The debate about restitution and the ethics of Western museums’ owning African artworks collected during the era of colonization has never been more in the public eye. Most well-known, perhaps, are the “Benin bronzes,” artistic and royal heirlooms made since the 13th century by highly specialized metalworkers in the Kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria). In 1897, British forces sacked the capital of this prosperous kingdom. They tore sculptures and plaques from the palace walls, and took them back to Europe, where the looted treasures were sold to museums and private collectors. The royal court of Benin, Nigerian officials, and high-profile scholars such as Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu (Princeton) have been demanding their return for decades. Increasingly, museums based in the Global North have been listening to these calls for repatriation, and some have pledged to return works from their collections. To provide a new home for the repatriated works, plans for a new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), are currently in development with world renowned architect Sir David Adjaye leading the building design project.
On the occasion of Wish You Were Here: African Art & Restitution, a public investigation into our own collection at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), Sir David Adjaye and Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu will discuss their current and recent projects that address how works of art may re-enter the societies they were torn away from. Laura De Becker, Interim Chief Curator and the Helmut and Candis Stern Curator of African Art at UMMA, will introduce the event.