In a new take on looted bronzes, Nigerian artists donate work to the British Museum
A sculpture of a military commander looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 is on display in the “Where is Africa” exhibition. (Photo by Thomas Niedermueller / Getty Images)
- In 1897, British troops looted Benin bronzes at the royal court of Benin, Nigeria.
- The Ahiamwen artists’ guild says it wants to donate contemporary works to the British Museum, not tainted with looting.
- The British Museum only stated that this was a matter of discussion between itself and the parties offering the objects.
A new artists’ guild from Benin City, Nigeria has offered to donate works of art to the British Museum in London to encourage them to return the priceless Benin bronzes that were looted from the city’s royal court. by British troops in 1897.
Created in the once powerful kingdom of Benin from at least the 16th century, bronze and brass sculptures are among Africa’s most beautiful and culturally significant artifacts. The European museums that house them have been criticized for years for their status as loot and symbols of colonial greed.
The Ahiamwen Bronze Artists and Founders Guild says it wants to change the terms of the debate by offering the British Museum contemporary works of art, devoid of any history of looting, which showcase the modern culture of Benin City.
“We never stopped making the bronzes even after they were stolen,” said Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, founding member of the new guild and instigator of the proposed donation. “I think we’re making them even better now.”
“Part of the crime that was committed, it’s not just ok, they were looted, is the fact that you portrayed our civilization as a dead civilization, you put us in ancient Egypt or something. something like that, ”he said.
The works of art on display, unveiled in Benin City during a ceremony attended by a member of the royal court, include a bronze plaque measuring 2 by 2 meters with engravings depicting historical events in Benin, and a ram full size made entirely of spark plugs.
When asked to comment on the offer, the British Museum only said it was a matter of discussion between itself and the parties offering the items.
Zeickner-Okoro, who traveled from Benin City to London this month in part to advance his initiative, said he had an upcoming meeting with curators from the museum’s Africa department.
While Germany has said it wants to return Benin bronzes from its museums to Nigeria, the British Museum, which houses the largest and most important collection of objects, has not made a clear commitment.
It indicates on its website that its director, Hartwig Fischer, had an audience with the Oba, or king, of Benin in 2018 “which included a discussion of new opportunities for sharing and exhibiting objects from the Kingdom of Benin ”.
But many people in Benin City see no justification for European museums to cling to the loot.
“They have to bring it back. It is not their father’s property. The property belongs to the Oba of Benin,” said bronze chief founder Nosa Ogiakhia.
Zeickner-Okoro, who grew up partly in Britain before returning to Benin City, acknowledged that the presence of Benin Bronzes in European museums has enabled them to reach a global audience. But he said they should now go back to the place and the people who created them.
“The descendants of the people who cast these bronzes, they have never seen this work because most of them cannot afford to fly to London to come to the British Museum,” he said. he declares.
“They have these catalogs, PDF copies of the British Museum catalog, which they use to reference the work of their ancestors, and I think it’s so sad.”