David Frum is perhaps best known for penning former United States President George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, which preceded the US invasion of Iraq. This single piece of writing resulted in untold Iraqi deaths and suffering and the looting of more than 17,000 ancient Iraqi artifacts. While US authorities have since returned them, Frum has laundered his reputation through the liberal establishment, landing comfortably at one of its largest magazines, the Atlantic. His latest polemic on the repatriation of the Benin bronzes is a quintessential lesson in art world nepotism and colonial projection.
“Who Benefits When Western Museums Return Looted Art?” positions the discourse around the Benin bronzes at a crossroads. While museums should return them, Frum writes, an emergent ownership debate between the Nigerian state and Edo monarchy reveals a deeper institutional dilemma. To make his case, Frum traveled to Nigeria and spoke with Governor Godwin Obaseki, who is overseeing the new Edo Museum of West African Art, as well as Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed and Oba of Benin Ewuare II.
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From the get-go, Frum mocks repatriation efforts as a “ritual of self-purification through purgation.” For transparency, he cites his own parents’ status as collectors of African art who fought for its representation in Canadian museums (and even notes that he and some living family members still own some pieces). Rather than accept the merits of today’s decolonial critiques, Frum presents what he calls a “defense of the existing.” Certainly Western museums “trace their origins to the crimes of kings and the arrogance of colonizers,” he writes, but they also “allow tens of millions of people to enjoy what were once the personal pleasures of a wealthy, powerful, titled few.”
This interesting choice of language seems somewhat in line with the progressive wing of Democrats that grew from Occupy Wall Street. But for a former Bush staffer in a position of journalistic power, Frum’s condemnations of “corrupt officialdom” in the Nigerian government and “crumbling” national museum infrastructure sound all too familiar. It seems that Frum’s subtle regime change argument begins at the level of culture: If Western elites have no say in what Africans do with their history, then how will they influence what Africans do about their future?
None of this should be surprising for a magazine that once published an essay titled “In Defense of Empire.” Frum himself has gone to bat for US imperialism countless times and even defended core ideas of the malign speech he wrote for Bush. Should Frum’s expertise here go unquestioned, even though he is responsible for destabilizing an entire region in the Global South? “The human past was a grim place for almost everybody,” Frum so eloquently writes. Indeed it was, but not all of us have a personal stake in the ownership of possibly plundered art, or a legacy of genocidal government policy haunting us to this day.
Repatriation is a first step in closing off Western intervention, and Frum says we should think twice. As Dan Hicks recently wrote for Hyperallergic, Britain’s art-world elite likewise consent to repatriation but espouse this “slippery slope” argument against decolonization. “Giving back is the necessary first step; but restitution is also about giving something up,” Hicks contends. Frum offers few solutions but asserts that Africa still needs us, all while citing Hicks as the foil to his paternalistic rhetoric and avoiding any discussion of the growing US military presence on the continent.
Should we trust an architect of the Iraq War on this, or on anything at this point? Even if there is a Nigerian political crisis — thinking of the #EndSARS protests, which he doesn’t mention — Frum is one of the last people who should speak on it.