Africa’s masterpieces of art stolen over centuries of colonial exploitation have inspired creative observers and practicing artists far away from the original source, and remain impressive examples of the mastery of
artistic form. However, in recent times the absence of major historical treasures from the continent and their captive exhibition in European museums have sparked major campaigns for their return to their original abode. Advocates for the return of these stolen treasures argue that their continued confinement
is a clear expression of the dominance and exploitation that has defined the socio-cultural relationships between the African continent and its mainly European invaders over the years. The famed Benin Bronzes are a collection of intricately crafted sculptures and plaques that adorned the royal palace of the Oba in the Kingdom of Benin, and were looted after the punitive expedition that brought the kingdom under British rule in 1897.
A report aired on the BBC in 2018 accurately mentioned that many of the pieces had both ceremonial and educative significance and were cast for the ancestral altars of past kings and other
royals. The report also revealed that “apart from bronze sculptures and plaques, innumerable royal objects were taken as a result of the mission and are currently scattered all over the world”. This has
been described by many as a brazen demonstration of a sense of entitlement by the descendants and heirs of criminal European bandits. Current estimates show that artefacts from the ancient Benin kingdom still held in repositories across Europe, both private and public, number in the thousands, and are valued in millions. The British museum holds about 800 historical treasures stolen from Benin in 1897, the ethological museum in Berlin holds about 580 and the museum of art in New York holds about 160.
These figures are for the Benin bronzes specifically but Europe’s loot from across the African continent is a lot larger than that. A report by Foreign Policy magazine paints a frightening picture of the insatiable avarice that the European adventure unleashed on the continent. The report says “Europe—more than any other region in the world, including Africa—holds the largest collection of ancient African art works, Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa alone has 180,000 objects, Germany’s Ethnological Museum has 75,000, France’s Quai Branly Museum has almost 70,000, the British Museum has 73,000, and the Netherlands’ National Museum of World Cultures has 66,000.” The vast majority remain holed up in alien vaults claimed by authorities that have stubbornly refused any idea of a negotiated return for years. The obvious immorality of their acquisition does not seem to place any real burden on European institutions, who have always insisted that their ownership is legitimate until recently.
The 2018 BBC report quoted the British Museum in London as claiming that many of the objects from Benin in its collection were given to it in 1898 by the Foreign Office and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. A global rethink Global opinions about the rights to retain this artistic loot are gradually changing. Recently, steps have been taken to repatriate a number of the ancient Benin bronzes that were looted, and some have been returned to Nigeria simply on the weight of the moral question that such acquisitions raise. Some, top museums in Europe agreed to loan crucial artefacts back to Nigeria for exhibition in an appropriate museum if one is built.. Eventually agreements have been reached for the return of some of the stolen pieces in response to mounting public pressure from the Nigerian government and a number of independent pressure groups, in December 2022, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock handed 22 bronzes looted in the 19th Century back to Nigeria at a ceremony in Abuja.
The return of this set of Benin Bronzes was the result of a deal made earlier that year to transfer ownership of more than 1,000 of these precious objects and, as Ms Baerbock puts it, a “part of efforts to deal with a “dark colonial history”. In a report for the Atlantic, David Frum wrote that “The repatriation of stolen objects has become a ritual of self-purification through purgation—but who it really serves is less clear than it might seem”. Missing puzzle Several reports have emphasised the importance of repatriating these ancient art pieces but not much has been reported about the impact of their absence on their original domicile and the serious social distortions they have caused. The argument for repatriation is not hinged so much around the aesthetic values that these art pieces represent but rather the pioneering advancement in technological adaptations that set them and the continent apart from other civilizations of their era. The idea that such advancements existed within societies that were falsely sold for years as primitive raises even more questions about the level of enlightenment that had been reached and which had been denied by European leaders of thought for many years. Many recognise that the influence African art has had on movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism, incorporating elements like dissonant colours, geometric forms, and fractured or distorted human forms, were essential to the birth of an art renaissance that reshaped perceptions of creativity in Europe. Art historian, Denise Murrel, says “while these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognised the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance”. Neil MacGregor a former director of the British Museum, in a BBC report in 2015, pointed out that it was a “revelation” to Western scholars that refined metal work such as the Benin pieces had been made in 16th Century Africa. In that same report, a prince of the royal palace in Benin, Prince Edun Akenzua, who died in 2022, was quoted as explaining the significance of these pieces as records of the kingdom’s social, political and technological advancements.
They were like the Egyptian hieroglyphs in three dimensional form and so were a means of communication. According to him, the stolen art pieces that were removed were “chapters of our history book… When they were made, the Benin people did not know how to write, so whatever happened, the Oba instructed the bronze casters to record it”. The prince adds that the removal was seen as “a grave injustice and we are hoping that someday people will see why we are asking for these things back.” A homecoming that raises many question The British Museum describes itself as “a museum of the world for the world”. A claim that appears to project the institution as a legitimate repository for the artefacts. It says in a statement that it “presents the Benin Bronzes in a global context alongside the stories of other cultures and makes these objects as available as possible to a global audience.” For many, this description raises questions about the willingness of these European institutions to return the artefacts to their original owners, a point they have raised in not-so-subtle ways. One argument that has been put forward to back this claim is that the objects are in danger of getting lost if returned to Nigeria, something Prince Edun dismissed as absurd, and many claim exposes an intentional attempt to undermine the value placed on these works by their original owners.
There are steps currently ongoing by the royal palace in Benin to build a world class museum within its premises to house the artefacts that would also provide access for the global audience that these pieces have acquired over the years. The palace argues that this would not only attract huge resources for the maintenance of the works but would also attract global attention to the original repositories and
provide a platform for them to tell the true stories of the origins and meanings of these works. The Unique Provenance of Benin Bronzes The role of bronze casting in the cultural history of the ancient Benin Kingdom is uniquely revelatory. A study of the method of creating these works raises issues about concepts that developed in pre-colonial Africa, especially about the approach to scientific and technological innovation. The use of the lost wax method depicts an understanding of material and industrial innovation that must have emanated from serious research and contemplation. Also, the organisation of the practitioners to provide the collective energy that enabled the production process to survive for centuries is worth studying. It is important for us to realise that the craft of bronze casting has remained viable in Benin up to the present times and that the cultural relevance of the craft is still a vital and identifiable element in the socio-economic profile of the ethnological identity of the Bini people. In Igun Street in modern day Benin City the bronze casters guild exists among the families that occupy that ancient quarter of the city.