The Catastrophe of Art Restitution
Art and artefacts dating back to the destruction of Benin in 1897 can be found in museums and private collections in Western Europe, North America, and Gulf states, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Fazil Moradi, a visiting associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, in South Africa, lives a life between Berlin in Germany and Johannesburg in South Africa. He was born in no man’s land between Iran and Iraq. In a context of revolution and war in the 1980s, his family fled the so-called ‘Islamic revolution’ in Iran to Iraq and later to Sweden. Throughout these tumultuous years, Moradi’s parents inculcated a deep love of poetry in him and his siblings, and what he terms an ‘intimate’ relationship with the arts.
His research has focused on the restitution of artworks in Benin, Babylon, and Egypt that were plundered in the destruction of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 by the colonizing British troops.
Some 3,000 Benin bronzes include figurines, tusks, and sculptures, were auctioned in London between 1897 and 1899.
Although the British Museum has most of the Benin Bronzes in its collection, others are in museums around the globe.
Influenced by the intellectual Edward Said, who uses the term catastrophic to convey the colonized context of literature in Palestine, Moradi terms artefacts like the Benin Bronzes catastrophic art because they testify to a system of knowledge prior to the colonization in 1897, whilst at the same time attesting to the colonization and the destruction of the kingdom.
“We cannot relate to the Benin artworks without relating to colonialism or colonial history because everyone asks today how the artworks ended up in places such as Berlin, London, France, and Stockholm. In this way these artworks represent a system of knowledge that take us back prior to colonization of the kingdom and also to colonialism itself, which makes them catastrophic,” Moradi explains.
For example, he says, the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm exhibits its Benin Collection, although Sweden did not colonize the Kingdom of Benin. Sweden is complicit in the sense that although they know that the artworks come out of colonialism, they were willing to purchase these artworks. The audience too are “‘catastrophic’ in that they observe the artworks relating to them simply as objects,” according to Moradi.
Moradi’s depth of knowledge of colonialism has its roots in his research into political violence in Iraq, Rwanda, South Africa, and Western Europe; and what political violence does, and how its memory lives on and takes many forms in our time.
He has expounded on the ideas of Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet, essayist, one of the authors of the philosophy of négritude, and the first President of Senegal (1960 – 80), who was also very interested in African art as well as Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize laureate in literature (1986) and political critic, among others.
Moradi investigates how people in the African continent have understood and discussed art produced in the continent as beauty, as anchored in the spiritual life, in the political and cultural life of their context – more especially in Benin.
For him, it is impossible to separate the artwork from everyday memory, and the public memory. The artworks often referred to as ’treasures’ were embedded in the everyday life of the Kingdom of Benin.
Prince Edun Akenzua, who is a member of the Benin Royal Family has been tasked by the Oba to repatriate its artworks. “The Treasures of Benin are more than art, they are the life of a people,” he has stated.
The process of restitution itself further exacerbates colonialism. In the case of France or Germany, the return of the artworks must be accepted by these countries’ heritage laws, thereby bounding the process in politics. Legal and bureaucratic processes delay the return of artworks to their rightful owners, the Nigerian estate, or the Kingdom of Benin of today.
The balance of power remains uneven since the countries in possession of the artworks make the decisions even though they are the spoils of colonial rule.
“Here restitution is a denial of the history because it is confined to the understanding that these so-called objects belong to you and we have them, and then we can think about how to restitute them,” He emphasizes that justice is not something that law can give to those affected and heritage laws in Germany and in France, for example, cannot decide on what can be recognized as legitimately and legally Nigerian,” says Moradi.
Moradi envisions an alternative to the current system:
“Knowledge cannot belong to any people or any generation. It has and continues to travel across continents, across time, across generations and it manifests itself in many forms. We are being haunted by those people who have played a fundamental role in shaping our lives. We carry those peoples in us, and it is because of those generations before us that we are what we are in various parts of the world. Therefore, I imagine a much more open democratic space, that is open to all those who are committed in this context and to all those who have a historical knowledge about what colonialism has done. Since at issue is the historical and ethical responsibilities, we will have to seek to carve out a common ground of conversation across borders. We need an honest and critical relation to the colonial histories because to talk about the Benin bronzes, the Benin artworks, is to talk about imperial formations and colonialism that date back to the early 15th century. Here, the state should not intervene in any way other than being a facilitator.”