Akinola Davies Jr. Is Reclaiming African Treasures Stolen by White Colonizers
His latest film criticizes museums for holding onto looted art.
Akinola Davies Jr., Untitled (2018). HOD. Courtesy of the artist
That heist scene in Black Panther, where Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) steals African artifacts from the fictional “Museum of Great Britain” made a lot of moviegoers aware of just how much looted art winds up in museums. The inspiration for that damning scene is the real British Museum in London, which has long been criticized for displaying and refusing to return stolen treasures in its collection—including the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, the Parthenon Marbles from Greece, the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, and the Gweagal shield from Aboriginal Australia.
Last year, Nigerian-British photographer and filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. paid a visit to the British Museum on a mission: to turn the experience of viewing looted African artifacts in an institution that embraces its colonial past into a subversive work of art.
Davies Jr. is known for directing music videos—he’s behind the visuals for the Blood Orange song “Charcoal Baby.” He’s also the founder of Nigerian Lives Matter. His interrogation of cultural looting became a “narrative of reclamation” titled HOD , an acronym for “Heroes of Displacement.” When it premiered at Dupont Underground in Washington, DC, HOD consisted of an installation featuring handmade flags and a film inspired by traditional Nigerian masquerade.
The show was produced by Seoul-based art collective sketchedSPACE, who was introduced to Davies Jr.'s work through a film he directed for the fashion label Kenzo. " The wonderful thing about our generation is that we are open-minded about cultural hybridity and connecting virtually. Washington D.C. naturally came up as a midpoint and gathering place where our friends and supporters resonated with and further shared our message," they told VICE in a statement.
The 33-year-old artist’s video is gorgeous but abstract; Davies Jr. uses dance and costume to explore themes of race, gender, history, and community. It pays homage to the African diaspora, celebrating the influence of black mythology on pop culture and western visual culture. But it also calls attention to the destructive legacies of colonialism and highlights the artist’s frustration with institutions like the British Museum that seem more fixated on absolving themselves than making amends.
HOD features five performers as the fantastical custodians of African tradition and seeks to link the rich history of stolen artifacts to their place in contemporary discourse, asking, “Who are we, where are we from, and where are we now?” VICE caught up with Davies Jr. over the phone recently, as HOD ended its run in Washington, DC, and the artist contemplated his next move.
VICE: What inspired HOD?
Akinola Davies Jr: It felt like a bit of a calling. My biggest inspirations were the artists Kerry James Marshall and Arthur Jafa. I was struck by Marshall’s Rythm Mastr series. I heard him say, in relation to those illustrations, that it was important for black people to create their own mythologies. In an interview, Jafa spoke of radical energies, which is a conversation I’d been having with a few friends, so in hearing him talk about it, I was like, “Okay, cool, it’s not just me having these thought processes.” Equally, I wanted to make something that could challenge and provoke. Most of the stuff I do is commercially-minded. I wanted to make something that wasn’t as linear, or something that changed the experience of watching a film on one screen.
How does the video speak to your larger point about the misrepresentation of blackness in places like the British Museum?
We took a lot of field trips to the British Museum, and each costume designer was given the task to come up with a mythology for one character, and each character was quite specific. The flags are meant to represent the mythologies of those characters. But we really didn’t want to create something didactic, because ultimately, we wanted to avoid what has happened at the British Museum, where curators and anthropologists have assigned meaning to objects that they don’t fully understand. I wanted to create something that we understand, but which heavily references diasporic deities, fabrics, sculptures, dances, and indigenous experiences. I created a new myth because, in reality, we can’t reclaim the artifacts in the museum.
Was “HOD” inspired by the museum scene in Black Panther?
I think what Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther is great, but it’s also quite problematic. There was a real opportunity to not just homogenize all of Africa in one film. I really don’t want to disregard a black director or black actors being in something that genuinely made people feel good, but it goes back to what Marshall said: we have to create our own heroes and mythologies. Black Panther was created by a white writer who didn’t know a lot about Africa. In HOD, I know the references, my co-collaborators know the references, and we build on them because we’re dealing with complicated energies because of the way these objects were acquired.
What did you learn from your visits to the British Museum?
What I’ve learned from visiting the British Museum and spaces that have our cultural artifacts, is that I’m genuinely quite sensitive to how things are presented. The British Museum’s African galleries are in the basement. They are, in a sense, hidden away. Whereas everything else in the museum is in really bright, opulent spaces with natural light. The whole thing feels like it was a real afterthought. The relationship between how objects are presented is also quite vulgar. They place objects together just because they’re from the same continent.
Can you talk about some of the symbolism you referenced?
The character in the construction yard is wearing red trousers that represent clay. That references the Igbo people of Nigeria who use clay to make objects. The red character also contains elements that evoke scarification. Another character references the diety Mammy Water, which is quite prevalent in Caribbean cultures and in some areas in Central Africa that practice voodoo. But it was important to not sensationalize these identities the way they are in museums. Some of the concepts were made-up in an effort to make new myths.
Why was it important to put all these references and objects in dialogue with each other?
The film is about reclamation, ancestral dialogue, and also about showing members of the global diaspora themselves. We carry our history in us. The objects were taken from their point of origin, brought somewhere else, and those items contain energy. Jafa said something to the effect of, “Once you bring all these energies into a space, you really don’t know what you are manifesting in that environment.” The video’s characters are an attempt to show that energy in one place.
To play devil’s advocate, a common argument is that countries looted by the West don’t have the museum facilities to properly house the objects. If museums give artifacts back, how can they be protected and preserved?
This question has riddled my mind for a long time. If you can understand the nuances of that question, you can also understand the nuances of why Africa has very few museums. Also, a lot of these objects served quite pragmatic functions in African societies. They were not in a glass box, but an active part of the way of life. It’s not really a “chicken or the egg” scenario, because ultimately these objects were within communities, so they were living, breathing, and functional. If colonizers went past Buckingham Palace and took everything from the gates to the jewels to the doors and then put them in a museum, it’s easy to say, “Oh, maybe those people didn’t really value what they built.” But that’s not true. They valued these things but you stole it.
You use a unique soundscape instead of dialogue in the film. Why was that important?
Ultimately the video is an emotional response. It is about these custodians returning from a metaphysical space. The video references Nigerian masquerades, which in my experience, are events where the custodians are from another world. They look human but they are meant to be these metaphysical energies. We reference grieving sounds, sounds that conjure up alienation. The soundtrack is quite difficult to listen to, which can be a metaphor. We want people to engage with the work and come up with their own ideas of what they see.
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