Benin Bronzes: Britain still clings to the Nigerian artifacts, but is it on the wrong side of history? – iNews

Beautiful, but really not ours, and tainted with the blood of Biafra – in the words of one critic – the Benin Bronzes, of which Britain holds a significant proportion, may have become the latest weapon in the culture wars.
In the long term, Bronze owners from Queen Elizabeth to the British Museum will likely bow to inevitable – and cede ownership to Nigeria.
For now, however, the battle for restitution has just begun. And for the moment, at least, “Global Britain” appears, in 2021, to be on the wrong side of history.
Even in a world whose gaze is skewed towards Western art, the Benin Bronzes enjoy huge recognition for their beauty and cultural importance.
The title refers to a group of  brass and bronze sculptures, which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments.
They were created from the 16th or possibly 15th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin by artists working for the Oba (king) in Benin City. There are also works made from ivory, leather, coral and wood.
The tortured period in the Bronzes’ history began with the arrival of the British in 1897. They came, they saw and they plundered. The historic Kingdom of Benin (which is now part of southern Nigeria — not its neighbouring namesake Benin) became part of the British Empire until 1960.
According to Deborah Mack of the National African American Museum of History and Culture, the looters were probably “shocked” by the bronzes’ beauty and craftsmanship. They ended up in museums across Europe and the US.
Dan Hicks, a professor of modern archaeology at Oxford University, and author of The Brutish Museums; The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, thinks that some museums may not really be aware of “what they’ve got or how it got there”. 
But he argues it’s their responsibility to educate themselves – and their visitors, given that the European powers used museum galleries to justify their conquests and grotesque violence in Africa and elsewhere.
“We are just at the start of the process by which colonial museums address how they have been used to promote the message of cultural superiority,” he says.
The British Museum has won plaudits for contextualising its huge collection of Benin Bronzes, with labelling in its galleries explaining clearly how these treasures were plundered.
There are, however, any number of people outside Nigeria who say the works were looted. When it comes to restoring them to their rightful home, it’s mostly a case of all talk, no action.
The British Museum, in which almost 10 per cent of the 10,000 or so Benin Kingdom artworks ended up, has so far not pledged to return or cede ownership of any of them to Nigerian authorities. It is not alone. In the case of the Royal Collection, its Benin Bronze — looted not once but twice in its unfortunate recent history — there is little talk and no action.
The press spokesman merely bats away questions concerning the restitution of objects from the Royal Collection as a “matters for discussion by the trustees of the Royal Collection Trust”.
The Royal Collection’s Bronze was stolen in 1897 by British troops and then swiped again from the Nigerian National Museum 1973 by then president General Yakubu Gowon. He presented it to Queen Elizabeth to thank Britain for supporting Nigeria against secessionist Biafra in the 1967 civil war (which Nigeria won by deliberately starving two million people to death in the breakaway state).
Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of African and Africa Diaspora Art at Princeton University, is from southern Nigeria. He told i that such artifacts “are tainted by the blood of Biafra”. As a child who survived the Nigerian-Biafran War, he led the campaign against the Christie auction in June last year of a pair of sculptures taken from Nigeria during that conflict.
He is also keen to explain the Benin Bronzes’ cultural significance.
“These are not just decorative objects but an archive of the history of a people; they document events through history. For a culture without a history of writing, looting these objects is like looting the national library, stealing the memories of a people,” he says.
He adds that in a purely artistic sense “the works are as significant as any works in metal anywhere in the world in the Renaissance period – in 15th, 16th and 17th centuries”.
Westerners – used to the Renaissance ideal of mirroring reality and fooling the eye – may struggle with the Benin artists’ work, which adopts an entirely different paradigm on perspective.
But in the 20th century, European art dealers realised how interesting they would be to collectors and artists who had already developed an interest in a range of styles from cubism to nativism. And the upheavals in the late 1960s ensured that many more were snatched on the orders of European dealers even as their governments condemned the violence.
How likely, though, is it that Nigeria will be able to reassemble a collection worthy of the place that spawned them?
