Nigeria has experience in the politics and security of cultural property and the economic potential of contemporary art. With a history of looting from colonialism through the Cold War era and into the present, Nigeria faces a range of political and security issues which hold risk and opportunity. From the Nok terracotta statues to Benin Bronzes to contemporary art, how might Nigeria best leverage cultural patrimony and art to political and economic advantage?
The British Empire removed the Benin Bronzes during a punitive expedition at the end of the 19th century, and Nok terracotta statues remain a target of theft to the present. Each type of cultural property represents a different period of history and a different aspect of present-days issues of cultural security. The Benin Bronzes, cast in the 15th and 16th centuries, are “newer” than Nok statues, which can date to 500 BC. The nature of the removal of the Benin Bronzes has political implications in the present, while the continued theft of Nok artifacts creates a security issue.
The nation of Nigeria has been successful in repatriating Benin Bronzes, but pieces still reside abroad such as in museums in England and Germany. The political controversy surrounding the remaining pieces resembles the case of the Elgin Marbles between Greece and Great Britain. Nok statues, on the other hand, are stolen and trafficked in the present. In July 2012, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) seized a cache of statues at JFK airport in New York. HSI acted off of a tip from French customs officials, who had tracked the statues from Nigeria.
The Benin Bronzes that remain in foreign museums create a political opportunity for Nigeria to leverage UNESCO conventions for the protection of cultural property and to benefit from precedent of repatriation of cultural patrimony (e.g. Italy vs. The Getty). The continued threat of theft and looting of Nok statues creates an opportunity for Nigerian customs and law enforcement agencies to collaborate with foreign counterparts. The resulting partnerships have broader implications for security with the intersection of trafficking in antiquities and other illicit markets such as narcotics and weapons.
The licit export of artworks also holds potential for Nigeria in the form of economic development. The Tate Modern in London recently started a two-year program that will feature African artists. The display of works by Otobong Nkanga provides an opportunity for Nigeria to demonstrate emerging talent. Coordinated exhibitions, such as The Progress of Love between the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St Louis, Missouri, and The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas enable an expanding global market for contemporary art to gain perspective on creative talent across continents.
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