I often disappoint people by telling them that their favorite museum heist scenes, with thieves twisting around the beams of a laser security system, aren’t realistic. But now I can finally recommend an alternative. If you want to see an acrobatic display of ducking and weaving in a gallery by people trying desperately not to set off any alarms, just read the labels in the newly opened The African Origins of Civilization at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The first object you encounter when walking into the gallery is a 16th century statue of a horn player. It once stood on an ancestral altar in the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria. But in 1897, Britain ensured its merchants would continue to profit from the trade in palm oil and rubber by violently deposing the Oba (king) of Benin. The expedition, which killed countless civilians, recovered its expenses by looting centuries worth of cast brass and carved ivory artworks from the palace. Or, as the horn player’s label glosses over these events: “At the time of the 1897 British invasion of Benin City, artifacts relating to some 30 palace altars were dispersed internationally.”
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If you happen to pull out your smartphone and visit the museum’s online listing for the horn player, you will find text at least acknowledging that its removal was “forceful.” But you will look in vain here or in the listings of the approximately 160 objects from Benin held by the museum for any mention of the ongoing demands for their repatriation. Instead, the curators try to battle these claims without alerting visitors to their existence by arguing that the museum is the best place for the Benin artworks.
The exhibition is a small one, featuring only 21 of the museum’s four thousand artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa. The disproportionality of including five objects from Benin is thus striking. In addition to the horn player, there is a plaque with warriors, the head of an Oba, a leopard, and what is probably the museum’s most famed work from Benin: a large ivory pendant carved with a masklike portrait of a queen mother. It was the 2010 announcement that Sotheby’s would auction a similar queen mother mask that sparked international controversy and revived demands for Western collections to return Benin materials.
But the exhibition paints the museum not as a potential culprit but as a savior. Its wall text describes a “profound bias in the Western art world” that meant art from Africa was housed in science and anthropology museums until “politician and philanthropist Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller founded a pioneering venue for African art in New York in the 1950s,” the Museum of Primitive Art (whose collections were later folded into those of the Metropolitan). Somehow, a White American who founded a museum with the pejorative description “primitive” in its very name gets the credit for discovering the beauty of African art, erasing the work of many African-American artists and intellectuals, like Alain Locke, who formed a collection of African art in the 1920s in the hopes of establishing a museum in Harlem.
But maybe I’m being unfair. After all, as another wall panel notes, Africa is “the locus from which the earliest migrations moved across the globe.” This panel describes the creators of the artifacts like those in the room as “our ancestors.” If Nelson Rockefeller and the current Oba of Benin can equally claim descent from African artists, who’s to say that their works shouldn’t be in New York?
The final wall panel describes the current “reenvisioning” of the museum’s African art galleries, apparently undertaken because — and bear with me through these convolutions — “Africa’s generative role in shaping foundational institutions argues for recognition of that cultural legacy both at its source and as a presence worldwide.” What this seems to mean is that African art is so important that everyone around the world should get a chance to see it. This might seem like an uncontroversial statement — except when it’s up on the wall of a room enclosing multiple looted objects, within a museum with no intention of repatriating them. (The museum has returned two Benin objects – but only because they were recently stolen from a Nigerian museum. The long-ago looting by the 1897 Expedition doesn’t bother them.) In this context, the claim seems to be more like “African art is so important to the Metropolitan Museum that Africans can’t be trusted with it.”
The exhibition takes its title from Cheikh Anta Diop’s 1974 book The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, which demands recognition for both the linkages between ancient and modern African cultural production and the importance of the role the continent has played in global culture as a whole. The Senegalese scholar’s work is described in two of the exhibition’s three wall texts as well as the overview on the show’s dedicated webpage.
As opposed to this prominence given to Diop’s name, you won’t find the names of the exhibition’s curators in the space itself or on its website. You have to dig to the bottom of a press release to discover that its two curators, Alisa LaGamma, an Africanist, and Diana Craig Patch, an Egyptologist, are both White American women. I’m not claiming that White American women shouldn’t have anything to say about African art (especially since I am one, doing precisely that) — but I do find it strange that the show’s most prominent Black intellectual voice is a man who died in 1986. The voices of the dead are easily controlled.
The failings of the African Origins exhibition are even more evident when compared to the museum’s newly opened Afrofuturist Period Room. Hannah Beachler and Fabiana Weinberg rooted this project in the “fragmented history” of Seneca Village, a thriving majority-Black community seized by the city and demolished in 1857 to make way for Central Park, “leaving only the barest traces of the community behind.” While both Benin City and Seneca Village were swept away before a tide of White expansion, African Origins obfuscates that history in the service of maintaining the status quo, while the Afrofuturist Period Room reclaims the fragments as materials to build a radically different future.
The Metropolitan Museum is a large institution, where different departments and staffers have different priorities, levels of self-awareness, and, seemingly, ethics. But African Origins shows that the museum’s leadership has forgotten the lessons of its notorious 1969 exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, which featured no work from any of Harlem’s numerous painters or sculptors. Instead, large photo murals examined the neighborhood through an ethnographic lens. A group of Black artists including Romare Bearden formed the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition to protest, picketing the exhibition with signs that read “Harlem on Whose Mind?”
As the controversy’s most careful historian, Bridget R. Cooks, has noted, this protest was far more significant than the exhibition itself. Harlem on My Mind caused a community to come together “to organize their voices against blatant omissions, disrespectful treatment, and cultural misrepresentation by art museums in the United States.” Hopefully, African Origins will have a similar result.