The Star Late Edition
Bronzes headed home after historic plunder
THE bronze plaques from his birthplace looked strange at the British Museum. Enotie Ogbebor, a visiting artist, knew they were cultural treasures. West African sculptors had crafted them over six centuries to tell the history of Benin, a kingdom that stood in what is now southern Nigeria until British troops invaded in 1897.
But on display in London, they carried the aura of war trophies.
Colonial soldiers had plundered his ancestors’ land, seizing what became collectively known as the Benin bronzes. Thousands of plaques, masks and figures wrought from largely metal, ivory and wood landed in museums across Europe and the US.
“They look so out of place, out of context,” said Ogbebor, 52. “To see them in isolation, far away from home, kept for onlookers to gawk at without any real understanding of what happened – it’s like being a witness to your family story told wrongly.”
Last week, Germany became the first country to announce plans to send hundreds of pieces back to Nigeria, starting next year. The German restitution pledge, the largest thus far, has injected momentum into the push for other governments to do the same.
“To hold on to the works is to add salt to an open wound,” said Ogbebor, a member of the Legacy Restoration Trust, which represents Nigeria’s government and regional leaders.
Benin bronzes can be found at 161 museums around the world, according to research by Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford and the author of The Brutish Museums. Thirty-eight are in the US. Only nine of the institutions are in Nigeria. The British Museum, owner of the world’s biggest collection at about 900 pieces, is legally prohibited from releasing the Benin bronzes by parliament. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has said it acquired Benin works from donors, has revealed no plans to return them. Pressure has swelled over the past year, however, as protesters flooded cities, reinvigorating dialogue around painful memories. Atop the AU’s agenda this year: fighting Covid19 and recovering stolen heritage.
The Horniman Museum in London, a registered charity that holds 15 of the bronzes, would explore “the possible return” of anything plundered. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would send back the bust of a Benin ruler. And last month, the National Museum of Ireland pledged to release 21 works to Nigeria.
Returned art will be installed at the forthcoming Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, which Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye has signed on to design. Little remained after Benin fell.
The kingdom, which dated back to the 11th century, had been one of West Africa’s great powers. Historians say its earthen walls rivalled the Great Wall of China. Then came the British, who by the mid-1800s were exerting control over the surrounding areas. Benin enjoyed trade influence that irked colonial leaders, researchers say.
West African forces ambushed a British expedition that had not received permission to enter the kingdom, killing dozens. Britain responded with 1 200 troops, warships and 3 million bullets, according to Hicks’s research. Benin burned to the ground.
Soldiers went on to loot the kingdom’s riches, telling British authorities that the ivory alone would cover the cost of the mission. The spoils of Benin were on display in England six months later.