Resistance Against The Repatriation Of African Artefacts

British Author and radio presenter Tiffany Jenkins published a piece in The Observer stating her reasons about western museums should keep the Artefacts that had been plundered from their former colonies. She starts off by relating the events of 13 January 1897, where members of a British delegation were attacked during a religious festival in Benin. According to Jenkins, the plunder of the Benin artefacts had been provoked by this attack. She further substantiates her proposition by ironically mentioning that the proceeds gained from this plunder had then been used to cover the cost of carrying out this expedition.

In actual fact, the purpose of the expedition was to depose the Benin king who had been resisting the colonisation of Benin by the British. We learn from Jerkins’ article that the Louvre Museum in Paris “was founded on the French king’s art collection before it was seized by revolutionaries, right before they executed him”. That the French king’s art collection is in France and that the Benin artefacts are in housed in western museums is an inconvenience she would rather not labour on.

Although Jenkins’ piece ventures into the complexity of ethical accountability and moral questions, at the heart of it is the resistance to acknowledging the monstrosity of imperialism. She tacitly ridicules the fact that colonisation was a crime against humanity as evidenced by her use of parentheses in that regard. The challenge that Jenkins puts out to the people of Benin – modern day Nigeria – is that for Benin to qualify to have their artworks returned, they must deserve it.

The prescription she lays out is that the Benin kingdom must first apologise for slavery before these artefacts could have the hope of being returned. In this thread of her argument, she constructs an idea that the western countries are being victimised based on moral grounds which she contends as unfair. The basis of Jenkins’ position arises from her conviction that the Benin artefacts “were crafted on the back of the slave trade.” Kanye West a black famous rapper who has recently conceded that he suffers from cognitive impairment, has found himself inadvertently promoting the notion that black people were responsible for their enslavement. To regard West as a legitimate voice to represent black people in this instance would be as silly as the insinuation that the kings who connived with imperialists were representatives of their people. What Jenkins is attempting to do is to spread the falsehood that without the Portuguese traders interacting with the Benin kingdom, the people of Benin could not have produced the artworks that now populate a string of established museums in Western Europe and North America. She finds comfort in the convenient idea that just because colonizers had collaborators among the colonised, then the colonisers must not be bothered to atone.

The uncomfortable truth that Jenkins is running away from is simple. The return of these artefacts to their countries would leave the prestigious western museums poorer, both in terms of the revenue that these pieces attract and the brilliance of the pieces themselves. The tactic employed by Jenkins in her argument is one of setting the cat among the pigeons to avoid dealing with the elephant in the room. Her attempt to justify her viewpoint by suggesting that the call for the repatriation of Africa’s artefacts distracts us from finding solutions for current social problems is a classic case of deflection. As for the “good deed” that western museums are doing in being the custodians of cultural artefacts and artworks, we should not forget how former British prime minister Tony Blair lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, an action that led to the war in Iraq and to the plundering of cultural treasures of that country. All that Jenkins is doing is to humanise plunder because it serves her purpose and that of the established view that Africa is incapable of looking after its own artefacts. One wonders if the British museum was to be plundered tomorrow and the artworks taken away and housed somewhere else ‘safer’ in the world, if she would view that as being justified.

The contrived reasons justifying the refusal to repatriate artworks and artefacts to their homelands constitute the old practice of infantilising African nations. Macron might be repatriating 26 artefacts back to the Benin kingdom, but like Jenkins, he also represents a contingency that will fight to make sure that the artefacts are not entirely returned. The repatriation of these 26 Benin artefacts is used as a veil to cover over a complex situation devised to obfuscate where France and the rest of the former colonisers really stand on this issue. Minus the 26 Benin artefacts that are to be repatriated, 4674 of them will remain in museums in Germany, the United States, Austria and France. The British museum’s position that the repatriation of artworks would set a bad precedent, could be understood to mean that Africa’s artefacts will never be returned home. 

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Leeto Thale
Leeto Thale works from London - Johannesburg. I work with the mic, the pen & I produce. Formulate & evaluate Art programs and Creative Industry policy matters. Artful. Leeto Thale has over 203 followers on Twitter.

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