Wish You Were Here: African Art and Restitution
Online and In Gallery: Starting August 2021
Laura De Becker Helmut and Candis Stern Curator for African Art
Bridget Grier Researcher
Timnet Gedar Researcher
Ozi Uduma Assistant Curator of Global Contemporary Art
An in-public investigation into 11 African works of art from UMMA’s collection.
This exhibition proactively engages with debates about restitution and the ethics of museums’ owning African heirlooms collected during the era of colonization. The investigation and research into 11 works of African art will be conducted publicly — visitors will have access to documents, photographs, and correspondence that will help UMMA develop a better understanding of each object’s history, grappling in real time with questions surrounding legal and ethical ownership of these artworks. Though complex, this project presents exciting opportunities for museum transparency and creating new pathways for relationship-building with partners in Africa and its diaspora. Museum visitors can begin to explore this investigation online and in-person in Fall 2021.
the act or process of restoring or returning human remains or cultural artifacts to their country of origin.
the act or process of making amends for past wrongs.
to bring to, send to, or put something back in its former or proper place.
Museums preserve our cultural heritage, but some objects in our collections present an ethical dilemma. While many objects were obtained through purchase with the permission of the individual maker or community, others, even when legally traded on the art market, may have been taken without consent and in ways that violate cultural traditions. This is a particular problem with African art collected during the era of colonization.
Restitution is the act of restoring something to its original condition, returning something to its rightful owner, or providing compensation for a loss or grievance. In the past, museums have concentrated on restituting objects that were blatantly looted and stolen during military occupations by European nations. Today museums increasingly ponder the morality of owning cultural heirlooms that may have left Africa legally, but at best under unethical conditions. Can works of art be traded with consent in circumstances of injustice or if there is a gross discrepancy in power relationships? And what if, as is true for many cultural objects in museum collections, we cannot know for certain how they were procured?
Objects In This Investigation
These artworks are part of a larger group of objects collectively known as the “Benin Bronzes.” This misleading 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. In 1897, the capital of this prosperous kingdom was sacked by the British during a “punitive expedition” that caused the demise of this important empire. Sculptures and plaques were torn from the palace walls and taken to Europe, where the looted treasures were sold to museums and private collectors. The royal court of Benin and other Nigerian officials have been demanding their return for decades.
Because the Benin Bronzes are clear examples of works taken without the consent of their owners, in circumstances of extreme violence and coercion, they are at the heart of restitution debates about African art. During the period of this exhibition, we are exploring whether the works in UMMA’s collection were part of the 1897 looting, or if they are more recent objects that reflect historical traditions in the Benin Kingdom. UMMA will attempt to verify that these works were crafted for export and acquired legally for payment.
These sculptures originated in southeastern Nigeria, where they were believed to be the physical manifestation of powerful spirits and deities. Displayed and honored in communal shrines, they were ready to act as guardians and advisors to the local community.
Many such sculptures left Nigeria at the time of the Biafran War (1967–1970), a gruesome civil war that began when the Republic of Biafra, with a largely Igbo population, attempted to secede from Nigeria. In addition to the loss of human life, the conflict caused a flood of Nigerian cultural heritage to enter the Western art market. The precise circumstances under which specific artworks left the country is difficult to ascertain, but there are known cases of looting by members of the military, art raids sponsored by dealers and clients in the Global North, as well as instances of communities selling important cultural heirlooms in order to survive the war.
During this exhibition, UMMA is researching the provenance of these three shrine figures to determine whether they left Nigeria during the Biafran War. If so, we will contact representatives of the Igbo community to engage in conversations about restitution. If return of the artworks is not their preferred outcome, we will ask their advice on how to respectfully care for and display the figures.
These sculptures, made in a number of cultures in Central Africa, are collectively referred to as minkisi (singular nkisi), or power objects. Until the early twentieth century, they were used to communicate with the “otherworld” of the dead, ancestors, and spirits. While the wooden core of the sculpture was carved by an artist, a ritual expert called a nganga carefully selected and prepared the substances we see attached: horns, leaves, beads, animal hide, metal bells, etc. By adding these powerful “medicines”—which were chosen for their symbolic rather than their pharmacological qualities—the ancestral spirits contained in the figure were activated and could be consulted and controlled by the nganga, to fulfill a specific request or desire for his clients. Without them the sculpture was considered to be a lifeless object.
Many museum collections in the West contain examples of minkisi that have been deactivated—meaning the medicines are no longer attached to the sculptures. This deactivation was sometimes performed by a nganga, who would ensure that only powerless sculptures ended up in the hands of Western collectors, missionaries, and colonial officials. Sometimes the medicines were removed by Western collectors who valued only the sculptural core.
The power figures on display here still have their medicine bundles and attachments, which means they retain their spiritual power. During this exhibition, UMMA will begin conversations with ritual experts and communities in Central Africa to assess whether they should be returned to their source communities, and if so, to whom. Or can they, with permission, be deactivated and displayed in a museum context?
Discussions about owning and displaying human remains in museums have progressed further than those regarding cultural objects, and institutions regularly return human remains to their original context for burial. Nevertheless, strands of hair, bones, skulls, and even fully preserved body parts from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas continue to languish in museum storerooms in Europe and the United States.
This figure, which has a hollow core, may have been used as a reliquary—a container for human remains—among the Bembe people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The family of an important member of the Bembe elite would have commissioned and displayed it. Traditionally, a year after the deceased was buried, his bones would have been exhumed and placed in the container. CT scans of similar figures, however, have shown that not all contained remains—some sculptures seem to have been made for the market, especially after Western collectors started showing interest in them. During the span of this exhibition, UMMA will discern whether or not this sculpture contains human remains and, if so, contact representatives of the Bembe community to solicit their advice on how to proceed.