Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Confronting Portuguese Colonial Ideology and the Bizarre ‘Return’ of an Oba’s Head to Angola in 1954

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Confronting Portuguese Colonial Ideology and the Bizarre ‘Return’ of an Oba’s Head to Angola in 1954

[João Figueiredo is a research associate at the Käte Hamburger kolleg “Legal Unity and Pluralism” of the University of Münster, Germany. He researches Portuguese colonialism in Angola, using historical anthropology and legal history to shed new light on aspects of the history of the slave trade, abolitionism, and the origins of systemic racism.]

Individual examples prove nothing. Still, a single case study can shed new light on events or provide a fresh perspective on ongoing debates. In Confronting Colonial Objects (2023), Carsten Stahn describes “the road toward the return of the Benin bronzes” as exemplary but also symptomatic of how convoluted restitution processes can become (p. 173, 487). As he explains, they risk triggering latent conflicts in societies of origin and inflaming tensions between advocates of cultural nationalism and international cooperation. In this post, I expand on Stahn’s argument that the return of Benin bronzes can be both exemplary and symptomatic of broader social and political issues regarding restitution and explore what lessons can be learned from a less well-known example.

I focus on an Oba’s bronze head ‘returned’ by a Luso-Belgian mining company to Angola in 1954, listed by Dan Hicks in The Brutish Museums (2020) as the only one in possession of this post-colonial African state (p. 251). The surprising story of how it got to Angola illustrates three arguments put forward by Stahn, adding unexpected twists that should cause us pause. First, it illustrates Carsten’s remark that artefacts often blur the boundaries between subjects and objects (p. 7-8). However, in this case, the blurring occurred in a Western (pseudo-)scientific context. Second, it exemplifies how the scramble for African material culture went hand in hand with resource extraction and labour exploitation (p. 6). Nevertheless, the ‘return’ of the Oba’s head was not meant to redress these situations; instead, it provided an alibi for settler-colonialism and extractivism. Third, it gives a paradigmatic example of “whitesplaining,” showcasing the limits of “decolonial approaches” as delineated by Olúfémi Táíwò in Against Decolonisation (2022) and acknowledged by Stahn (p. 9). Nevertheless, the form of whitesplaining involved is shrouded in the trappings of anti-colonial critique and the apology of African self-determination, making it especially hard to stomach.

In current debates about the restitution of material culture, the twin assumptions that it is impossible to disentangle objecthood from subjecthood and that some artefacts blur the ontological border between these categories tend to be exclusively attributed to Indigenous cultures. Before Bruno Latour and Actor-Network Theorists questioned this exclusivity by foregrounding object-subjects’ agency in the context of laboratories, a post-Enlightenment consensus reigned that only ‘traditional’ or non-Western cultures systematically failed at policing this distinction. However, as Latour remarks, this consensus was a smokescreen, hiding that “moderns” never succeeded in neatly separating objects from subjects. To understand Portuguese nationalist investment in the Benin bronzes, one must consider this insight and start by unpacking the history of Portuguese racial sciences and a peculiar strand of physical anthropology defined by its practitioners as artistic anthropology. Contrary to what its name suggests, this sub-field did not propose the anthropological study of art but the application of physical anthropology’s methods to artistic representations. This allows us to understand how Benin bronzes came to be framed as embodiments of Portuguese ancestors and invested with a sacralised aura usually reserved for human remains.

Until the dawn of the Cold War, the Porto School of Anthropology, based on the University of Porto, Portugal, and headed by António Mendes Corrêa, dominated the field of Portuguese anthropology and auxiliary racial sciences. Building on the scholarship of world-renowned archaeologists Henri Breuil and Hugo Obermeier, Mendes Corrêa wrote monographs applying craniometry and racial profiling to sculptures and portraits of Portuguese heroes. In their pages, he argued for the application of these (pseudo-)scientific procedures, developed to classify colonised populations, to artistic representations of Henri the Navigator, or Luís de Camões, and also to the prehistoric engravings and cave paintings Breuil and Obermeier documented in caves like Altamira, and the human and humanoid fossils unearthed in Portugal. 

