Kwame Opoku: Newly Discovered Nok Sculptures Exhibited for the First Time, not in Nigeria but in Germany

Cultural commentator Kwame Opoku expresses his astonishment about the recent first exhibition of newly discovered Nok Sculptures in Frankfurt, Germany. " This raises the question for whom the Nok pieces are of relevance. Whose history and culture could this new evidence enrich or clarify?", he states. In this article, he clarifies the context by raising the historical issues of several cultural artefacts which came to Germany under comparable conditions and never left the country again. nnNewly Discovered Nok Sculptures Exhibited for the First Time, not in Nigeria but in GermanynWe read with astonishment and anger that recently discovered Nok sculptures are being displayed for the first time ever in Germany and not in Nigeria where they were discovered. An exhibition Nok Origin of African Sculpture, organized by Frankfurt University and Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung runs from 30 October 2013 to 23 February 2014 and presents over one hundred Nok sculptures recovered by archaeologists from Frankfurt University. [1]n
Readers will recall the dispute between Nigerian archaeologists and the German archaeologists excavating in the Nok area, with the Nigerian scholars accusing the German excavation team of stealing Nok pieces by sending them to German without any proper control from the Nigerian side; the Germans responded that the pieces found were being sent to Germany for further examination and repair and would be returned after repair. [2]nIt is difficult to understand why artefacts newly recovered in Nigeria should be exhibited first in Germany and not in the country where they were discovered. This raises the question for whom the Nok pieces are of relevance. Whose history and culture could this new evidence enrich or clarify? Are the Nigerians the primarily concerned people? What relevance have the Nok pieces to German history or culture? If this arrangement was with the consent of the National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM), it surely must explain to the Nigerian public this optic that puts the German public before the Nigerian public.nThe notice on the exhibition indicates that the Nok pieces will be shown in a “dialogue with contemporary works from Ancient Egypt and Greek-Roman Antiquity from the collections of the Liebieghaus”. But this exhibition will not go to Nigeria: “After having been presented to the public in the Liebieghaus for the fist time, the sensational finds with their outstanding free forms will return to Nigeria to be shown there”. What we are being told here is that after the German public has had the advantage of seeing the Nok sculptures in dialogue  with Egyptian and Graeco-Roman artefacts, the new findings and the objects loaned by the NCMM will be returned without the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman artefacts. Are we being told that Nigerians and other Africans need not learn from the knowledge and perspectives gained from the comparative presentation?
Germans and other Europeans may see the full exhibition but not Africans?
Why do we have different presentations? It seems to me we are being told that Nigerians should only be concerned with Nigerian artefacts and not Egyptian or Graeco-Roman artefacts. Somebody must explain this differentiation in treatment.n
Could well be that the Germans could not trust the Nigerians to look well after the precious Egyptian and Greek artefacts in the exhibition? So bad is Nigeria’s reputation with respect to keeping artefacts even though recent exhibitions where Nigerian artefacts should have shown otherwise. Prejudice is stronger than reality.n
One explanation may be that the exhibition has been conceived in purely “universal/encyclopaedic” optic. Thus the Nok pieces are not per se enough
 for an exhibition. They are placed in the context of European art history and compared with Graeco-Roman works and Egyptian artefacts which some Europeans seem to forget are African and consider as part of European culture. Once the “universal/encyclopaedic" approach is no longer required, having fulfilled its justification for presenting or holding African artefacts, the show outside Europe proceeds without the Graeco-Roman elements. Note the reference to the Sahara: “The elaborately restored reddish figures are confronted with about sixty artworks from Egypt in Late Antiquity and Classical Greece that date from the same period. While the exchange between these cultures was blocked by the Sahara two thousand years ago, the show at the Liebieghaus offers the opportunity to compare the entirely independently created Nok sculptures with the art of the contemporary cultures around the Mediterranean.”n
The notice of the exhibition states that two Nigerian universities as well as the Nigerian Federal authorities were involved in the research. But why are the names of the universities involved not mentioned? Had Oxford and Cambridge or other western universities been involved, would their names not have been mentioned? The Germans have been excavating in the Nok area since 2005 but it was only last year that a protest of the Nigerian Association of Archaeologists, forced the NCMM to review its memorandum of Understanding with the Germans and to allow the Universities of Jos and ABU to be part of the project.n
