“A thief does not have more rights than the person he stole from” – interview with Victor Ehikhamenor

Following news that Scotland is set to return a Bronze head stolen from the Benin Kingdom, thelagosreview.ng spoke to Victor Ehikhamenor, artist and advocate of restitution and repatration, on the significance of the move and Britain’s continuing silence on restitution.

The Lagos Review- University of Aberdeen has announced that they will be returning a Benin bronze head within weeks. As a key advocate of restitution and repatriation, how does this make you feel?

Victor Ehikhamenor – It makes one heave a sigh of relief that some institutions are finally responding to the age-long request for these stolen works to be returned to their rightful owners.

TLR – Germany is also on course to return over 400 artefacts looted from the Benin Kingdom? Scotland and Germany, yet the UK, whose British forces carried out the punitive expedition have kept a ‘stiff upper lip’ as usual. What do you think needs to be done?

VE- The two countries you mentioned have chosen the right path by doing the right thing. Britain can only hold on for so long before the bottom of their bucket drops out. We will continue what we have been doing by reminding Britain that what is wrong can never be right no matter how they wish to coat it with deceptive words. The entire world is focusing on them and their continuous perpetration of neo-colonialism.

TLR- Many foreign institutions and individuals in possession of these looted works have argued that they are not sure whether we have the wherewithal to “keep and preserve” these artefacts despite rising calls for restitution. How do you address these sentiments?

VE- Like I always tell such institutions, there is no law in the world that grants a thief a better right to a stolen property than the owner. That should not be their headache, when we get it whatever we do with it is totally up to us. These artworks were centuries old before they were stolen, how did our ancestors who made them keep and maintain the artefacts?

TLR- The Edo Museum of West African Arts (EMOWAA) is being built to provide a world class home for these artefacts as well as more contemporary works. What does this mean in the context of imminent return and how hopeful are you that it will be completed on time?

VE- Historically, Edo people are known for building, from the great wall which is considered one of the greatest earth moves by man and not machine, to the Oba’s palace which was rebuilt after British soldiers burnt it down in 1897. We have always built purposefully and the museum is not going to be different. There is both cultural and political will to make sure the museum is built and I am pretty optimistic about that.

TLR – You have been an outspoken advocate for restitution and return, you are Edo as well as Nigerian-American. Have you faced any push back from the West in the light of your activism especially after calling out Damien Hirst?

VE- I wouldn’t call it “activism”, because if you tell a man to remove his hand from your throat because he is choking you, that is not activism. If you go to a police station to report or identify a thief that has stolen your valuables and asked for what has been stolen, it is not activsim. Like you rightly said, I am an artist from Edo state not an activist. As for any push back from the West, not to the best of my knowledge. Truth will always stand on both legs, no matter the push.

TLR – Finally, if you have seen Black Panther, you will notice in the museum scene that Killmonger had to enlist the help of a white man to help retrieve the Wakandan artefact stolen via Benin. How do you feel seeing white men like Barnaby Phillips and Dan Hicks helping people like you in pushing for repatriation?

VE- I particularly applaud Dan Hicks’ book, The Brutish Museum, based on the historical foregrounding of British brutality not just in Benin but other parts of Nigeria and the African continent. I am yet to read Barnaby Phiilips’ book, but I look forward to doing so very soon.
I think one must always accept help that comes from a genuine heart and both Dan and Barnaby have helped in shedding more lights on the heinous crime that was committed against my people by their people. Don’t forget without white abolitionist, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade would probably have continued for a long time.

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