African and African diaspora art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu has publicly asked for the planned Paris auction of two sacred Igbo artworks to be cancelled. The sculptures, which were among the many stolen from shattered Igbo towns during the Biafran war of 1967-70, are set to be sold by the British auction house Christie’s. Worth between €250,000 and €350,0000 (£227,000-£317,000), the sculptures were acquired from Nigeria by the French art collector Jacques Kerchache. According to The Guardian, Okeke-Agulu, who is a professor at Princeton, explained in an interview that the auction would “perpetuate the violence” of the war.
“The original acquisition was rooted in violence,” he said. “These objects are from my hometown, removed from places around eastern Nigeria during that war. What we’re seeing now is the continuing benefit from that original act of violence, which is an extension of that violence.”
Many stolen but yet unseen artifacts include alusi sculptures taken from Mbari communal shrines. They were seized through conspiracies between local conspirators and foreign collectors, and looted through the Cameroon border.
The looting was the subject of a 2017 New York Times op-ed by Okeke-Agulu. Earlier this month, he raised the issue on Instagram.
“I remember there was deep pain at what the war cost us when it was over,” Oke-Agulu said. “I still remember my mother looking through catalogues in the 70s of alusis and important cultural artefacts, most of which were outside of Nigeria. As an art historian it is a continuing agony that I teach African art. I studied African art at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka and we did not have access to the key artistic monuments of Igbo or Yoruba art.”
In 1953, Nigeria’s colonial government created the Antiquities Ordinance Law, which illegalized the sale of stolen cultural artefacts illegal. In 1970, Nigeria signed a UNESCO agreement banning international trade in stolen artifacts.
For years, African historians, curators, and artists have called for the repatriation of African art stolen by the colonizing powers, particularly Britain. The Black Lives Matter protests have brought the concerns to the centre of conversations.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.