The Frankfurt exhibition will also deal with the illicit trade in Nok artefacts and the numerous forgeries that have found their way to the art market. There is a Red List- ICOM on the exportation of Nok artefacts from Nigeria since these artefacts are evidence of Nigeria’s history and culture. [3] It would be interesting to know how the newly discovered artefacts found their way to Germany. How many of these pieces are in Germany and how many are left in Nigeria? Does anybody have exact records of the movements of these artefacts?n
How would Germans feel if important archaeological finds in their country that related to German history and culture were to be first shown in Nigeria before being made available to the German public? Would they not feel that discoveries in Germany should be first exhibited there? Giving priority in this matter to the German public and not the Nigerian public is a clear manifestation of disrespect for Nigerians. But are the Germans alone to be blamed? This situation must have been created with the connivance or passivity of some highly placed Nigerians. Insulting Nigeria has become almost a hobby of many westerners and the Nigerian authorities have so far done little to discourage this. I have yet to see a Nigerian diplomat or other official (other than former Ambassador to Austria, Biodun Owoseni) vigorously defend his country in the western world. German archaeologists gave interviews to Der Spiegel which wrote uncomplimentary accounts about Nigeria but  from Nigerian authorities so far there has been no comment. [4] The Berlin Government denied ever having heard directly or indirectly from Nigerian authorities of a request for the return of the Benin artefacts. [5] Again there is no reaction from Nigerian authorities.
What are the representatives of Africa’s most powerful State afraid of?n
It is said that except one object, all the Nok pieces were broken and the objects shown in the exhibition have been “elaborately restored”. So by the time Nigerian scholars see the newly discovered objects their original state would have been modified; only the German researchers would be familiar with the original state of the artefacts.n
The explanation that these objects were taken for further examination could be used anytime one wants to take objects out of Nigeria. Besides, we heard that the Nok storage in Jos was recently emptied and the museum in Jos has no record of what was removed or who emptied the store. The NCMM would presumably have no record of this.n
It may well be that most of the issues we are raising here have been settled in a Memorandum of Understanding between the Nigerian authorities and the Germans and there may equally be some other side agreements that only the parties are aware of. If the Germans acted in accordance with unpublished agreements we may never know the facts. In this context, it seems to me that the parties may have resorted to a system of partage. This system  allowed in the past western States to build up their voracious universal museums. According to this system, those who financed the archaeological excavations were entitled to a share of the finding. This allowed countries such as France, Germany, Great Britain and others to cart away loads of artefacts from Egypt, Irak, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere. Frankly, the source countries were generally cheated. Even the fervent supporters of the “universal museums,” such as James Cuno admit that the system worked mostly to the benefit of the west. [6] That system also led to interminable disputes such as that concerning the bust of Nefertiti.n
Since the Germans are financing the excavations in the Nok area, it could well be that they are allowed to take away artefacts by unpublished agreements or with the silent approval of the Nigerian authorities whose control of what is going on in the Nok area is weak or non existent, this having been the criticism of Nigerian archaeologists. This has been indirectly confirmed by the German scholars who boasted in the unchallenged Der Spiegel article that there are areas where even the Nigerian police do not dare to enter.n
This exhibition, like many recent exhibitions on Nigerian art, has served to show the weakness of Nigeria to control the use of its vast cultural resources. If Nigeria cannot even ensure that archaeological finds made in Nigeria are first shown to the Nigerian public before they are shown in Europe, one wonders how far Nigeria could lead the struggle to recover looted African artefacts from the Western world. The failures of leadership have become so glare that even Nigeria’s best friends are beginning to have doubts about the willingness or ability of the current leadership to be effective in the protection of cultural artefacts.nKwame Opoku. 25 October, 2013.nNotes:n[1] Kunstpedia 2013. Nok Origin of African Sculpture – An exhibition of the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in:—an-exhibition-of-the-liebieghaus-skulpturensammlung.html, 17.10.2013.
[2] The dispute between Nigerian and German archaeologists has been discussed in various publications. See inter alia:

