A new NFT project was released earlier in May which seeks to find an alternative form of restitution of African looted art. The project, titled ‘Looty’, plans to (legally) make NFTs of artifacts known to have been looted from Africa and sell them, with 20% of the proceeds going to a fund to provide a young African artist with a grant.
Chidi Nwuabani, the founder of the project, said that “this is the first digital repatriation of stolen artwork”, and that he was inspired to launch this new venture as “knowing that [a work of art is] Nigerian but it lives outside of Nigeria has always troubled me. So I felt that there’s something that we could do to change that.”
The process of creating these NFTs starts with research into the provenance and location of potential items. The next stage is what Nwuabani has termed a “digital art heist”, in which “our ‘Looters’ [anonymous team members] go to the museums (physically) and take back the artworks (digitally)”, a process which is entirely legal. This involves members of the Looty team going to museums and scanning the objects using an app on their mobile phones. Then the images are downloaded onto laptops and are transformed into 3D objects. Nwuabani explains, “it is almost like we are re-sculpting the artwork again”.
The inspiration for the name ‘Looty’ comes from Queen Victoria’s pet Pekingese dog of the same name, which was essentially looted in Beijing, hence the name ‘Looty’. The dog Looty was brought to England in 1860 by British serviceman, General Sir John Hart Dunne, reportedly from Beijing after the sacking of the royal palace there by the British during the Second Opium War. Nwuabani said, “before the British were looting artefacts in Africa, they had already made a fortune from the things they stole from China. In choosing the name ‘Looty’, I am referencing that, but also referencing the dog that was given to Queen Victoria.”
The first collection by Looty consists of 25 NFTs of the Benin Bronzes based on a looted Oba head in the British Museum. The donation of money from the sale of the NFTs to a fund for a young African artist shows the importance of access to cultural heritage for contemporary artists. This connection is made clear on the Looty website, with a quote from artist Victor Ehikhamenor: “generations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent.”