Two Benin Bronzes returned Home to Nigeria

Return of cockerel sculpture and head of an Oba raises hopes that thousands more artefacts could be returned to their ancestral home. Photograph: Kola Sulaimon/AFP/Getty Images – The Guardian

It has been 104 years since Benin City: the Majestic City the British burnt to the ground was looted and destroyed. Now, a century later, two of the numerous Bronze statues that were taken at the time, are being returned. Some may ask, who cares about 2 Bronze statues? These statues are not just a symbol of the craftsmanship of the Benin people, but they also symbolize the essence of the people. Back in those days, the statues were not used like they are by Europeans, to be placarded in museums, they had a symbolic, and some even had a spiritual or energetic importance. Below are excerpts from the article on the Guardian’s website.

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Two Benin bronzes were returned on Saturday [19 February 2022] to a traditional palace in Nigeria, more than a century after they were pillaged by British troops, raising hopes that thousands more artefacts could finally be returned to their ancestral home.

The artefacts, mostly in Europe, were stolen by explorers and colonisers from the once-mighty Benin Kingdom, now [part of] south-western Nigeria, and are among Africa’s most significant heritage objects. They were created as early as the 16th century onwards, according to the British Museum.

At a colourful ceremony to mark the return of a cockerel sculpture and head of an Oba or king, spokesperson Charles Edosonmwan for the Oba palace in Benin City noted that some of the bronzes were kept as far away as New Zealand, the United States and Japan.

Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century)
Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century), exposed at the MET

The two artefacts were handed over to the Nigerian High Commission in October by the University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University’s Jesus College but had yet to return to their ancestral home.

They are not just art but they are things that underline the significance of our spirituality,” Edosonmwan said in an interview on the sidelines of a ceremony attended by traditional leaders.

… About 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe, French art historians estimate. Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris alone holds about 70,000 African objects and London’s British Museum tens of thousands more.

Bronze Cockerel from Benin Kingdom to be returned to Nigeria

Benin Kingdom_Okukor2
Bronze cockerel ‘Okukor’ at Jesus College in Cambridge (Source: The Guardian)

Another return of an artifact from a Western institution to an African country, which I applaud… but I remain guarded. Why am I skeptical? Well, because if over 50% of artifacts in the great museums of this world (Louvre, British Museum, MET, Tervuren, etc) which generate a lot of money, and knowledge to western schools, researchers, etc, is made up of looted treasures… will the benefactors of the loot willingly return these? And if they return these, who is to say that it is the real thing? One should not expect a thief not to cheat you again! Below are excerpts from the article in The Guardian. Enjoy!

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Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century)
Rooster from Benin Kingdom (18th century) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET)

A bronze cockerel taken by British colonial forces and donated to Jesus College Cambridge is to be returned to Nigeria in an unprecedented step that adds momentum to the growing repatriations movement.

The Okukor, described by the college as a “royal ancestral heirloom”, will be one of the first Benin bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution since the punitive expedition in 1897 when thousands of bronzes were stolen from Benin City by British forces.

No specific date for return has been released but the college stated that the bronze cockerel “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin”. The return was recommended by Jesus College’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), a group dedicated to looking at the institution’s connections to slavery, which confirmed the piece was donated in 1905 by the father of a student.

[…] Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and member of the Benin Dialogue Group, said: “No matter how small the gesture may look, it is a huge step towards the realisation of restitution of the works from the Benin Kingdom that were looted by the British. This is very important example, which I hope other Europeans, especially British institutions, will follow without any excuses or delays.”

Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and a representative of the Benin Dialogue Group, said: … In the past, our attention on this matter was focused on national collections like the British Museum and the V&A – but in reality such loot is held in dozens of institutions across the regions: city museums, art galleries and the collections of universities.”

[…] The Jesus College announcement comes almost exactly 12 months after the release of a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, which recommended the return of colonial-era artefacts by France.

Queen from Benin kingdom
Queen from Benin kingdom (at the MET)

The report’s authors, the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, told the Guardian that the British Museum, which houses a huge collection of the Benin bronzes, was acting like “an ostrich with its head in the sand” by not acting faster on repatriations.

[…] Since the release of the report, Ivory Coast, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have made formal requests for the return of artefacts. European countries including France and Germany have committed to handing back objects, with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opening talks with Sri Lanka and Indonesia and describing the Netherlands’ failure to return stolen artefacts as a “disgrace”.

The news comes a week after Open Society Foundations (OSF) announced a $15m initiative aimed at strengthening efforts to “restore cultural objects looted from the African continent”. …