Balogun, Sola 2013: Looting of Nigeria’s Antiquities: Museum Officials, Archaeologists set New Rules, in: NBF News, 19.04.2013,

Keolog, Samar 2013: German archaeologists refute allegations of looting Nok culture in Nigeria in: conflict antiquities, 19.03.2013 
Keolog, Samar 2013: According to the Archaeological Association of Nigeria (AAN), I am ‘an attack dog for the Germans’; and ‘cheap’! in: conflict antiquities, 28.03.2013,, Samar 2013: Agreement between Archaeological Association of Nigeria, and Nigerian National Commission and Goethe University in: conflict antiquities, 2.04.2013,

Keolog, Samar 2013: @samarkeolog Twitter archive: illicit antiquities trade in West Africa – Mali and Nigeria in: conflict antiquities, 24.08.2012,

Additional materials from Looted Heritage
Led by the Nigerian Association of Archaeologists, Nigerian archaeologists accused the German team of archaeologists from the University of Frankfurt present in the Nok area since 2005 of stealing and transferring many Nok pieces to Germany. The Germans respond that the pieces were being transferred to Germany for study and tests which cannot be done in Nigeria. In this connection, one may recall the dispute about the bust of Nefertiti that was surreptitiously taken out of Egypt and sent by the German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt to Berlin in 1913. Since then there has been a long-lasting dispute between Germany and Egypt about the ownership of the bust now displayed in the Neues Museum in Berlin. One may also recall reports regarding Leo Frobenius in Nigeria and the disappearance of the Olokun head after the German ethnologist had seen it. The great Ekpo Eyo states “The original “Olokun” head described by Frobenius is now represented only by a copy; no one knows where the original is. It is not impossible that Frobenius could have arranged for its subsequent replacement with a copy.” nEyo, Ekpo / Willett, Frank 1984. Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, William Collins, p.11. nSee Opoku, Kwame 2010. Ile-Ife Triumphs in the British Museum, London: Who said Nigerians are incapable of Looking after their Cultural Artefacts? In: Modern Ghana, 18.04.2010, n
It may be useful to recall also the controversy between Turkey and Germany over the Return of the Bogazkoy Sphinx. The Bogazkoy Sphinx, along with other artefacts discovered by German archaeologists, had been sent in 1917 to Germany for restoration work. All the artefacts were returned except the Sphinx which the Germans decided to keep in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. It was only in 2011, after pressure by Turkey and UNESCO intervention for years that Germany agreed to return the object. There are certainly many other examples of cases where Western scholars have, under the pretext of studying, taken cultural artefacts from Africa, Asia and Latin America and never returned them or did so only reluctantly afters years of dispute. There are thus historical examples to suggest caution and vigilance in sending artefacts abroad for tests or study. n
See Opoku, Kwame. 2011, Nefertiti in Absurdity: How often must Egyptians ask Germans for the Return of the Egyptian Queen? In: Modern Ghana, 28.01.2011,[3] ICOM, Red List Database, in:[4] Schulz, Matthias 2009. German Archaeologists Labor to Solve Mystery of the Nok, in: Der Spiegel, 01.09.2009,
[5] Opoku, Kwame 2013. Did Germans Never hear Directly or Indirectly Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts? In: Modern Ghana, 28.08.2013,[6] Extract from Opoku, Kwame 2009. Refusal of Intellectual Dialogue: Comments on an Interview with James Cuno. in: Modern Ghana, 17.03.2009,
James Cuno, a vehement supporter of the partage system who has called for a return to that system, has some very interesting remarks on partage in his book Who Owns Antiquity? (2008):n
“The question then is: should the fate of the archaeological record – and of antiquities alienated from their archaeological context – remain under the jurisdiction of national governments? Is there an alternative? Yes. And it was once in place and encouraged the scientific excavation of the archaeological record and the preservation and sharing of ancient artifacts between local governments and international museums. It is called partage. Under that policy, foreign-led excavation teams provided the expertise and material means to lead excavations and in return were allowed to share the finds with the local government’s archaeological museum(s). That is how the collections of archaeological museums at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard and Yale Universities were built; as well as important parts of the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was also how the collections in archaeological museums in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey were built. Foreign museums underwrote and led scientific excavations from which both the international archaeological and local political communities benefited. While local tensions increased over time as nationalist aspirations took hold, partage served both communities well. It was only with the flood of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws in the second half of the twentieth century that partage all but disappeared. The collections of the university museums mentioned above now could not be built, and the directors and faculty curators of those museums, many of whom are the loudest proponents of national retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws, could not teach and research as they do now. Much of their work is dependent on a policy no longer legal in the countries with jurisdiction over the archaeological materials they study.” (Cuno 2008: pxxxiii).

