necessary for bronze, is less common.

Benin artists excelled at brass casting, made with a lost-wax process. Their production of refined plaques proliferated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Stacked atop another on the structural wooden posts of the oba’s audience hall as well as in the palace’s elaborate layout of interior courtyards, they charted centuries of royal Edo lineage and cultural customs.

Misidentification of bronze was common when the plaques were first stolen and later sold in the art market since bronze is a leading tradition in European sculpture going back to ancient Greece. The mistake, easily corrected with a simple metallurgic test, was so common that the entire genre of art is now known as “Benin bronzes.”

Locally, UCLA’s Fowler Museum holds the largest number of them. Founded in 1963 as the Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology by Chancellor Franklin Murphy (later chairman of Times Mirror Co., The Times’ former parent), the museum soon received an enormous gift of some 30,000 works from London’s Wellcome Trust, established by American-born British pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). Murphy, a physician, was familiar with the drug tycoon’s haul.

Wellcome was a voracious collector of scientific and archaeological artifacts and amassed more than a million objects during his lifetime. He acquired several Benin works before he died.

Within 18 months of the attack, Benin art was turning up in London salesrooms — some being sold to pay off costs of the African colonial expedition. Sales increased as the generation of British officials directly linked to the 1897 massacre began to die in the 1920s and 1930s. As Modern European art with stylistic roots drawn from African culture including Cubism and Surrealism continued to grow in stature, stolen Benin art steadily grew as desirable commodities in the commercial market. After World War II, African independence movements kept the spotlight on.

Fowler Museum Director Marla C. Berns, a scholar of African art, and museum curator Erica P. Jones are leading a seven-person team tracing provenance, or the history of ownership, of works in the enormous Wellcome gift. So far, midway through a 3½ year research initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation, six objects lead straight to the Benin palace attack.

An ivory tusk that adorned an altar commissioned by a mid-19th century oba, carved with elaborate figures, was bought at a 1931 London auction. According to Berns, the Foster and Son’s auction catalog described the tusk as “property of a Gentleman who was a member of the Benin expedition.”

A second 1931 Fosters sale offered a small, 6.5-inch pendant in the style of a three-figure plaque. Made between 1550 and 1650, the ornament is meant to be worn at the waist. It was sold from a large collection formed by Dr. Robert Allman, the 42-year-old chief medical officer when Benin City was burned to the ground and in a fierce act of British iconoclasm, a complex urban network of ritual earthen berms was plowed under.

Allman was also one of about a dozen expedition members who photographed the wreckage. One grainy picture shows a group clad in pith helmets surrounded by piles of palace art. Warrior figures, jaguars, bells, hundreds of tusks, plaques — estimates are that 10,000 objects were looted.

A small, enigmatic 18th century copper mask to be worn on a belt sold to Wellcome in 1933 at Sotheby’s. Its solemn face and woven cap are decorated with frogs, a watery symbol of fertility and transformation that also appears in the plaque pendant.

A sculptural tableau of nine figures in a procession came from the collection of George W. Neville. Less than four months after the brutal sacking, the Liverpool trader displayed what he had carried off in an exhibition at London’s Royal Colonial Institute, a block from Trafalgar Square.

Surprisingly, two sculptures made by the Yoruba living about 140 miles west of the city have also been traced to the palace looting. How they got there is unknown.

 

Another dozen Fowler works are still being studied. Tracing ownership histories is thorny and often slow, yet essential.

LACMA has no curator for its modest yet significant African collection. The provenance for its fine Benin plaque is incomplete.

According to the museum, it was bought in 1974 from the celebrated New York dealer and collector Eugene V. Thaw with funds provided by the late Anna Bing Arnold, an unfailingly generous LACMA trustee. Thaw acquired it from prominent London art dealer Kenneth John Hewitt in 1954 — but there the trail of past ownership goes cold.

In a strange twist, LACMA also received a Benin sculpture of a warrior as a gift from renowned Hollywood agent Phil Berg, an amateur archaeologist. He donated his large collection of European antiquities and Asian, Mesoamerican and African art to the museum in 1971. (Berg died in 1983.) A LACMA spokesperson, when asked about the sculpture’s provenance, said the warrior was never received by the museum.

Last week, the sculpture’s collection entry was removed from the LACMA website. The figure’s whereabouts are unknown.

LACMA’s plaque was last exhibited in 2006. The altar tusk, belt mask and plaque pendant are included in “Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives,” the Fowler’s permanent collection display.

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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