After years of discussion about returning the Benin bronzes to Nigeria, 2022 appears to be the year in which the artefacts will finally return home. As the Horniman Museum in London announced the return of 72 artefacts to Nigeria earlier this month, one sculpture and one bronze were already on display in the Oba Palace of Benin. But as museologists estimate that more than 10,000 looted artefacts are spread over museums across the world, the battle for ownership continues.
When the stolen pieces of heritage were revealed to the Nigerian public in February 2022, the audience erupted in jubilant cheers. Because for the people of Benin, the bronzes are much more than just beautiful artworks. “Each of the objects taken away represented an ancestor in captivity, not just an artwork but an ancestor in captivity. That will tell you how important the objects are”, explained Theophilus Umogbai, Director and curator of Benin City National Museum to EuroNews.
For him and many others, it feels as if their ancestors are returning home. “People have been talking about these objects since 1897 and yet we are unable to access these objects to behold them, to view them,” Umogbai said. Nigerian bronze caster Osapowa Ewen agreed: “It is our heritage, we have not seen those bronzes, they were made by our forefathers. That bronze is heritage, it means that it is very, very important, if they can bring that bronze, we will be very happy.”
Do not “bamboozle” the Edo people
German and French authorities have recognized that the artefacts were in fact looted or ended up in their possession in dubious ways. They are working together with the Nigerian government to make sure the pieces return home. But since thousands of artefacts have not yet been returned to Benin City, the repatriation job is far from done. And despite the Horniman Museum handing over the ownership of the bronzes to Nigeria, museums with large collections such as the British Museum still refuse.
But Nigerian authorities are not impressed by these refusals anymore, said Benin monarch Oba Ewuare II. He noted that there is no debate over the ownership of the repatriated Benin bronzes, Nigerian newspaper The Guardian wrote. “We won’t lose our heritage. You remember our Benin artefacts that were looted during the invasion of Benin by foreigners. Some of them have agreed to return them. But, it should be returned to the Oba of Benin palace.”
He continued: “Edo people all over the world should not allow anyone to bamboozle them to give up their heritage to strangers. Benin artefacts were made by the famous Igun Bronze Casters’ Guild in Benin on orders of our forebears. The palace gave them the enablement and approval to make them.”
The monarch called the Oba of Benin palace the right destination for the artefacts and warned that the Edo people should not allow the artefacts to either be sold or displayed somewhere else. “Edo people will not allow that to happen. Our ancestors do not approve of it.”
“Advise your supporters and others to counsel those who are making such moves to retrace their steps. You should insist that the right thing is done at the right time for the benefit of the Edo people,” Oba Ewuare ll said while praising notable Nigerians that have fought for the return of the artworks.
The bronzes are a collection of art pieces mostly from Benin City, a city in modern-day Nigeria. The city used to be the most important town in the African Edo kingdom of Benin and is known for its bronze and ivory sculpting. Many of these artefacts were stored in the city’s palace. The sculptures often represent an Oba, a Benin king.
In 1897, British forces ransacked Benin City during a military expedition. They destroyed the palace and captured thousands of artefacts. Many soldiers and administrators involved in the looting sold their spoils to museums and art collectors. The artefacts include plaques, animal and human figures, and items of royal regalia made from brass and bronze by artists working for the royal court of Benin.