By Prisca Sam-Duru
As the debate on restitution of stolen artefacts belonging to Africa gathers momentum, more and more individuals and organisations are lending their voices to the campaign to bring back our heritage.
Joining the conversation is Africa Artists Foundation, AAF, which has always been at the fore front of initiating conversations on issues relating to Africa art/culture.
In collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Nigeria, and with the support of Alliance Francaise Lagos/Mike Adenuga Centre, AAF held a talk by Dr Clementine Deliss, a curator, publisher and cultural historian who is currently, a guest Professor in History and Theory at the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg.
Themed “Rapid Response Restitution”, the Talk intended to spur curiosity or serve as a catalyst that will necessitate the return of Africa’s looted artefacts, saw Dr Deliss, bringing her anthropological and artistic expertise into the conversation.
Not a few people received the news of a Talk on the subject of restitution by Deliss well, considering that she is a foreigner which they said, disqualified her as a voice leading such conversation in an African gathering. Director of AAF Mr Azu Nwagbogu however, opened the conversation by disclosing that we move conversation forward by having the right people. By that he meant having the right dialogue especially with young people who understand the need to have the right dialogue in the art particularly as it relates to moving back our lost artefacts to Nigeria. Nwagbogu further noted that as a former Director of Frankfurt’s Ethnographic museum, Dr Deliss is the right person to lead the conversation, maintaining that the essence of the Talk was to find new meaning into the restitution debate.
And at the end of the Talk, every doubt was erased not only because Dr Deliss was a former Director of Museum in Frankfurt, but also her years of experience which manifested in her well detailed presentation as well as her position on the subject matter, over-qualified her for the Talk.
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In her presentation, Dr Deliss who came back to Nigeria 25 years after the last time she was here, began by reading what she named her manifesto on the subject of looted artefacts. She continued with introduction of the current arguments, debates on the restitution of cultural heritage to Africa, happening across Europe in recent times. She “proposed alternative ways to re-imagine and re-purpose these major historical collections, focussing on the potential for retrieving innovative design from traditional artefacts and materials.” Bearing in mind climate change and ecological concerns, Deliss presented model for a new kind of cultural institution for future generations that combine the museum with university-level education centred on past and future collections. According to her, people need the artefacts to trigger a sense of history but noted however that the worry is, after restitution, what happens to them.
The revelation that over 500,000 African artefacts are in European museums was quite startling. And her presentation, aptly laced with lots of photographs that expose the enormity of evil done to Africa by Europe, buttressed that statistics. For instance, she showed a photograph titled ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ and it displays human skulls and shrunken heads with long and short hairs. Dr Deliss posited that these artefacts should be sent back to their origin because they are embarrassing and dehumanising to still see them in foreign museums. Besides, having them back, will help to understand our history as Africans and trace our genealogies. Sadly, the collection of such organs turned artefacts is still taking place in recent times in form of organ trade whereby hapless migrants lose their organs to unsuspecting traders, while in search of greener pasture abroad.
Deliss declared that a major excuse for not returning some of these human parts with possibly, semen, blood and any other body fluids, could be that in the process of transportation, there could be possible outbreak of disease that might be difficult to contain.
Responding to the question of what do we do with the objects once returned, renowned arts collector, Omoba Yemisi Shyllon told the house that Nigeria has the ability to receive the artefacts, hinting that the world class museum at the Pan Atlantic University is ready for the works.
According to him, the looters argument that we do not have the expertise and technology to preserve and conserve the works when they are returned, is baseless. They also erroneously believe that we lack adequate power supply and capital to acquire necessary equipment to preserve the objects, but “there is power supply in the university where the museum is sited. Also, there are competent people with diverse knowledge that will handle the artefacts. Omoba Shyllon concluded by harping on the need to be pushful enough for the restitution to become a reality.