How a Global Debate Over Who Owns African Art Is Playing Out in Nigeria

How a Global Debate Over Who Owns African Art Is Playing Out in Nigeria
Benin Bronzes at the British Museum, London, Feb. 15, 2012 (flickr photo by user Son of Groucho).

Editor’s note: The following article is one of 30 that we’ve selected from our archives to celebrate World Politics Review’s 15th anniversary. You can find the full collection here.

BENIN CITY, Nigeria—Two years ago, during a trip to Venice, the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor stepped out on a Sunday to see a sprawling exhibition by the British artist Damien Hirst, which was on view at two museums, the Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi. Titled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” the exhibition purported to show objects salvaged from a fictional capsized ship—the Unbelievable—discovered, or so the story went, off the coast of East Africa in 2008.

While the exhibition’s premise was fabricated, the objects themselves were not, as Ehikhamenor, who was in town to represent Nigeria at the Venice Biennale, soon discovered. At the Palazzo Grassi, he found himself face-to-face with the sculpture of a woman’s head that was a replica of free-standing brass heads created during the 14th and 15th centuries by artisans in the Kingdom of Ife, which encompassed some of present-day Nigeria. A short bit of text accompanying the Hirst sculpture included a superficial acknowledgment of its origins, describing it as “stylistically similar to the celebrated works from the Kingdom of Ife.” In the museum shop, postcards for the exhibition featured the image with no attribution at all.

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