The Things We Take / The Things We Return
An exchange between a high school student and me
After the open letter I wrote to the Brooklyn Museum was republished in The Guardian I got a slew of emails through my personal site. I answered many of the ones that seemed genuinely interested in having a dialogue, whether or not they agreed with what I wrote… and most of them did not. After the cacophony of emails decreased, I received an email from a high school student named Christine Ohenzuwa. With the permission of Christine and her parents, I have published our exchanges below. I was excited and impressed that at Christine’s age she is doing such an interesting and important project. It reminded me of myself when I was younger. Our youth are not only paying attention, but that they are part of these conversations. As they are the current & future generation of creators they will be finding new ways to move these conversations forward. Christine is doing this as evidenced below. Additionally, I wanted to share these exchanges because they required me to clearly articulate some of the assumptions that I made in my letter. We need to keep having cultural, social, and political exchanges intergenerationally and internationally if we intend to continue the evolution of humanity.
[CO: Christine Ohenzuwa ; TAF: Teju Adisa-Farrar]
I am a high school student doing a project on the history of Edo art and its relevance to global art today. I read your article on white curators of African artifacts/art and found it interesting as well as relevant to my project which discusses the legacy of African (specifically Edo) art in the West. As such, I was wondering if you would be interested in conducting an online interview with me about your opinions on the treatment of Edo/African art today. If interested, please reply to this message and I will send back a few questions. Additionally, I have attached a link to my project at the bottom of this message.
TAF: Hello Christine,
Thank you for reaching out. Your project looks very thorough, I’m impressed. I don’t know much about Edo art, though I do have an interest in the British Expedition to Benin in 1897, which resulted in the destruction of Benin and the stealing of much of Benin’s art and artefacts of which Edo art is a large part. I am not sure if you are Edo from Benin or from Nigeria based on your last name. I have a Nigerian friend in Vienna who is Edo. Anyway, I’ll try my best to answer your questions articulately, even though my knowledge on Edo art is lacking.
CO: Thank you so much for accepting my offer! I truly appreciate it. Even though my project is specifically about Edo art and artifacts, it also touches on the treatment of African artifacts as a whole, so do not worry about not being an expert on Edo art. And just so you know, I am Nigerian and Edo, though I am living in the USA currently. As such, this project means a lot to me as it is also a representation and expression of my cultural identity. I would like to start the interview off with a brief description of your work, role and interests as it relates to African art/artifacts and/or art repatriation. This is just so when I include your words in my project and bibliography, I can accurately attribute you and fit your words into the context of my project.
TAF: I am a writer and urban geographer with a focus on art and activism produced and experienced by people from the African diaspora and other postcolonial communities. In the most recent years my primary research focus has been on geographies of Black/African artists and activists in European and American cities. My focus is transnational and diasporic, which means I look at the cultural geographic relationship of Black people to the many different places they call home, including the continent of Africa.
CO: Next I have several questions. Do you think African art has had any effect on the West and the global community as a whole? If so, please elaborate on how you think African art has affected the West and/or global community.
TAF: It is well-known, though not widely acknowledged, that one of the greatest artists revered in the West — Pablo Picasso — was inspired by African art and artifact. Unsurprisingly, much of the inspiration for his abstract art came from Benin ivory masks. Many of these masks and Benin Bronzes along with large amounts of other art and artifacts were taken by the British after they nearly destroyed Benin city during, what is disingenuously referred to as, the “Benin Expedition” of 1897. Beyond Picasso, African art through architecture, music, sculpture and other multi-sector art forms has penetrated so many parts of the globe by forced and voluntary means. It’s important to say that the continent of Africa, and even individual countries, are not monoliths so the influence of African art in the world varies from country to country and culture to culture. Without African art and artefacts many museums in the West, and especially Western Europe, would not exist or have large parts of cultural history missing. African art has not only contributed to the historical landscape of the world, but it continues to be a pillar of experiencing the world and understanding indigenous cultures in modern day museums.
CO: What is your opinion on the fact that many (looted) African artifacts and art are currently being displayed in Western museums, away from their place of origin? Do you think African/Edo art should be repatriated to their countries/cultures of origin? If so, why?
TAF: It is institutionally pathological to have stolen artifacts still being displayed in museums in the Western world. Although it is necessary and encouraged for people in the Western world to know about and have access to the heritage of the continent of Africa and other places that were colonized, it is at the expense of the people who come from these parts of the world. Furthermore, the curation of the museums that have African holdings and display African art is usually not done with an honest look at positionally, privilege, and the understanding that we need to transform a neocolonial world in every sector of society but especially the art industry. I believe if we are to truly decolonize ourselves and the world, all artifacts from Africa (and the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America, etc.) should be repatriated. Although we cannot reverse colonialism, and decolonization is not a process or reversal or role-swapping, we can dismantle its legacy and the ways it is perpetuated in daily life. Repatriation is one way to begin to do this.
CO: What are your opinions on the efficacy of efforts by Western museums to return African/Edo art to their countries/cultures of origin?
TAF: Yes, I agree with most efficacy efforts that aim to restructure transnational power relations through art repatriation. However, these efforts can and should be made with more rigor, zeal, immediacy, and input from cultural groups to which the artifacts belong. Additionally these efforts should not reproduce the institutional and global power dynamics that leave the regions in question out of the discussion.
CO: Finally, do you think Western museums are hesitant to return African art to their countries of origin? If so, why do think this is?
TAF: I absolutely believe that Western museums are hesitant to return stolen artifacts and art because: 1) Having these African holdings represents a perceived epistemological superiority that many Western nations, especially on the continent of Europe, are not ready to give up; 2) African art represents an enormous diversity of art forms, cultural practice, material innovation, etc. that is invaluable to these museums; and finally 3) Returning the stolen art would mean these nations have to actively admit that they committed tremendous acts of violence across the globe and continue to do so by reaping the benefits of colonialism. It is possible and crucial to engage with and display African art in the West in culturally appropriate ways. However, this has to start by returning ownership to the countries of origin. Any kind of repatriation, especially of art, is a redistribution of power and value. It is an attempt to give back a little bit of what was taken through the violence of colonialism. These countries cannot “take back” internalized trauma and intergenerational poverty that have resulted from the legacies of colonialism and enslavement (both in the Americas and on the continent), but material artifacts such as art can be given back.
TAF: Thank you so much for doing this project Christine and good luck. It is already excellent and important.