Art Market

Damien Hirst Show Sparks Accusations of Cultural Appropriation

Jessica Meiselman
May 12, 2017 10:15PM

Via @victorsozaboy on Instagram.

Damien Hirst launched his first major show of new works in 10 years earlier this month in Venice, shortly ahead of the opening of the 57th Venice Biennale. But along with massive crowds, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” is attracting charges of cultural appropriation, with one of Hirst’s sculptures replicating a Nigerian work from the 14th century without proper historical context.

The piece, Golden Heads (Female), appropriates a Yoruba sculpture taken from Nigeria during British colonial rule. One of the work’s first vocal critics, Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor posted a photo of Hirst’s piece on his Instagram and commented “the British are back for more,” continuing “for the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s.”

The sculpture is one of dozens of artworks by the artist spread across the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana museums in Venice as part of an exhibition initially conceived as a “fairy-tale,” where Hirst stumbles upon a fictional freed Turkish slave’s treasures in an aged shipwreck in the sea.

But the Yoruba head at the heart of Hirst’s work has a very real history. Found in the city Ife in 1938, late in the British colonial period, the original sculpture was titled “Ori Olokun,” after the God Olokun, the god of great wealth and the bottom of the ocean. That artefact is of particular reverence to the Yoruba people, as it “holds the passageway for the living to be able to connect with their ancestors,” wrote Laolu Senbanjo, a New York-based Nigerian artist.

Brass Nigerian Ife Heads. Image via the British Museum.


Nevertheless, like many other artifacts unearthed while the British controlled Nigeria, it was taken out of the country and is now held at the British Museum. Despite lobbying and public calls to repatriate some of these sculptures, the British government has so far refused to do so.

By appropriating and reimagining the head, Senbanjo argues Hirst tells a fictional story that obscures Britain’s colonial legacy and the true heritage of the sculpture. Hirst draws on other historical images for his exhibition as well, including a Medusa head and a Sphinx. But unlike the Ife head, these icons are more recognizable to the general public and less susceptible to having their own history erased, Senbanjo argues. The artist took particular issue with Hirst’s likely profit from the work (everything on view as part of the exhibition is also on sale), saying it reminded him of the Western world’s complicity in the slave trade and colonization. “This is still a wound,” he told Artsy.  

In a statement, a spokesperson for Hirst pushed back against claims the artist’s sculpture lacked context. The show is “a collection of works influenced by a wide range of cultures and stories from across the globe and throughout history,” the statement read. “A reference to the Ife heads is in the text accompanying the work and in the guide to the exhibition and is integral to the concept of the work.”

The Ife Head, ca. 14th-15th Century. Head representing ruler (with elaborate head-dress) made of brass. Image via the British Museum.  

Detail of The Ife Head, ca. 14th-15th Century. Image via the British Museum.

That text cites Leo Frobenius, noting that “extraordinarily, it is only a little over a century” since the German anthropologist, “so surprised by the discovery of the Ife Heads…deduced that the lost island of Atlantis had sunk off the Nigerian coast, enabling descendants of the Greek survivors to make the skilfully executed works.” Even including the factually false theory is itself a point of controversy, given it is the product of Frobenius’s racist belief that the Ife head’s skilled craftsmanship could only be the work of Europeans, not the Yoruba.  

Though eliciting an angry response on social media, the work is unlikely to attract legal action. Any copyright afforded to the Yoruba piece itself has long terminated. In some jurisdictions, including the exhibition’s home of Italy, moral rights exist in perpetuity, safeguarding the ability of heirs or descendants of an artwork’s creator to claim authorship and oppose mutilation of the work. These rights are, however, narrowly construed, and there is no known author of the Ife head, let alone descendant. So while in the past Hirst has settled copyright infringement claims, a battle along similar lines over the Yoruba sculpture would be near impossible.

But even without recourse in the courts, Senbanjo says the collective outrage over the sculpture should still carry weight. “[Hirst] should respect that,” he said.

Jessica Meiselman