UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 – Decolonizing Restitution

Talking Objects Lab @ G.A.S. Foundation Lagos

Panel Talks, Discussions and Artistic Interventions Friday, February 10, 2023, 4pm – 9pm in cooperation with Heinrich-Boell-Foundation Nigeria

My favourite topic to write about these days is restitution. Not only because it is topical but also because restitution is still perceived to be an elitist pursuit by (some) African observers—when it should be everyone’s interest.

- Ayodeji Rotinwa,
Journalist and editor at African Arguments

December 20, 2022 marks an important date in the debate on the restitution of looted artifacts from colonial contexts. A delegation of German state representatives and museum directors officially restitutes Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. In August Oxford University and Cambridge University announced their intention to return over 200 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Following a long history of demands from African activists, artists, governments and scholars, the West appears to be changing its position towards repatriating looted African artefacts, Wale Lawal states in the current issue of Nigerian Republic magazine. But what’s next?

The recent discourse on restitution sheds light on numerous voids and raises many (old) questions: What does restitution mean beyond the return of looted artefacts? Do we need to “decolonize” European notions of Restitution? Into which contexts do the objects return? How can objects be (re)integrated into communities? How do they withstand the ethnological gaze? What kind of museums are needed, what kind of spaces for the imagination of possible futures? In what ways can communities be engaged in that process? What is needed to make the debate more accessible?

Also: What role do international NGOs play in this process? How important are collaborations between institutions within Nigeria and beyond? How can debates from other African countries be implemented into Nigerian discussions? What role does the Diaspora play?     

Just like the previous episodes UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 addresses the theme of decolonization. In the light of the most recent returns of Benin Bronzes from Germany to Nigeria they focus on the topic of restitution. UNEXPECTED LESSONS #04 will be organized by Dr. Mahret Ifeoma Kupka during her residency at the G.A.S. Foundation in Lagos Nigeria, as part of TURN 2 - Kulturstiftung des Bundes. UL #4 is supported by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Nigeria.


In her opening lecture Dr. Mahret Ifeoma Kupka, who organized the event during her residency, addressed decolonisation within the context of restitution. She touched on events like the recent return of Benin Bronzes from Germany to Nigeria, along with the intentions of Oxford and Cambridge universities to do the same, signalling a change in the West's position towards repatriating looted African artefacts. Mahret interrogated the discourse on restitution raising questions about what restitution means beyond the return of artefacts, how objects can be integrated into communities and museums, and what roles come to play in the process. 

During Ayomide Fasedus spoken words performance she presents two poems and one reading in which she ruminated on the themes of power, colonialism, the cultural erosion induced by the colonisation of Africa, and the ongoing attempted reclamation. In her second poem, Fasedu reflects on the rhetoric surrounding the restitution and repatriation conversations. “Dear coloniser,” she says, “don't talk to me about safety”. She cites the violent legacy of the West in their acquisition of these objects in retort to headlines that read, “Where do African artists belong? Are they better left in museums?”. The artist offers hope with a closing reading from her own publication, The Ashes Have Their Own Stories.

In an interactive performance, Tolulope Ami-Williams invited members of the audience to participate in a ritual of cleansing and reconnecting accompanied by a voiceover that echoes with words laden with loss, pain, hope, and healing. The performance was a symbolic allusion to the ongoing process of restitution as African communities reconnect with long-lost artefacts being returned by Western countries.

The first panel discussion was moderated by The Republic Editor-In-Chief, Wale Lawal and featured art and architecture historian and consultant, Dr. Oluwatoyin Sogbesan, artist, architectural designer and G.A.S. Fellow, Sarafadeen Bello, and director, producer, artist and G.A.S. Fellow Femi Johnson. Together with the audience, the panel explored multidisciplinary perspectives on the ongoing debate sorrounding restitution. 

The Second panel discussion was moderated by The Treehouse curator-in-residence Tracian Meikle and featured Independent curator Olufisayo Bakare, Head of Arts and regional lead at the British Council in Nigeria Brenda Fashugba, and award-winning LGBTQ+ activist, Matthew Blaise.

Screening of films by:
Femi Johnson
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay

UNEXPECTED LESSONS #04 was filmed and is accessible below.

UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 @ G.A.S. Foundation Lagos – Mahret Ifeoma Kupka
UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 @ G.A.S. Foundation Lagos – PANEL 01
UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 @ G.A.S. Foundation Lagos – PANEL 02
UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 @ G.A.S. Foundation Lagos – GMBI PERFORMANCE by Tolulope Ami Williams
UNEXPECTED LESSONS #4 @ G.A.S. Foundation Lagos – SPOKEN WORDS PERFORMANCE by Ayomide Fasedu