Nigerian Artists Offer to Swap Work for British Museum’s Benin Bronzes

Installation view of 56 Benin bronze plaques in the Africa Galleries at the British Museum in London this year. (photo by Olivia McEwan)

In the latest effort to repatriate the Benin Bronzes, thousands of artifacts looted by British troops from present-day Nigeria in the 1890s, a group of artists has offered to donate contemporary works in exchange for their return. The Ahiamwen Guild of artists and bronze casters from Benin City says it wants to give newer pieces to the British Museum in London to encourage the restitution of the approximately 900 historical items in its collection.

“We never stopped making the bronzes even after those ones were stolen,” Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, a founding member of the guild, told Reuters. “I think we make them even better now.” In a recent ceremony in Benin City attended by members of the royal court, the guild presented a selection of artworks on offer, including a sculpture of a ram made of spark plugs and a bronze plaque carved with historical scenes.

In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the British Museum said, “The Museum has arranged to meet with a representative of the Ahiamwen Guild and we look forward to discussions.”

Striking the admittedly unconventional deal would be doubly productive in the eyes of the artists: not only would it motivate the museum to give back the culturally significant objects, it would also help paint a fresh picture of modern-day Nigerian artistic production that might challenge outdated, primitivist interpretations.

“Part of the crime that’s been committed […] is the fact that you’ve portrayed our civilization as a dead civilization, you’ve put us among ancient Egypt or something,” said Zeickner-Okoro.

When British forces sacked Benin City in 1897, killing civilians in a bloody massacre, they stole at least 3,000 sculptures, statues, masks, and other invaluable artworks, now strewn across museums and private collections, primarily in Europe.

This June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced the return of two bronzes in its collection, a pair of 16th-century brass plaques from the Royal Palace in Benin City that were once housed in the British Museum. The plaques resided for some time at the National Museum in Lagos before making their way to the international art market under obscure and uncertain circumstances, as many such works do, ultimately ending up at institutions as gifts from donors.

The return of the two plaques by the Met, which holds around 160 objects from Benin City, came after a year of research conducted in partnership with the British Museum. Earlier this year, Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Grütters announced a plan to repatriate a “substantial” portion of the Benin Bronzes held in German museums to Nigeria starting next year. 

The British Museum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, a coalition of institutions whose stated goal is to establish a permanent display of Benin works of art in Benin City. In a statement on its website, the museum says it “acknowledges difficult histories, including the contested means by which some collections have been acquired,” and “works in partnership with African colleagues to subvert existing stereotypes, reflect critically upon historical events, and support established and emerging artists.”

Despite these efforts, some believe cultural institutions have not fully come to terms with their role in the colonial legacy of looted art. In an op-ed for Hyperallergic, artist and historian Olivia McEwan analyzed wall labels at the British Museum and found the texts often use the passive voice and downplay the violence of the plunders.

While the Ahiamwen Guild’s proposal is an innovative one, some residents of Benin City do not think museums should be rewarded for what they view as doing the right thing.

“They must bring it back,” Nigerian bronze caster Chief Nosa Ogiakhia told Reuters. “It is not their father’s property. The property belongs to the Oba of Benin.”

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