Home Tech ‘Can you get back something that’s already been stolen?’: How radical art duo Looty repatriated the Rosetta Stone

‘Can you get back something that’s already been stolen?’: How radical art duo Looty repatriated the Rosetta Stone

0 comment
'Can you get back something that's already been stolen?': How radical art duo Looty repatriated the Rosetta Stone

YoIn March last year, two men in tracksuits, wearing hockey masks and carrying matching laundry bags, headed to the British Museum. Just outside, patrolling police asked the two strange-looking men where they were going. “We are going to the British Museum to loot the stolen goods,” said one of them. “Well, see you there then!” the policewoman responded.

But no arrests were made because nothing incriminating occurred. What did take place was a “digital theft” of one of the most famous objects in the British Museum, an artifact that is, according to Egyptologist Monica Hanna, “a symbol of Western cultural power” and “of British imperialism”: the Rosetta . Stone.

The heist involved the couple, plus Hanna, who they had invited, going to the glass case where the stele is displayed and taking detailed 3D scans on an iPad. This effectively provided the “looters” with a digital copy of the 196 BC artifact completely legally. But their goal was not simply to digitize the Rosetta Stone, but to return it to its place of origin, Rashid (or Rosetta), Egypt, using location-based augmented reality (or Geo AR) technology, so that the local population could see it. object from their smartphones.

The two men behind the masks were Chidi Nwaubani and Ahmed Abokor, a product designer and creative consultant, respectively. Together they form swag, a radical “artivist” technology and collective company founded in 2021 that aims to “loot” cultural artifacts stolen from museums. First by 3D scanning them and then sharing them as renewed digital works of art via non-fungible tokens (NFT).

Since NFTs provide public proof of ownership of digital files, Looty’s method of “stealing” and redistributing artworks aims to challenge the lack of transparency and decline in relevance often associated with founded institutions. in the colonial era. Following the British Museum scandal last August, in which around 2,000 objects were reported stolen due to poor record-keeping, revealing that around half of its collection of around 8 million objects had never been was completely catalogued, the museum founded in the 18th century is once again facing a crisis. public reckoning.

“They don’t really care about the artifacts, they care more about the fact that they have them,” Abokor says. “It’s about power again.”

To organize one of the main interactive exhibitions From last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale to mounting an installation at NFT Paris in February this year, Looty is taking the art and tech worlds by storm. In November they were selected in the Special Projects Category at the Contemporary African Art Fair 1-54. Continuing with his Rosetta Stone heist project, Abokor had made a replica by wrapping it in cloth and rope. Visitors could scan the stone using a QR code included in the artwork’s description, triggering an animation on their phones and an augmented reality (AR) experience that displayed the Rosetta Stone in its original size and glory.

Nwaubani and Abokor’s partnership dates back some 20 years, when they met at university in London, bonding over their creative spirit and shared African heritage. Nwaubani was raised mainly in Guildford and developed an early interest in technology by “coding computer games onto floppy disks”. But he experienced intense racism at school, prompting his father, a university professor originally from Nigeria, to change schools.

“You can’t be a black person living in Europe and not have some level of political affiliation. You are already politicized by what happens to you growing up,” Nwaubani says.

Chidi Nwaubani scanning the Benin bronze plaques at the British Museum. Photography: Keleenna Onyeaka

Born in Somalia, Abokor was just 12 months old when his family moved to Sweden and he ended up living in a refugee camp. “Coming from war, it’s ingrained in us to understand politics and know what’s going on around us,” he says.

The two remember that when they were young, their parents offered them “alternative” history lessons from European museums, explaining where objects “really” came from. This helped develop their curiosity about Africa’s rich and often misrepresented history, and taught them that power and politics are rooted in art.

It was around Christmas 2020 when Nwaubani first came up with the idea for Looty; The collective’s name refers to a Pekingese dog owned by Queen Victoria that British soldiers looted from China’s Summer Palace in 1860. read a report that revealed that between 90 and 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is housed in major museums outside Africa. Inspired by the rise of NFTs, Nwaubani thought of a project “around the idea of: ‘Can you get back something that’s already been stolen?’”

The technology that would help bring this concept of digital looting and restitution to life is Lidar, a form of 3D scanning that stands for “light detection and ranging” and uses eye-safe laser beams to “see” the world in 3D. Lidar allows Looty to record artifacts digitally and render them in 3D. They then make them available on the blockchain as NFTs and “counter-reimaginings of the originals,” according to Nwaubani, bypassing the bureaucratic processes that prevent people in developing countries from seeing these works of art face to face.

Before Rosetta, his first project was with the Benin bronzes, another hotly contested colonial artifact scattered throughout Western museums. Looty launched a limited collection of 25 NFTs of bronzes based on an Oba (king) head looted from the British Museum. Each sale contributes 20% to the Looty Fund, which provides grants to young African artists, especially from Nigeria.

skip past newsletter promotion

What they discovered was that the museum world is still adapting to the era of mass digitization. On its website, the British Museum says it allows photographs and 3D prints of objects for non-commercial use, and asks visitors “to be aware and respectful” of objects that are “culturally sensitive.”

“When the British raided the kingdom of Benin [in 1897] there were no laws against it, or they would create a law about it to make it legal,” Nwaubani says. “We are now in an era where there are no laws prohibiting what we do.”

“And technology also advances faster than the law,” adds Abokor.

It’s a dilemma cultural institutions face in the digital age: while many artists want to use technology to make culture more accessible and, in Looty’s case, less Western-centric, museums are trying to adapt without losing their ability to attract audiences.

For Berlin artist Oliver Laric, who has digitized the collections of a dozen museums across Europe, museums must realize that “there is an urgent need for alternatives” to centralized cultural heritage institutions.. “There are a lot of fears based on false legal assumptions, but also fears of some kind of loss as a consequence of accessibility,” he says. “When I spoke to museums, I often gave a very simplistic example: no amount of replicas or merchandise will stop people from wanting to see the Mona Lisa in person, quite the opposite.”

Although restitution work in Europe may seem removed from the concerns of people on the ground in formerly colonized nations, heritage experts say these issues are important to many in the global south.

“People are already thinking about how repatriation will fit into the local economy and how restitution and repatriation can create employment opportunities,” says Monica Hanna of the city of Rashid, Egypt, where the Rosetta Stone can now be seen in an augmented reality. Installation using a QR code through applications such as Snapchat.

With a calm but innovative energy, Nwaubani invokes the vision of Steve Jobs with the Pan-Africanism of Chinua Achebe. Looty’s motto is “the future awaits your return”, to evoke “a constant dialogue between the past and the future” and establish Looty as a “counter-imagination” of the museum.

Nowadays, we are less likely to find the pair “looting” the British Museum. Instead, they are busy preparing their next interactive exhibition somewhere between Europe and Africa. Although they feel they have accomplished a lot in these last three years, they say there is still a long way to go. Like technology, culture is always changing and the two “looters” are not only adopting innovations but also dreaming of those to come.

You may also like