An Emotional Show in Ghana Marks the Return of Looted Asante Culture from the UK

Repatriation ceremonies tend to be bureaucratic affairs done for show—the deal to return a looted artwork is conducted long before the object is actually handed over to its rightful owner. But earlier this month, when objects related to Asante culture made their way back to Ghana after about a century and half abroad, many were deeply affected.

Ivor Agyeman-Duah, the lead negotiator for Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the monarch of the Asante Kingdom, described the historic occasion as “very touching.”

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“The emotions that came out of the Asantehene when he first saw these objects weeks ago underlined the whole history of the 19th century,” Agyeman-Duah told ARTnews, speaking after the opening of an exhibition of the returned objects at the revamped Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Region. “It was very emotional negotiating for them, but it was even more so when we first listed the objects and identified the ones that will come here.”

Some of these objects come from two London museums, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and one in Los Angeles, UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Agyeman-Duah, who is also the director of the Manhyia Palace Museum, said there are ongoing discussions with individuals, corporate organizations, and galleries in South Africa and the United Kingdom to return more regalia. He teased a meeting in England in about two months to start new negotiations.

Among the objects in the show are a 300-year-old sword of state (Mponponso), a gold peace pipe, sika mena (elephant tail whisk), royal stool ornaments, an Asante royal gold necklace, and ceremonial gold bangles. The objects have not been seen in Ghana in about 150 years.

Some of the returns will last forever while others are temporary. The Fowler Museum, for example, permanently gave back seven items in early February. The British Museum and the V&A, meanwhile, have only lent their objects for three years, with the possibility to extend the loan. (England’s National Heritage Act of 1963 prohibits British museums from permanently removing items from their collections.) Whether the objects are here to stay or not, the show is an important one because of the spiritual and ceremonial significance of the objects to the Asante Kingdom.

While repatriation has only recently received wider attention in the West, requests for the return of looted objects have been common in Ghana and other countries for the past century. The request for the return of the Asante regalia, for example, started in the 1920s during the reign of Prempeh I.

The regalia was looted by British soldiers from the Manhyia Palace of Asantehene Kofi Karikari in 1874 during the Sagrenti War, also referred to as the Third Anglo-Ashanti War. The war was fought between the Ashanti Empire and the British Empire, and during the conflict, Kumasi and the palace were burnt and plundered.

The opening of the show at the Manhyia Palace Museum on May 1 also marked the 150th anniversary of the British invasion of Kumasi; the 100th anniversary of the return of Nana Agyeman Prempeh I, an Asantehene who was sent into exile by the British to Seychelles; and the silver jubilee of His Royal Majesty, the Asantehene as the leader of the Asante Kingdom.

A group of seated Black men and women looking at a box held by a crouching white woman.
Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, Ghana’s Asante king, received artifacts returned by the Fowler Museum of UCLA at the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, Ghana, on February 8, 2024.

The Manhyia Palace Museum was initially the home of Asantehene Nana Agyeman Prempeh I following his return from decades of British-imposed exile in the Seychelles. The British built it as a replacement for the destruction of the earlier palace, but the king only moved in after the Ashanti Kingdom had fully paid for it. Prempeh lived in the palace from 1925 to 1931; the building later became a museum, opening to the public in 1995.

“We all accept that there are universal values of culture which attract people from all ethnic groups, nationalities, and beliefs,” Otumfuo Osei Tutu II said during a speech at the opening. “The reactions to these objects coming home are ample evidence of this.”

He called the returned regalia “the soul of the people of Asante,” adding that these objects “embody the soul of Asante. And I believe that during the period that they are being displayed everybody will make the effort to come and see it for themselves, to believe that these were created by our own artisans.”

The Asantehene said he has asked the Manhyia Palace Museum to design an initiative to support traditional art in Ghana in collaboration with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology art school. Partners in this project include the British Museum, the V&A, and British Airways.

Starting in 2025, he continued, the initiative will award three prizes yearly; finalists’ works will be purchased locally for upcoming contemporary art museums, the goal being to keep these works within Ghana. When he travels to London in July to deliver a public lecture at the British Museum, he also plans to meet artists and goldsmiths in the Ghanaian diaspora in the country. 

Among those on hand to witness the opening of the exhibition were V&A director Tristram Hunt, British Museum trustee Chris Gosden, and Edmond Moukala, UNESCO’s Ghana head. The international cast of onlookers is a sign that something has shifted in the UK, a country whose museums have been largely resistant to returning art to nations abroad.

“I think it’s a thickening of the relationship between Ghana and the UK, which is longstanding and deep,” remarked Hunt to ARTnews. “I think what is important here is the strength of the partnership between museums in London, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Manhyia Palace. And so, it’s more than the objects landing here. It’s about how we share knowledge, it’s about how we share conservation skills, how we share education, so it’s a richer partnership over time, hopefully.”

Source: artnews.com

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