“If It’s Looted, It’s Booted…”: The Benin Bronzes and Repatriation

repatriation (noun)the act or process of restoring or returning someone or something to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship the act of repatriating or the state of being repatriated

Over the last few years, a phrase has appeared more and more frequently in headlines and online articles around the world: “the Benin Bronzes.” For those in the know, this phrase carries a history of theft, legal battles, colonialism, and tensions between museums, but just what are the Benin Bronzes and why are they making headlines?

File:Benin Bronzes (Plaques).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Benin Bronzes, The British Museum

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 1,000 metal sculptures and plaques created by the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria. Artists began making these works in the 13th century, often used in ceremonial events and courtly life in the Kingdom. Many of these works were used to decorate the palace and were meant to honor and glorify Oba of Benin, the divine king or chieftain, or Iyoba of Benin, the queen mother or female titleholder. Each time an Oba would die, his successor would commission a sculpture of his head. Approximately 170 of these sculptors exist, dating back to the 12th century.

The way these bronzes were made was with the lost-wax casting process. A model of the sculpture would be made out of wax and then cast into a mold with a paths created for wax to melt out and metal to be poured in. Once the mold is made, the wax is melted away and the mold is refilled with molten metal. Once cool, the additional metal is removed and the final product is complete. Kingdoms throughout Africa like Benin were early developers of this process which became popular throughout Europe in later centuries.

How Does Lost-Wax 3D Printing & Casting Work? | Help ...
Image of lost wax mold process (purple is wax, yellow is metal)

These bronzes were and are items of pride for the Benin people and until the 18th century, Europe’s interest in African goods and art were minimal and typically only collected as rare spectacles, but interest in these “pagan curiosities” was growing throughout Europe as collectors wanted to show their wealth, education, and worldliness through “exotic” items such as these.

In 1897, vice consul general James Robert Phillips along with several other British officials, set off towards Benin with the intent of overthrowing the Oba of Benin. The reasoning for this is unknown. The kingdom was aware of the general’s visit, but asked their arrival be delayed as no foreigner could enter the city while rituals were being performed. Despite the kingdom’s request, the travellers ignored the warning and continued. The Oba warriors, protecting their kingdom, ambushed the travellers south of the city and only two Europeans survived the attack.

News of this attack reached London and another exhibition was organized eight days later, lead by Admiral Harry Rawson. This expedition sacked and destroyed Benin City entirely. The British stole the works of art decorating the Royal Palace and other noble residences – a treasure hoard of thousands bronze and ivory sculptures. Following this theft, further Europeans traveled to Africa with the intent of collecting works for their museums or collections. Due to this theft, perhaps as few as 50 works remain in Nigeria, compared to the approximately 2,400 works held in European and American collections.

The bronzes stolen by the British in 1897 were divided up. Many were sold to various museums in Germany and the United States, and a large quantity, around 700 works, which were sent to the British Museum.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has fought for the return of these stolen bronzes on several occasions. The British Museum sold more than 30 Benin Bronzes back to the Nigeria government between 1950 and 1972 – selling ones that the museum’s curator deemed duplicates and were superfluous to the museum. In the last five years, the call for their return to Nigeria has only grown as pressure is placed on government officials and museums.

In 2020, France approved the repatriation of 26 items that has been pillaged in 1892. In April 2021, the German government declared the repatriation of looted Benin bronzes in Germany’s public collections by 2022. More and more museums around the world in recent months are reevaluating their collection and making decisions to remove their looted art and work towards returning them to Nigeria.

Germany to return Benin Bronzes looted during colonial era ...
Benin Bronzes in Germany

Pressure has been applied to the British Museum for them to return the looted bronzes, but they continue to refuse. In response, the Iyase of Benin City (the traditional prime minister), unveiled a two ton bronze plaque,’The Return of Oba Ewuare,” created by one of the Iyase of Benin Kingdom’s grandsons, Lukas Osarobo Zeikner-Okoro. Osarobo Zeikner-Okoro is one of the founding members of the new Ahiamwen Guild of artists and bronze casters, who continue the tradition of making bronzes. This plaque honors the renewal of the Benin Bronze age in the reign of the current Oba of Benin, Ewuare II. The plaque was offered to the British Museum in exchange for the looted bronzes. The guild hoped the plaque could change the terms of the debate by giving the British Museum contemporary artworks, untained by a history of looting and colonial greed and that showcased Benin City’s modern-day culture. Osarobo Zeikner-Okoro traveled to London to meet with curators at the British museum to discuss the initiative, but no further progress has been made.

This is just a small piece of a larger conversation about stolen art and the repatriation of art. Some argue that housing items like the Benin Bronzes in museums like the British Museum allow more people to view the works and learn about them and the Benin people, but as Osarobo Zeikner-Okoro noted, this means that the descendants of their creators can not afford to see them and must only see them, learn from them, and appreciate them through museum catalogues and photos. Does stealing culture in the name of sharing culture make sense?

Leave your thoughts in the comments.

-Claire Sandberg

Further Reading:

Smithsonian Museum of African Art Removed Benin Bronzes from Display and Plans to Repatriate Them – November 2021

Austria Takes First Steps to Return Artifacts from Colonial Era – January 7, 2022

Hamburg Shows Its Benin Artifacts Before Restituting Them to Nigeria – December 15, 2021

National Gallery of Art in Washington DC Plans to Return Looted Benin Cockerel to Nigeria – December 16, 2021

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