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Experts Come Together To Discuss UMMA’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ Exhibition

Experts Come Together To Discuss UMMA’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ Exhibition

Still from the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series event , Public Talk: Sir David Adjaye + Chika Okeke-Agulu: Homeward  

The University of Michigan Museum of Art is publicly investigating the origins and ownership histories of 11 African art objects in its collection in Wish You Were Here: African Art and Restitution

Curators and researchers are updating the gallery wall with new research throughout the exhibition’s run, giving visitors deep, immediate access to the complex histories of these works of art. 

It’s a unique approach and installation, but ethical issues of ownership have been knocking at the door of art museums and other cultural institutions for decades. And while the topics of repatriation and restitution have been gaining traction in Europe over the past several years, US-based institutions have been slower to engage in restorative work.

Recently, Sir David Adjaye, who is an architect, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, who is an artist, critic, art historian, and professor at Princeton University, came together to discuss UMMA’s approach in an event called “Homeward.”

“I haven’t heard anything from the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, or the MFA in Boston,” Chika Okeke-Agulu, director of the Program in African Studies at Princeton University, said during the event. “[And those institutions] have most of the Benin Bronzes in the United States.”

 

 

Benin Bronzes are among the most commonly referenced objects when issues of repatriation and restitution of African objects are discussed. The name refers to a number of brass—not bronze—objects made by a specialized guild of metalworkers in the Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now southern Nigeria.

These “bronzes” that are kept in museums across the Global North were stolen  from the royal Palaces of Abomey in 1897 by British forces of nearly 1,200 men led under Sir Harry Rawson, then sold to museums and private collectors. The royal court of Benin and other Nigerian officials have been demanding their return for decades.

“I am not one to argue that every artifact that left the African continent during the colonial period should be returned,” Okeke-Agulu revealed. However, Benin Bronzes are at the center of African Art restitution. These pieces are stolen artworks and until they are “returned from exile,” they will forever be examples of violence towards the Kingdom of Benin. 

Three objects, which may be part of the 1897 loot, are part of the investigation UMMA is conducting for Wish You Were Here, an exhibition that is “asking the right kinds of questions,” according to Okeke-Agulu. In addition to the material questions of the investigation, Okeke-Agulu said the project will help establish a new pathway for other museums to follow, one that restores relationships with partners in Africa and its diaspora. 

“I'm sure as you go forward and step away from the age of empire, increasingly you're going to find voices who are going to be more than willing to engage in discussion about how you repair past injustices,” Okeke-Agulu said.

Museum curators at UMMA hope that this can be one way through which museums can improve on being transparent about their collections and where their art collections came from. 

“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” said Laura De Becker, Helmut and Candis Stern Curator of African Art at UMMA. “But the journey is important–largely, the investigation is the desired result. And we believe that any possible outcome will be positive. Either our work will help us start to make amends with individuals and groups who have long deserved it, or we’ll have built up trusting relationships with partners and our visitors to carry us forward.” 

Keeping this in mind, Wish You Were Here curators chose to feature a “research-in-progress wall” that is constantly being updated as more pieces are restored. As the exhibition will take months for proper research to be conducted, viewers will have real-time and immediate access to the complex histories of these artworks.

You can view current investigation progress for the Benin Bronzes and other objects in Wish You Were Here via UMMA’s website

Lead support for the UMMA exhibition Wish You Were Here: African Art and Restitution is provided by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Learn more about this exhibition

Wish You Were Here: African Art and Restitution

View Exhibition