he Benin artifacts (otherwise known as the Benin Bronze, but some are made of Wood or Ivory), are artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin, which is now part of Nigeria. Thousands of the artifacts were taken when the British Empire invaded the monarchy in 1897, partly to cover the costs of the military expedition.
In 1897, a British military force took the Bronzes, a collection of thousands of metal sculptures and ivory carvings from the West African kingdom of Benin, which is now Edo State in Southern Nigeria.
Their beauty and refinement produced an immediate stir in Europe, and they are largely considered to be among Africa’s greatest works of art.
As European nations have been pressured to atone for crimes committed during the colonial period, several have expressed a wish to return looted artifacts.
Nigeria and other African countries have demanded their restitution almost since they were looted. As a result, they were never completely missing, though perhaps not in the worldwide media. With the heightened attention in the issue of colonial loot, the spotlight has now shifted to them. The announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron in Ouagadougou in 2017 to return colonial treasure from French colonial museums sparked this shift in interest, and some human rights activists and writers had been campaigning for such a move even before the French President’s pledge.
The German government said in April that it will return hundreds of Benin Bronzes, and numerous institutions (museums) in the United Kingdom have followed suit.
The return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria would be a watershed point in Africa’s post-colonial history, and it now appears more likely than at any time since 1897.
The imminent opening of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, one of the world’s largest museums (which opened on July 20, 2021), was also a source of excitement. It houses the former Berlin ethnological museums’ treasures, including over 200 Benin bronzes that were supposed to be displayed there. However, activists and academics who have raised concerns about colonial loot have temporarily halted the preparations, owing to international media interest.
Many Museum Directors and those in charge of policy (in this case, cultural) were first unaware of the “problem” of colonial theft. When the pressure became too much, they downplayed the criticism, mocked the critics, and then attacked and defamed them. So far, one of the Humboldt Forum’s original Founding Directors, Art Historian Horst Bredekamp, has accused postcolonial opponents of being anti-Semitic. All of this is done to safeguard both the collections and the Western scholarship traditions that are linked to them from the accusation – which, I believe, is well-founded – of ignoring the racist aspects of their history.
Only after intense pressure from German civic society and global media did the government and museums agree to return some of the Benin Bronzes – the official press release stated that a “significant number” should be returned.
It might interest you to know that these stolen Benin artifacts are not only stationed in Germany alone, but found all over the World’s Northern Hemisphere. Even if Germany returned all of the looted Benin artifacts in Berlin, it would only account for about 10% of the total. Other museums, such as those in the German cities of Stuttgart and Cologne, will undoubtedly follow, if not lead, the returns. Outside of Germany, though, other major museums are lagging behind. Art looting, like colonialism, was a European endeavour. As a result, the entire European Union, as well as the rest of the Global North, is involved in this problem and must address it. The United States, for example, has a large number of Benin Bronzes.
The largest collection, with up to 800 artifacts, is housed in the city of London’s British Museum, which has flatly denied the need for restitution, presumably with the cooperation of the government. This is related to a bigger discussion regarding colonialism being viewed as a crime against humanity. Those in the Global North are now willing to admit that there were acts of violence committed during colonialism; nonetheless, they must recognize that colonialism was (and continues to be) violent in and of itself. If humanity is to have a hope of surviving the climatic disaster, they must decolonize and move toward a position of global social justice.
In Benin City, Edo State, Southern Nigeria, an Edo Museum of West African Art is now being developed, and it will house Benin Bronzes allegedly.
Presently, as the people of Edo and Nigeria await the arrival of the artefacts, there is a tussle between the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, and the present State Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, as to where the artefacts should be housed. The former insist that it should return to where it was looted from –Benin Royal Museum at the Oba’s palace; while the latter had planned for it to be sited at the Edo Museum of Western African Art (EMOWAA), an edifice under construction.
So, how did we get here? Because of the mistrust and animosity that exists between Oba Ewaure II and Governor Obaseki, to begin with. It appears to be an ego battle between the two of them.
The accusations leveled are an ugly site: people who are reportedly more interested in making money off the Bronzes or the contracts surrounding a new museum than in redressing a historical wrongdoing.
A German government representative, on the other hand, stated: “Those who believe this new museum would bring in money are misinformed. A museum is a place where you spend money rather than making it“.
All of this is bad news for anyone hoping to see the Bronzes return to Benin City. The dispute between the Oba and the Governor, according to an Edo historian involved in conversations with European museums, “has sent a chill through all of us”.
“Our attitude is that if claimants are in dispute between themselves, we wait until they resolve it,” said the head of a European museum with a big collection of Bronzes, who has previously spoken out in support of their return.
Whether the returned artifacts be placed at the palace or a newly built museum, what is paramount is that the parties involved should level out their differences as soon as possible so that these priceless cultural and traditional artifacts can come home to where it truly belong and reparation by the “thieves” must be done accordingly without delay.