NIGERIA: Archaeologists slam German exhibition of ‘looted’ art

nigeriaArchaeologists in Nigeria are outraged by an exhibition that opened in German this week showcasing artefacts obtained controversially from the West African nation by the European scholars.

The exhibition titled, ‘Nok: Origin of African Sculpture’, opened in Frankfurt on Wednesday, organised by Leibieghaus Sculputuresammlug in collaboration with Goethe University and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), a Nigerian institution. The show, which is touted as a dialogue with contemporary Egyptian and Graeco Roman sculpture, runs until 28 February 2014.

Thereafter, the organisers say, the exhibition will move to Nigeria where more than 100 Nok sculptures and pieces will be displayed for the Nigerian audience.

Nigerian archaeologists say the exhibition follows years of controversial archaeological investigations in parts of the Nok Valley by German scholars led by Prof Peter Breunig.

The Nok terracotta sculptures are arguably amongst Nigeria’s most strategic heritage resources, being the earliest of their kind in sub-Saharan Africa.

With the approval of the Nigerian museums commission NCMM, the German scholars appropriated rights to the control and study of the country’s archaeological resources.

“In 2007, the Germans exported tons of materials excavated from the site of Durbi Takusheyi in Katsina for restoration and conservation at the Romisch-Germenisches Zentral Museum in Mainz. These materials went on exhibition in Germany in 2011 with the promise that the materials will return to Nigeria in 2012. To the best of our knowledge, the Takusheyi materials are yet to be returned to the country,” Dr Zacharys Gundu, President of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria (AAN), says.

“With this exhibition, it means two important classes of Nigerian archaeological materials are outside the country. This is clearly unacceptable.”

Nigerian archaeologists are also unhappy that exhibiting the artefacts in German first before Nigeria breaches international best practices. “It also smacks of neo-colonialism and rudeness,” the Dr Gundu says.

“Nigerians should have been given the opportunity to enjoy, connect with and be educated by the exhibition before the Germans. We know of no country in the world that would allow others to study their heritage to a point of exhibiting the results of their study before the exhibition debuts in the country of origin.”

The Germans claim in adverts that their MoU with the NCMM includes partnership with two Nigerian universities in the project that started in 2005. But AAN points out that it was only last year that the MoU was reviewed to allow the participation of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and and the University of Jos.

“To the best of our knowledge, scholars from these two universities are yet to be properly involved in the project. This may explain why no scholar from these two Nigerian universities has co-authored even a single paper on the project,” Dr Gundu says.

There is also the vexed question of how the more than 100 Nok sculptures got to Germany. In 2010 when AAN raised alarm on the whole export of Nok materials to Germany by Prof Breunig and his team, the Germans denied it and said only samples for analysis were taken. The NCMM, which had been supporting the export, also denied it.

“Unfortunately, neither the Germans nor the NCMM could tell us where the Nok materials were stored since the beginning of the project in 2005,” Dr Gundu says.

“If these materials were exported irregularly to Germany and lack proper documentation, we would want to draw the attention of the NCMM and and the Germans to the many international conventions in archaeology, heritage management and museums that prohibit the exhibition of looted materials.”

Nigerian archaeologists are concerned that the country may not have proper records of the materials, thanks to the collusion of the NCMM with the German scholars.

In at least one case of sealed deposits from Garajet known to the Archaeological Association of Nigeria, they were taken to Germany on condition that they would be opened in the presence of Nigerian archaeologists to ascertain their cultural contents. These were however opened at the Romisch-Germanisches Zentral Museum in Mainz without Nigerian archaeologists’ presence,” Dr Gundu says.

Nigerian archaeologists accuse the NCMM of failing to protect the country’s heritage and instead supporting German “academic colonisation of archaeology” in the country.

“What is the benefit of the project to Nigeria when all those who have gotten their postgraduate degrees form the project since its inception are Germans,” Dr Gundu wonders.

“AAN is concerned that Nigeria must retain a level of control on research, dissemination and exhibition of the country’s vast archaeological resources,” the association’s president said. “We are not against international collaboration; we must be accorded the right to interpret our past and be the first to enjoy it and benefit from the education that comes from exhibiting it.”

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