PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — On the morning of Friday, November 30, a group of community members gathered at the RISD Museum to pressure the institution to carry out measures to decolonize by restituting stolen artifacts. The demonstration was led by students, faculty, and staff from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), as well as members of the local community.
The group flooded the front entrance of the museum and announced their call to action, leading with the chant, “Heads up, RISD!” Demonstrators distributed letterpress posters which read, “Heads Up RISD. Decolonization, or Complicity? RISD, you have a decision to make.” The poster also featured an image of the main object in question at today’s demonstration: a bronze sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin.
The RISD Museum’s possession of this artifact, one of the thousands that have been displaced all over the world, can be traced back directly to violent colonial conquest. During the Punitive Expedition of 1897, British colonists captured and plundered Benin City. They looted and relocated its artworks to Britain, and quickly traded these artifacts to Western markets. Restitution of Benin bronzes has been highlighted in recent global news, most notably by the Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr report which was released earlier this year. Just last week, the French government agreed to begin a process of complete restitution of artifacts stolen from the African continent. The RISD Museum’s possession of this Benin bronze, brought demonstrators in Providence, Rhode Island today, to call for the same action.
Virginia Thomas, a PhD candidate at Brown, introduced the action with an acknowledgement that the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the state’s official name) is home to RISD, an institution which occupies Mosshassuck land (shared by Nahaganset, Pokanoket, Nipmuc, and Peqout tribal nations) and that the RISD Museum “must account for the ways in which the institution, and we as community members, continue to benefit from the dispossession of Mosshassuck from Indigenous peoples.”
She further announced this assembly as a call-in for the museum to decolonize without delay, and addressed the intersections at which decolonization would take place: “It is with this anti-imperialist orientation and alignment with struggles for Indigenous lands and objects, Black liberation, and a free Palestine that we desire for the RISD Museum to hear our call to disown the Benin bronze from its collections.”
The Museum told Hyperallergic in an email following today’s action:
“The RISD Museum recognizes the looted status of the Head of a King (Oba) made by Benin royal artists in West Africa which was given to the collection in 1939. British forces sacked the Benin kingdom in 1897 in a campaign known as the Benin Punitive Expedition. Cities were burned; the reigning king, Oba Ovonranwmen, was forced into exile; and works of art and other treasures were looted. Soon after, museums and individuals throughout Europe and the United States were collecting Benin bronzes. We have initiated a process of communication with Oba Ewuare II and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria which has been established to address this very issue. We see this as an opportunity to confront the histories of colonialism that exist within museum collections.”
While the museum administration is working toward decolonization, the constituency has felt disconnected from the process and was unaware of the updates before today’s action.
Ariella Azoulay, professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media at Brown, was one of the several speakers at today’s demonstration. She recognized the problem at an institutional level and called on individuals with ties to the RISD Museum to support the cause for restitution:
“The Sarr & Savoy report empowers us in this demand to disown these objects … in the process of undoing colonial geographies and violence … [The report] is the proof that museum workers have the right and are capable of not incorporating, as their own, the voice of the institutions in which they work. They also have the power to leave behind and detach themselves from the institutional persona that they inhabit. The report … is the ultimate proof that those who work in museums can introduce a distance between themselves and a voice of the institution. We are here to remind museum workers that while speaking the voice of the institution, they continue to perpetuate its imperial violence.”
“Stolen land, stolen people, stolen art,” proclaimed a chant led by a postdoctoral scholar at Brown, Christopher, who requested his last name be omitted. Christopher notes that they are not the first to do this, they are just lending their voices to the movement. We are “doing our part to push forward our practices of accountability,” he says.
Individuals in the group took turns reading aloud their collective message. They make it clear that they “are not acting as the messenger of existing restitution claims,” and that they are acting “in solidarity with the communities who claim [restitution] by calling for a decolonial approach that goes to the root of the museum’s institutional culture.” Repeating the individual speakers before them, the group demands the museum to willingly “embrace new modes of accountability” and that “RISD respect[s] and respond[s] to these claims with no delay.” A list of demands was also announced. They can be found online.
After the speakers were finished, the group called in the audience to join them in delivering a letter to John Smith, the museum director. They chanted, “Heads up, RISD” as they marched through the modern wing of the museum and to the narrow hallway where the administrative offices are located. After the letter was received, RISD administration told the demonstrators that they have already begun the restitution process and have communicated with the Nigerian government. The RISD Museum will report back in a couple of weeks.
Update 5/28/19 11:28am: A photograph featuring Brown University associate professor Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar reading to the crowd was incorrectly captioned that “RISD faculty and students read speeches pertaining to decolonization at the action.” This information has been corrected.