Benin bronzes that were looted by British soldiers
The idea of “cultural appropriation” has recently entered mainstream debates about the ways in which African cultural creations are used, borrowed and imitated by others. In fashion, art, music and beyond, some people now argue that certain African cultural symbols and products are off-limits to non-Africans.
In March 2016, an African-American woman at San Francisco State University confronted a white student. She said he should cut his hair because dreadlocks belong to black culture. The incident went viral. Within a month, a YouTube video of the encounter had been watched more than 3.7 million times.
An online debate also erupted about whether it was appropriate for Canadian singer Justin Bieber to wear dreadlocks.
Debates about appropriation aren’t always limited to cross-racial borrowing. An online discussion about African-American appropriation of African cultural symbols also went viral. It began with journalist Zipporah Gene asking black Americans to stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks. She argued this indicated “ignorance and cultural insensitivity”.
In these debates, the label of cultural appropriation is broadly applied to borrowing that is in some way inappropriate, unauthorised or undesirable. My argument is that borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships or deprives African countries of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.
A history of extraction
During colonialism, colonial powers not only extracted natural resources but also cultural booty. The contemporary cultural appropriation debate reflects a justified sensitivity about this historical legacy of extraction, evidence of which can be found in various museums outside of Africa.
The theft of the renowned Benin Bronzes is just one example of this cultural looting. These artefacts were seized by the British in 1897 during a punitive military expedition against the Kingdom of Benin. British soldiers invaded, looted, and ransacked Benin, setting buildings on fire and killing many people. They then deposed, shackled and exiled the Oba (king). This ultimately spelled the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.
The punitive force looted an estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests. Benin’s cultural heritage was then sold in the private European art market to offset the cost of the expedition. Today the Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. And, in 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house.
In 2010, a looted Benin mask with an estimated value of £4.5 million was withdrawn from sale by Sotheby’s auction house following protests concerning the sale. The mask was due to be sold by descendants of a participant in the punitive expedition.
In contrast, the descendant of one participant in the looting of Benin has returned looted artwork.
This colonial booty was taken without permission or compensation. Some people argue a similar dynamic exists in contemporary use of African cultural symbols, creations and products.
Olufunmilayo Arewa, is Professor of Law, University of California, Irvine. Professor Arewa's research centers around intellectual property and business, with a primary focus on copyright and music. Her work also focuses on copyright and the entertainment industries, law and technology, law and society, and various business issues, including accounting, corporate and securities law, private equity, and entrepreneurship