Congolese art collector Sindika Dokolo didn’t hold back when requesting the return of African artefacts by European collectors and galleries. Calling it a “long-neglected historical wrong”, he compared the plunder of African heritage to the Nazi looting of artworks in the 1930s and 40s.
“Austria returned around 50,000 works of art and objects from public collections to the heirs of collectors whose works were looted by the Nazis,” he wrote. “Righting the plunder of Africa’s heritage should be no less urgent.”
His comments chime with contemporary Beninese artist Thierry Oussou’s multimedia installation Impossible Is Nothing, which reproduces a 2016 archaeological dig in southern Benin. Currently on show in Berlin, it features video documentation of the excavation projected alongside the objects unearthed: potsherds, the blades of an axe and a hoe, two gongs, a water jug, an empty gin bottle, and – astonishingly – the 19th-century royal throne of King Béhanzin, the last ruler of the kingdom of Dahomey.
History students might raise their eyebrows at this last find. After all, the throne has been in possession of the French state ever since the early 1890s when Béhanzin was defeated, and Dahomey (present-day Benin) colonised. Today it sits in the stores of France’s ethnographic treasure trove, the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Along with up to 6,000 other artefacts, it has in recent years been the object of a dogged mission by the Beninese government – the first of its kind to be instigated by a former African colony – to see it brought home.
Oussou’s dig was a performance. And the throne was, of course, a fake. He came across it after visiting his friend, the sculptor Elias Boko, who was making replicas of Béhanzin’s throne. Standing 77cm tall and made from a single iroko tree trunk, carved into a flattened U-shaped seat atop a sculpted rectangular base set on a plinth three steps high, it’s no ordinary chair. In fact, few people have ever known how to make them.
“I need one,” thought Oussou. He placed an order and took it to his home in Allada, which happens to be a former royal burial site.
“My family’s land is partially on the site of the historic royal palace,” he says. “I grew up playing with potsherds, old pipes, broken bottles. I have always been interested in archeology.”
When Oussou brought Boko’s replica back to Allada, he buried it, along with other objects, in a secret pit just shy of one square metre wide. He then invited students from the University of Abomey-Calavi to excavate it. Because the area they sifted through was larger than Oussou’s original hole, they unearthed more items than he’d planted. In other words, true finds, which was always part of his plan. “The location I chose could well be part of Beninese heritage, but it’s not. No one thinks about that. This was partly an invitation for people to open their eyes to our cultural values.”
Certainly the students’ field reports, which are displayed alongside the excavation videos and objects, convey the excitement of novice minds getting a taste of something new (“Several of us had no urge to go home,” concludes the first, upon the dig’s completion).
Using actual archaeology students, rather than fellow artists in on the act, brought its own set of challenges however. Despite the fact that they were to be fully briefed on the project’s artistic purpose, a controversy ensued. The university got involved. The head of the archaeology department demanded that Oussou publicly agree to not exhibit the throne as the original, which he did.
“It wasn’t ever my intention [to do otherwise]. For me, it was a contemporary experiment; as an artwork, it is authentic,” he says. You could even say the sheer fact that his fake throne now emulates the original in generating political conflict only garners it greater authenticity. In combining the made-up (the replica throne) with the factual (the real archaeological finds), Impossible Is Nothing treats history itself as something to be added to and refashioned at will: a kind of live conservation. And repositioning the history of African art is something the likes of Oussou and Dokolo hope to achieve.
“Africa is empty of its riches,” says Oussou. “When young students wish to write about the treasures of their homeland, they have to travel to France to do their research. But when I was in Benin, I didn’t have the money to buy a plane ticket like that. And even if I bought a plane ticket, I wouldn’t have had a relative there to put me up.”
The artist’s interest in mining the past runs through all his work, as the more painterly works in his current solo show, Timelines, at Tiwani Contemporary in London, demonstrate: large-scale gestural pieces that layer coloured lines and textures on black backgrounds in an expressive graphic style reminiscent of Cy Twombly.
Oussou has been in residence at the Rijksakademie in the Netherlands since 2015, and says that whenever he’s taken artists there to his home in Allada they’ve learned something of other cultures. “It changed their outlook,” he says. Because of this, he believes that returning African artworks to their homeland would not just benefit the local population, but also Europeans who would be more inclined to travel to see them, and engage more deeply with the culture in which they were made.
“I come from a place where you don’t understand the culture. I am in your country. I speak your language. I can understand, at least partially, what it is you do. But it would be much harder for you to understand things where I’m from,” he says. “So bringing these things back to Benin … that would really do something for future generations.”