A new guild of artists in Nigeria has proposed exchanging current works of art for those housed in the British Museum’s collection in London. The guild, from Benin City, said that it wanted to encourage the return of some priceless artworks, known as the Benin Bronzes. These were looted from the royal court of Benin in 1897. At the time, British troops simply made off with the bronzes with no recompense to their owners. They have remained in the ownership of the British Museum ever since. Like other items taken during the period of British Empire in West Africa – and elsewhere around the world – their ongoing presence in a London museum has been seen by many as increasingly controversial.

According to the Ahiamwen Guild of artists, the group that made the offer to the British Museum, the bronze casts should be returned to Nigeria voluntarily. However, given that such returns were, themselves, sometimes seen as controversial or something that might set a precedent for other artefacts taken during colonial times, the guild wanted to ‘change the terms’ of the debate surrounding them. The offer, therefore, is to exchange the bronzes for current works of art rather than simply to demand that the bronzes are repatriated unilaterally. The group of artists said that it was willing to give the British Museum a number of contemporary artworks if the Benin Bronzes are returned. What’s more, the guild said that doing so would mean that the museum would gain pieces that were ‘untainted’ by colonialism and the long history of looting that goes with it. Furthermore, the artists say that the works of art being offered would more effectively showcase Benin City’s culture today.

Ongoing Traditions

Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, who is a founding member of the guild of artists, said the people in Benin never stopped making bronzes after the famous ones were taken by the British army at the end of the nineteenth century. Zeickner-Okoro said that the bronzes being made these days are even finer examples of the tradition of bronze casting than those in the museum’s collection. “Part of the crime that has been committed,” he said, “is not just the fact that these bronzes were looted – that’s just not okay – but the fact that British cultural institutions have portrayed Benin’s civilisation as a dead one.” Zeickner-Okoro pointed out that by placing the bronze artwork in the British Museum, it was as though they were being bracketed in the same light as ancient Egypt or a similar dead culture.

The artworks in question were first fashioned for the royal court of the once-powerful Kingdom of Benin. This dynasty was dominant in large swathes of West Africa, including much of modern-day southern Nigeria, from around the 16th century until the latter half of the 19th century when colonial powers pushed into the African interior more. The bronze sculptures – which also include some significant pieces in brass – are considered by many scholars to be among West Africa’s finest historic works of art. Certainly, there is near-universal agreement about how culturally significant these artefacts are to many modern Nigerians.

A Wider Issue

It is not just the British Museum that has items in its collection that date back to the time when European powers were dominant in West Africa. Many museums throughout Europe that house such artefacts have faced years – even decades – of criticism because the artworks in their collections were looted. To some, the only historical value they have in the collections of great European collections is as a symbol of colonial avarice. However, others see them as being in their rightful places where they can be studied and enjoyed, helping to promote a better understanding of West African cultures among European people.

With some institutions in Europe turning a tin ear to criticisms about cultural appropriation and even theft, the group of artists in Nigeria decided that simply appealing for the return of the Benin Bronzes would not be enough to sway the British Museum. Therefore, they held a ceremony in Benin City which detailed the artworks that would be offered as part of the proposed exchange. With a member of the historic royal court in attendance, the ceremony included the unveiling of a large bronze plaque with carvings that represented some significant historical events in Benin’s past. Measuring two square metres, the plaque was accompanied by a more contemporary piece, a ram that has been made with life-size precision entirely from spark plugs.

An Exchange of Culture

Zeickner-Okoro also made the journey from Benin City to London in September to advance the idea of an art exchange with the British Museum. He told the press in Nigeria that he expected to hold a face-to-face meeting with some curators from the British Museum’s Africa department. This may appear to represent progress. However, the British Museum – the European institution that has the largest and most significant number of bronzes in its collection – did not make any commitment to the exchange. This is in contrast to German institutions which have already indicated that they would be returning their Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Time will tell as to whether the British Museum softens its line or comes up with a counter-proposal. For now, the museum has simply informed the press that it was a matter for ongoing discussion. Furthermore, it said that such discussions were for the institution itself and the individuals who had offered to exchange artworks.

A bronze caster, Chief Nosa Ogiakhia, said that he considered all of the bronzes in the British Museum to be property that rightfully belongs to the Oba of Benin. Ogiakhia went on to add that the museum should allow the Benin Bronzes it has to be brought back. “They’re not their father’s property,” he said.

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