In his own words, during a conference presented at the Sorbonne on May 13, 1934: 

“Iconographic documents of national historical art [were then] being studied with the same aim of reconstructing the physical types of the greatest figures in [Portuguese] history”. 

L’Art et la Morphologie Humaine, Porto 1934, p. 29. All translations are my own.

These types were contrasted by Mendes Corrêa with ‘negroid’ types, also ‘found’ in the archaeological record and in artistic representations dating from the Paleolithic onwards, to ground the theory that the ancestors of white Portuguese co-existed with and peacefully dominated Black ‘races’ since prehistory. This theory conveniently naturalised the segregationist regime established by the Portuguese Colonial Act (1930), the Organic Charter of the Empire (1933) and the Overseas Administrative Reform of 1933. By blurring the boundaries between objects and subjects, geographical contexts, and historical periods, Mendes Corrêa composed a powerful myth about Portuguese exceptionalism and imperial vocation.

When sculptor and art critic Diogo de Macedo first wrote about the Benin bronzes in the Portuguese press (O Mundo Português, July-August 1934), he directly engaged with Mendes Corrêa’s racist theories. His first take on the Benin bronzes was that they were proof that Portuguese seafarers had ‘elevated’ Edo artisans out of the Neolithic, introducing them to “bronze age” techniques, the Portuguese “Manueline style” and “Hindu art.” A decade later, when international art historians had abandoned all theories about Portuguese influence on Edo arts, Macedo insisted on them, publishing an article on “the national problem posed by the art from Benin” (O Mundo Português, March 1944). 

His arguments hinged on the racialisation of the persons represented in Benin bronzes, now also considering the terracotta heads unearthed by Leo Frobenius in Ife, Nigeria, in 1910. In keeping with Macedo, Ife terracotta represented individuals with Asian racial features and matched Asian craniometric canons. Their style and aesthetic sensibility were “Hindu,” not “Greek” or “Egyptian.” Moreover, despite only reproducing “negroid” and “white” types, Edo bronzes adopted Asiatic aesthetic conventions and Portuguese techniques and decorative themes. In conclusion, Macedo insisted that Portuguese sailors returning from India had brought artisans to teach the Edo and the Yoruba from Ife, as evidenced by the pseudo-scientific findings of Portuguese artistic anthropology. Edo bronzes and, to a lesser extent, Ife terracottas thus testified to the cultural achievement of the Portuguese as the creators of an intercontinental and intercultural civilisation. 

Consequently, the “national problem” identified in Macedo’s title was the looting and dispersal of “Luso-Indo-Beninese” art by rival European imperial powers. The narcissistic conclusion of this racist theory was that the massacre and sacking of Benin City obscured the merits of Portuguese colonialism, and it was up to the Portuguese to trace and document the dispersed Edo bronzes to do full justice to their national history.

The next episode in our convoluted story occurred during the Cold War era when the spatial vocabulary of Portuguese colonialism was deeply reformed. Then, the Portuguese dictatorial regime fostered the myth of its contested empire being a pluricontinental national unity. In the words of Perry Anderson in the pages of the New Left Review (1962), this led to the creation of a “bizarre cosmology,” a “colonial ideology which begins by attacking colonialism itself” only to exalt the “spiritual supremacy of the Portuguese Empire” and enable the brutal exploitation of African labour (p. 113). 

In this context, Ernesto Vilhena, art collector and director of Diamang, a state-like multinational diamond mining company active in Lunda, northeast Angola, became involved in a bitter dispute with Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. In Adventure and Routine (1953), a travelogue of his official trip to Angola, Freyre denounced the brutal labour practices and ruthless extractivism of Diamang, pointing to the ways it failed to live up to the Portuguese exceptionalism identified by Mendes Corrêa. Moreover, Freyre accused the company of reifying African cultures, turning them into museum fodder. 

