Last December, Germany’s Federal Minister of Culture Claudia Roth and Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock travelled to Nigeria to ceremoniously return 20 of the more than 1,100 so-called “Benin Bronzes” stored in German museums. British troops had looted them from the palace in Benin City during a field campaign in 1897 and sold them on the art market all over the world. After 125 years of African demands for restitution and European ignorance, the diplomatic act was a cause for celebration for many. Claudia Roth spoke of a “historic moment” and a turning point in German cultural policy.
Elias Aguigah is a student assistant for the research project The Restitution of Knowledge at the Department of Modern Art History at TU Berlin. His most recent article, “Restitution of looted artefacts — a Marxist approach”, appeared in the Review of African Political Economy.
The transfer of ownership ceremony was marked by the “new relational ethics” between Europe and Africa that Berlin-based French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr demanded in their 2018 report on the restitution of looted African cultural property, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics. Germany’s long-delayed confrontation with its past as a colonial power finally seemed to bear real fruit, and the acrimonious debates of recent years appeared settled: the age of returns, restitution, and reparation was dawning.
This return of colonial looted art to an African country may be a historic moment for the Federal Republic, but the discussions around restitution are anything but over. In an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Swiss ethnologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin branded the restitution a “fiasco”, as outgoing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had transferred the returned pieces to the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II. Hauser-Schäublin criticized the German government for helping a private individual gain power through restitution instead of serving “the Nigerian people”, and asked, “Was that the point of restitution?” Yet, instead of questioning what the German government hopes to gain from this restitution in foreign policy terms, the text strings together racist colonial stereotypes, colonial apologetic platitudes, and irrelevant speculation about Nigerian domestic politics.
Ever since the first demands for restitution emerged, their opponents have polemicized against restitution with the same arguments. Hauser-Schäublin assumes — without evidence — that the Oba will use the bronzes for his private enrichment, and acts as if the German as well as Nigerian state had the bronzes stolen by a private individual — as if Europeans had not originally stolen the bronzes from the Oba’s palace at the time. If it were up to her, Baerbock should only have returned the bronzes to Nigeria to be publicly exhibited there. In Hauser-Schäublin’s eyes, it only would have been a proper restitution if the bronzes remained in the same context as before: in a museum, but in Africa.
If restitution is to be part of a process of coming to terms with German colonial history, attaching conditions to it would send the wrong signal.
It is misleading to assume that the Benin Bronzes are “national property” or “public property”. As an ethnologist, Hauser-Schäublin ought to know that property is a complex construct that goes beyond the private vs. public dichotomy. Especially in postcolonial states like Nigeria, where the relationship between the state and non-state authorities like the Oba is in constant negotiation, the question of rightful ownership is just that: a matter of negotiation.
For, and Hauser-Schäublin seems to forget this, the theft of the Benin bronzes was no accident but a means to an end: the British military action against Benin City in 1897 served primarily to break the power of the Oba in order to better exploit the resources of his country. Throughout Africa, Europeans destroyed existing power structures by force in order to establish the colonial system, and while the political structures on the territory of the Kingdom of Benin fundamentally changed, so did the function of the stolen pieces. Europeans turned them into trophies, objects of study, modern art — and last but not least, into commodities and assets on the art market.
Thus, when Hauser-Schäublin assumes that the bronzes are public property, or when FAZ editor Patrick Bahners speaks of “our Benin stock” on Twitter, these attributions merely serve to erase the history of the pieces’ violent appropriation. The history of the Benin Bronzes does not begin in the repositories of German ethnological museums — it does not even begin with the 1897 looting. What actually begins in 1897 is the history of the Benin Bronzes as an objectification of colonial injustice, exploitation, oppression, and violence. The British raid is part of the history of European colonialism, which still helps to structure our world today.
In the course of the restitution debates, the bronzes have finally become political objects on the basis of which questions of power and influence are negotiated at various levels, not only in Germany and Europe. Of course, the Benin Bronzes are also part of power struggles within Nigeria, such as between the governor of Edo State and the Oba, as well as broader debates in society as a whole. For example, restitution also provides an opportunity for Nigerian actors to address the role of the Obas of the time in the transatlantic slave trade.
Yet, if restitution is to be part of a process of coming to terms with German colonial history, attaching conditions to it would send the wrong signal. Baerbock, Roth, and even the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, understood this, and defended the restitutions against the renewed criticism that the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland carried into parliament. The returns, they made clear, were unconditional.
Everyone taking part in the debate is pursuing their own agenda.
That said, we must nevertheless place the supposedly unconditional returns in their political context and critically interrogate them. At a time when China and Russia are gaining influence on the African continent, it is in Baerbock’s and the EU’s interest to maintain relations with African states on a cultural policy level. Raw materials on the continent could be necessary for overcoming the energy crisis, and African states are important partners in the EU’s inhumane migration policy, to name just two examples.
The immense mass of African material cultural assets in European museums, some of which could be highly significant in their communities of origin, represent an influential lever for the German government in this regard. The ongoing attention to the issue can be of extraordinary benefit to the German government in influencing the policies of African states 60 years after formal decolonization. Against this backdrop, the diplomatic ceremony seems less like the beginning of a “new relational ethics” and more like European imperialism in a new guise.
In this respect, critics à la Hauser-Schäublin are refreshingly honest: they do not even pretend to want to stay out of Nigerian affairs. That Nigerians should do what they want with the returned bronzes (or what they negotiate) is obviously not compatible with Hauser-Schäublin’s worldview. While those who rail against restitution in this way take for granted that they can determine what happens to the bronzes, they also deny African societies their right to self-determination.
It is therefore not surprising that the discussions about the Benin Bronzes continue. After all, they were never just works of art. Their meaning has changed repeatedly throughout their history, and today they are part of political power games — in Germany, Nigeria, and between Europe and Africa.
Everyone taking part in the debate is pursuing their own agenda. Baerbock knows how to use the decolonization debate in general and restitution in particular to her own advantage in order to retain influence in Africa. For Hauser-Schäublin, however, not even that is enough: for her, restitution can only be a means to openly serve European imperial ambitions.