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.
View this post on Instagram
In a 2017 op-ed article in the New York Times, I wrote about widespread looting of art from Eastern Nigeria during the Biafran War (1967-70), and that my mother still mourns the overnight disappearance of countless alusi (sacred sculptures) from communal shrines in my hometown, Umuoji, in Anambra State. These art raids from all indications were sponsored by dealers and their client collectors mostly based in Europe and the US. It turns out that later this month the venerable Christie's will auction two of these impressive alusi (seen here) said to have been acquired in 1968-69 in situ by Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001). That is, Mr. Kerchache acquired these sculptures in the Nri-Awka area (a half-hour drive from my hometown) during the darkest years of the Biafran War. Dear Christie's, let’s be clear about the provenance of these sculptures you want to sell. While between 500,000 and three million civilians, including babies like me, were dying of kwashiorkor and starvation inside Biafra; and while young French doctors were in the war zone establishing what we now know as Doctors Without Borders, their compatriot, Mr. Kerchache, went there to buy up my people’s cultural heritage, including the two sculptures you are now offering for sale. I write this so no one, including Christie's and any potential buyer of these loots from Biafra can claim ignorance of their true provenance. These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children. #christies #warloots #biafranwar
A post shared by Chika Okeke-Agulu (@chikaokekeagulu) onSee Also
“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 a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture, art, photography, business, activism, and health. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.