Cuno writes further as follows:
“For many decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological finds were shared between the excavating party and the local, host country through partage.
This is how the great Ghandaran collection got to the Musée Guimet in Paris (shared with Afghanistan), the Assyrian collection got to the British Museum in London (shared with Iraq, before the formation of the modern, independent government of Iraq), the Lydian materials from Sardis got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (shared with the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey), the Egyptian collection got to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a number of collections got to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and of course how the great collections were formed at the university archaeological museums, like the Peabody Museums at Harvard and Yale, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. But this principle is no longer in practice. With the surge in nationalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it has become almost impossible to share the archaeological finds. All such finds belong to the host nation and are its property. Only the state can authorize the removal of an archaeological artifact to another country, and it almost never does. Even when one lends antiquities abroad, it is for severely restricted periods of time.”
(Cuno 2008: 14)nFurther in his book Cuno writes:
“The history of archaeology in Iraq has always been closely linked to the cultural and political ambitions of its governing authorities. During the late Ottoman period, Iraqi archaeology was dominated by teams of Europeans and North American excavators working on pre-Islamic sites at Babylon, Khorsabad, and Nippur. They had been drawn to the area intent on confirming the historical existence of Biblical events and places and with the view that the ancient history of what they called Mesopotamia was in fact part of the West’s subsequent Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian history. The term Mesopotamia itself was a classical Greek term used by Westerners to mark the lands known locally since the advent of Islam as al-‘Iraq in the north and al-Jazira in the south. Its use by Orientalists has been interpreted politically as a “reconstructive act severing ‘Mesopotamia’ from any geographical terrain in order to weave it into the Western historical narrative”: Mesopotamia as a pre-Islamic source for Western culture; Iraq as an Islamic, geographically determined – and thus limited – construction.
nUnder the British Mandate, from 1921 to 1932, archaeology in Iraq was dominated by British teams – including the British Museum working with the University of Pennsylvania at Ur, the fabled home not only of Sumerian kings but also the Biblical Abraham – regulated by British authorities. The Oxford-educated, English woman Gertrude Bell, who had worked for the British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was appointed honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq by the British-installed King Faysal in 1922. A most able administrator, having served as the Oriental secretary to the High Commission in Iraq after the war, Bell was responsible for approving applications for archaeologists, and thus for determining where in Iraq excavators would work. She was also a major force behind the wording and passage of the 1924 law regulating excavations in Iraq, a result of which was the founding of the Iraq Museum and the legitimization of partage:
nArticle 22: At the close of excavations, the Director shall chose such objects
from among those found as are in his opinion needed for scientific completeness of the Iraq Museum. After separating these objects, the Director will assign [to the excavator]… such objects as will reward him adequately aiming as far as possible at giving such a person a representative share of the whole result of excavations made by him.
nArticle 24: Any antiquities received by a person as his share of the proceeds of excavations under the preceding article may be exported by him and he shall be given an export permit free of charge in respect thereof”. (Cuno 2008: 54-55).

After reading these extracts from Cuno’s book, one wonders how he could even think of recommending such a system to African and Asian countries, Greece and Italy. By his own account, the system of partage was dominated by the British and the Americans who determined where excavated cultural objects should be. So why should those countries which have experienced this system want to return to it? He even urges Western archaeologists to boycott “source countries” that refuse to return to the partage system. This is very interesting. If the partage system were beneficial to both sides as Cuno tries to make it appear, why is it necessary to resort to threats of boycott to persuade those countries to continue with the old system? Surely, these countries must recognize where their interests lie. Cuno thinks one must threaten them to follow the path which is clearly in their interest.

See Cuno, James 2008. Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over our Ancient History. Princeton University Press: Princeton.


With our newsletter we inform you about the latest news on AfricAvenir International Berlin and on the topics of decolonisation, criticism of racism and African perspectives. Sign up here and you will receive dates, reading tips and other recommendations twice a month.