In the aftermath of Adventure and Routine, Vilhena hired the cultural critic José Osório de Oliveira, whose columns on African art shared pages with Macedo’s, as a ‘spin doctor.’ Diamang’s museum in Dundo, Angola, also inaugurated a new “African Collection” composed of pieces bought in Europe and then ‘returned’ to Africa. In the propaganda booklet Aspects of Life in Lunda (1958), Osório de Oliveira described its origin thus:

“The ethnographic collection of this Museum is annually enriched by the entry of new and selected pieces, resulting from the campaigns carried out in the different regions of Lunda, further to those acquired in [Portugal] by the Board of the Company and restored to Africa. Diamang even acquired in London a bronze head, from Benin, so that the Dundo Museum might not lack an object of an artistic nature to recall the action or influence of the Portuguese in the Gulf of Guinea. Diamang’s procedure in this connection is contrary to that of numerous foreign ethnographers who, in order to have all the data for study at hand, continue to bring to European Museums all the negro sculptures they find in Africa, thus depriving the natives of examples of their Art and, consequently, impoverishing one of the most important elements of their culture”.

p. 36

Pursuing this paradoxical apology for Portuguese settler-colonialism to the last instance, Osório de Oliveira concluded that by incorporating a “restored” Oba’s bronze head and several other African pieces testifying to Portuguese presence in Africa, the Dundo Museum became a “true museum of African culture, not only its preserver but its living expression.” It was “a valuable contribution, on the part of white colonisers, towards helping the Negro peoples to obtain what they lacked: the conscience of a common soul” (p. 43). In vague Hegelian terms, white settler-colonialism was thus justified as a necessary historical step in the progress of African self-consciousness.

Macedo followed these developments approvingly. In 1955, when he was a member of the National Academy of Fine Arts of Portugal, he authored a technical report insisting that the National Museum of Ancient Art of Lisbon follow Vilhena’s lead and acquire an Oba’s bronze head. In his words, such a piece was part of “National Heritage,” being a “testament” to the “influences from an artistic culture brought [to Benin] from the East” by the Portuguese. Therefore, he concluded that the National Museum should acquire it “without the need for a tender and a written contract because [such] works of art are unique.” This disregard for provenance, art market regulations, or economic concerns is symptomatic of the quasi-sacred aura attributed by Macedo to the Edo bronzes. In a way, as in the case of the Oba’s head ‘returned’ to Angola, he felt the acquisition of a Benin bronze by the National Museum as a homecoming of sorts, a bizarre perception influenced by twenty years of racist theories.

Granting that individual examples prove nothing, what cautionary tales can be gleaned from this case study?  Mendes Corrêa’s outdated racial theories are easy to dismiss, although after Freyre reworked them, they live on in Portugal as myths of imperial exceptionalism. Macedo’s history of African art now reads like a conspiracy theory. However, like all propaganda, Osório de Oliveira’s argument is more insidious because it revolves around a kernel of truth. His apology for the Portuguese settler-colonial state or its corporate proxy Diamang as the legitimate custodians of “African culture” or deliverers of “the conscience of a common soul” might not stand. Still, suppose we substitute these stakeholders for post-colonial African states, white settler-colonial states, universal museums, or art galleries and their specialists and curators. We might end up with an argument that resonates with many today. As Carsten points out, the “French approach” to restitution after Jean-Luc Martinez’s 2023 report now incorporates obvious Realpolitik demands, caters to the corporate concerns of the “museum world,” and emphasises bilateral state agreements (p. 486). Moreover, in the aftermath of President Muhammadu Buhari’s March 28 decree granting rightful ownership of returned Benin bronzes to the Oba of Benin, Western partners are having second thoughts about restitution. To what extent can we still accept the suppression of particularisms if the acquisition of universal knowledge or the glimpsing of a ‘common soul’ can justify it? More prosaically, how much are we wedded to the legal certainty associated with state-centrism and positive laws? Whatever answer we might give to this problem, the strange case of the one Oba’s head ‘returned’ to Angola can help us think and act prudentially.

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