The Art Institute's recently opened exhibit "Benin-Kings
and Rituals: Court Arts from
Nigeria" has thrust Chicago into an international debate over the rightful ownership of African art held in western museums.
The Art Institute does not own any of the 220 objects on display as part of the exhibit, but does own 20 objects from Benin that a spokesman says it would consider returning to Nigeria if asked to do so.
The controversy has hovered in the background of the exhibit since its July 8 opening, attended by several dignitaries from Nigeria and the Kingdom of Benin, including Princess Theresa Erediauwa, daughter of the Oba - or king - of Benin, now part of Nigeria.
Although the objects in the exhibit are on loan from the Oba and Nigeria's Commission for Museums and Monuments, the subject has cast light on AIC director James Cuno's controversial assertions in his book "Who Owns Antiquity?"
Cuno defends such African art holdings, suggesting that antiquities are not national symbols but part of a global inheritance best displayed in "museums of ideas, not ideologies."
Cuno could not be reached for comment for this story.
AIC spokeswoman Erin Hogan says the book does not represent the Institute's position.
Chicago's Field Museum owns 400 objects from Benin, most of which were taken in the "punitive expedition," a brutal 1897 attack by the British in which the ancient city was burned and looted of its artwork.
Most of the Field Museum's collection was donated by ethnologist A.W.F. Fuller and his wife in 1961, according to the museum.
Restitution advocates say the brutality of the expedition and the destruction of Benin is enough to question the legality of Western museums holding the objects.
Greg Borzo, the media manager for scientific affairs at the Field Museum and the Art Institute, said that if the Nigerian government or the Oba of Benin asked for the return of the antiquities, they would take the request seriously.
Restitution advocates like the British-based Africa Reparations Movement argue that such museums glorify plunder and celebrate imperialism's legacy of exploitation.
"The Benin artworks belong to a living culture that has deep historical and social value which goes far beyond the aesthetic and monetary value they hold in exile," the organization says on its website.
ARM draws parallels between its efforts to return to Nigeria objects taken during the punitive expedition to efforts by Greece and Egypt to have their antiquities returned.
Joel Okafor, a professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University and a fellow of the St. Clair Drake Center for African and African-American Studies at Roosevelt, said the exhibit shows the "ugly and lasting aftertaste of the impact of colonial rule and its enduring cultural legacies."
Okafor says the debate over the return of African antiquities to their native countries has produced limited results, but he is optimistic. "The world is finally demanding that human beings own up to the excesses of the past."