Thursday, December 10, 2020

What to do?

 Stanley - Thursday

I have written about African art several times over the years, mainly because I have a passion for some of it and have built a small collection of my own. 

I have pieces from all over Africa, with different areas having distinctive styles. The piece I like the most is a terracotta head from the Kingdom of Ife, which existed in what is now southern Nigeria.  I acquired the head about ten years ago while recuperating from colon-cancer surgery. For many years, when visiting family and friends back in Johannesburg, I used to visit a gallery that specialised in African art. On several occasions I left carrying a piece I found particularly appealing.

Every time I visited the gallery I drooled over two pieces that were way out of my price range. One was a bronze leopard, probably from the Kingdom of Benin, also now in Nigeria. The other was a terracotta head of a woman. Both were spectacular; both about 400 - 500 years old.

Bronze leopard

My Ife terracotta head

The first time I visited the gallery after my surgery, I decided it made no sense to look at these two pieces for half an hour a year, particularly as I was feeling very sensitive about my mortality. So I decided to splurge and buy one - the terracotta head. I took it to Minneapolis, where it occupies pride of place in my collection.

Over the past year, I have been rewriting my will - probably spurred on by the spread of COVID-19. Obviously I have given much thought as to who should inherit my art works. I have come to the conclusion that none of my nephews or nieces would appreciate most of what I have, especially the terracotta head.

I am acutely aware of how most of the Benin and Ife art works came into Western hands. In the case of the Benin bronzes, the English fabricated a flimsy excuse in 1897 to destroy one of Africa's greatest civilisations and to plunder its treasures. You can read about that day of infamy here. The Ife terracottas enjoyed a similar fate, being stolen in the early 1900s. You can find background information about the Ife works here.

Benin bronze head (Ethnologische Museum, Berlin)

Benin broze plaque (Ethnologische Museum, Berlin)

So, I have found myself in a tug of war with myself. Part of me wants to return the head to Nigeria; another part wants Westerners to see what artistry exists in a place many regard as uncivilised.

So what to do?

I have spoken to curators of museums for advice. The overall impression I get is that no one in the West wants to touch 'stolen' works in the current climate, even if they already have such items in their permanent collections. And as far as I can determine, there are only three Ife heads in museums in the United States.

Ife terracotta head in the Minneapolis Institute of Art

My Ife head came with documentation from the government of Nigeria that it was exported legally. However, I wonder whether the document is authentic or forged. Or, if authentic, whether it was obtained by the exchange of a bribe.

The most sensible advice, so far, came from a person who works in the Department of Sports, Arts, and Culture of the South African government. He suggested I leave the head to a museum in Africa with the stipulation that once every few years it be shared with a different museum outside Africa. I have yet to explore whether any museum would take on such an obligation.

So, my will is not yet finished. The section about my African art collection is blank. I'd welcome any suggestions.

(I was motivated to write this blog because I recently came across a reference to a new book titled The Brutish Museums. The author, Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, apparently makes a powerful case for the return of one of world's largest collections of looted artifacts to where they came from. I can't wait to read the book.)


  1. Hopefully, you will have many more years to come to a decision!

  2. The British Museum still has gold ornaments the British plundered from the Ashanti king's palace. No shame.

  3. Those are some fabulous pieces, Stanley. What you might do is decide which institution you'd most like to receive the work, and inquire whether they'd want it. If they say NO, ask what will they do if you leave it to them anyway. They could disclaim the bequest, but might steer it to an institution that would welcome it. One thing for sure, they won't destroy it or turn it into a hat rack. And becomes their worry when they receive it in the 22nd Century.

    On the subject of The British Museum, Kwei, if you want to learn how to swear in Greek, just mention The Parthenon/Elgin marbles to a Greek.

  4. Funny that I too am in a very similar position, when it comes to what to do with art. Fortunately, I don't have the complication of "stolen." If it were me, I would give those gorgeous pieces to a museum in their country of origin, IF that would put them in a politically stable environment. (Is there such a thing these days?) We have seen priceless treasured destroyed by rebels in our life times, I weep to have to say.

    As you undoubtedly know from my posts here, you can learn to swear in English and Italian from me by mentioning the brutal destruction and bald-faced theft of art--regardless of race, creed, color, religion, or national origin. ARRGGGHHHH!!

  5. What absolutely beautiful art by the Benin and Ife people. It's amazing.

    It's so good that you are trying to figure out the best institutions to will them to.

    I would call museums in Nigeria and Benin and describe what you have and ask if they would like the art bequested to them. Or call museums of African art in the U.S., as a secondary suggestion, and ask if they would like them bestowed to them.

  6. I just found the Museum of African Art in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, N.Y. That's in the heart of the Black community. I would call them and see if they would be interested.

  7. I would leave the artwork to the people who would appreciate it and love it. And it is stunning.