The international pressure to give them back is certainly growing.
German officials announced in April they had reached agreement with Nigeria to return a share of the country’s Benin Bronzes. Berlin’s Ethnological Museum has one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts from the  Benin Kingdom, with a total 530 items, including 440 bronzes.
For the last decade, a consortium known as the Benin Dialogue Group has been working to repatriate these works and establish a permanent display in Benin City at one of the key archaeological sites by 2025, in partnership with museums in Germany and other European nations.
Other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of New York, have offered to return some of their bronzes to Nigeria.
Similarly, France promised two years ago to repatriate 26 objects from the Kingdom of Dahomey to the Benin Republic by 2021, though, according to Art News, none has yet to permanently leave the country. Even smaller British institutions are rebelling against the UK government’s  stance that Britain should “retain and explain” controversial artefacts, rather than cede ownership. In March this year, the University of Aberdeen announced it was returning a Benin Bronze bust it had acquired in the 1950s.
“Our panel concluded that this was acquired as loot and therefore, we didn’t feel we had moral title,” said Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the university.
British Museum is part of the Benin Dialogue Group and has pledged to help fund the new museum at the Nigerian archaeological site, though it has not pledged to give up any of its artworks.
“In the past it might have been possible to argue that the rich countries were better able to look after the objects they took. But no longer,” says Prof Okeke-Agulu.
Prof Hicks notes the irony in that old excuse.
“We were told they were unprotected in the hands of the people that made them. In fact the bronzes were perfectly safe till the British turned up,” he says.
No-one is expecting a radical shift by the British Museum in the immediate future.
“I don’t think any changes are likely with the current government,” says Prof Okeke-Agulu. He even suggests the Bronzes have been co-opted by nationalists as a weapon in the culture wars. The objects are part of the national patrimony, and the British Museum director, is accountable to the board of trustees, appointed by the government. Okeke-Agulu thinks that recent appointments of conservative trustees made a radical change of position highly unlikely – in the short term.
One academic at the British Museum, who did not wish to be named, concurred: “ [George] Osborne [the former Tory chancellor] is the new Chair and will fight to the death to stop any repatriations. Plus all the big public research museum directors have been told they’ll lose their funding if they get any more woke. It’s not just Benin. If they start there, where will it end?”
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Other commentators, including Prof Hicks, are willing to give the economically right-wing but socially liberal Osborne the benefit of the doubt – for now. But he and Prof Okeke-Agulu are more upbeat about the longer-term prospects for the bronzes’ restitution.  
“The wind is changing. I’m very optimistic that in the longer term things will change,”  says Prof Okeke-Agulu. “Social media means that people like me have a voice. The Black Lives Matter movement means that these issues can no longer be ignored.”
There are other clouds on the horizon. News of a building dispute between Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki  and His Royal Majesty Oba Ewaure II over exactly where the returned bronze should be kept, is not good news for those who dream of the Bronzes  returning home. 
A director of a European museum which has a large collection of Bronzes, and has previously spoken in favour of their return,  has told the BBC: “Our policy is that if claimants are in dispute amongst themselves, we wait until they resolve it.”
Nonetheless, although it won’t happen next week or next month or even next year but sometime in the not too distant future, compromises probably will be reached. And a large degree of restitution to Nigeria will take place. Restitution does not necessarily mean wholesale repatriation, however.  
If the mighty British Museum has the space to exhibit only 195 of its 1,250 artifacts, Benin City is unlikely to cope with a flood of thousands returning from all corners of the globe.
Nor would it want to. The Benin Bronzes, owned by Nigeria, but on display in London, Paris and New York  would be a proud sign of West Africa’s cultural significance. Most campaigners are simply calling for Nigeria’s ownership to be acknowledged – and for it to have a say in where the works are displayed.
The moral imperative for this is underlined by the fact the art and sacred objects were not stolen from a dead culture, but one that lives on. The modern city of Benin (in Edo State) is the home of the current ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, Oba Ewuare II. Many of the rituals and ceremonies associated with the historic Kingdom of Benin are still performed today.
Twitter: @michael2day
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