By Tife Owolabi and Estelle Shirbon
BENINCITY, Nigeria – A new guild of artists from Nigeria’s Benin City has offered to donate artworks to the British Museum in London as a way to encourage it to return the priceless Benin Bronzes that were looted from the city’s royal court by British troops in 1897.
Created in the once mighty Kingdom of Benin from at least the 16th century onwards, the bronze and brass sculptures are among Africa’s finest and most culturally significant artefacts. European museums that house them have faced years of criticism because of their status as loot and symbols of colonial greed.
The Ahiamwen Guild of artists and bronze casters says it wants to change the terms of the debate by giving the British Museum contemporary artworks, untainted by any history of looting, that showcase Benin City’s modern-day culture.
“We never stopped making the bronzes even after those ones were stolen,” said Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, a founding member of the new guild and the instigator of the proposed donation. “I think we make them even better now.”
“Part of the crime that’s been committed, it’s not just ok, these were looted, it’s the fact that you’ve portrayed our civilisation as a dead civilisation, you’ve put us among ancient Egypt or something,” he said.
The artworks on offer, unveiled in Benin City in a ceremony attended by a member of the royal court, include a 2-metre-by-2-metre bronze plaque with carvings representing historical events in Benin, and a life-size ram made entirely from spark plugs.
Asked to comment on the offer, the British Museum said only that it was a matter for discussion between itself and the parties offering the objects.
Zeickner-Okoro, who travelled from Benin City to London this month partly to advance his initiative, said he had a meeting coming up with curators from the museum’s Africa department.
While Germany has said it wants to return Benin Bronzes from its museums to Nigeria, the British Museum, which houses the largest and most significant collection of the items, has stopped short of making a clear commitment.
It says on its website that its director, Hartwig Fischer, had an audience with the Oba, or king, of Benin in 2018 “which included discussion of new opportunities for sharing and displaying objects from the Kingdom of Benin”.
But many people in Benin City see no justification for European museums holding onto loot.
“They must bring it back. It is not their father’s property. The property belongs to the Oba of Benin,” said bronze caster Chief Nosa Ogiakhia.
Zeickner-Okoro, who grew up partly in Britain before moving back to Benin City, acknowledged that the Benin Bronzes’ presence in European museums had allowed them to reach a global audience. But he said they should now return to the place and the people that created them.
“The descendants of the people who cast those bronzes, they’ve never seen that work because most of them can’t afford to fly to London to come to the British Museum,” he said.
“They have these catalogues, PDF copies of the catalogue from the British Museum, which they use to reference the work of their ancestors, and I think it’s so sad.”