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Art Culture

Benin Bronzes

The West’s constant need to keep colonialism alive and well.

In November 2021 Jesus College of the University of Cambridge returned a stolen Benin Bronze – a statue of a cockerel – to Nigeria, becoming the first UK institution to do so. Sonita Alleyne, master of the college, described it as a ‘momentous occasion’. Aberdeen University followed suite, returning a bronze depicting the head of an Oba. The current Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, thanked the university for this ‘noble act’, and stated that he hoped it would set an example for other institutions worldwide to follow. 

These acts come at a time of growing demands for the repatriation of artefacts removed from Africa by colonial powers during the 19th century. The Benin bronzes are a particularly high-profile case: in an 1897 raid on the royal palace of Benin, over 4,000 objects, including 900 bronzes, were looted by the British army, and were later distributed throughout various museums and private collections. They have played an important role in the cultural education of the Western masses and have also had a significant influence on modern art: encounters with African figures and masks informed the work of artists such as Matisse and Picasso. 

However, it is increasingly recognised that these items were illegitimately appropriated and are due to be returned. The Benin bronzes are an important part of African art history: they demonstrate the advanced technology and skills of the region in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In recent years officials in Benin have formally requested the return of these items, with the goal to house them in a new museum in Benin City. Multiple governments and institutions worldwide have responded to these demands: France returned 26 looted treasures last year, and have committed to the repatriation of thousands more, the Netherlands have pledged to return all stolen artefacts, starting with 139 bronzes, and Germany has promised the return of the 1,1000 bronzes currently housed in its museums. 

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However, some critics have voiced concerns over the consequences of repatriation. Tristram Hunt warns about rushing into repatriation because of political pressure. He writes that returning objects from Western collections risks limiting Western visitors’ understanding of history by making it less accessible. Without these objects, would encyclopaedic museums cease to exist? 

A further point of contention is the idea that Africa lacks the ability and infrastructure to protect and care for these precious items. After the destruction of relics and idols throughout Syria, Iraq and Libya by ISIS, some have argued that artefacts of global significance may be safest in the care of the West. However, the Guardian has opposed this: ‘that defence smacks of Western privilege’. Impressive institutions throughout Africa such as Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilisations indicate that African nations are already managing their own heritage competently. 

Despite concerns, it is becoming increasingly clear that the tide of repatriation cannot be held back. Pressure from institutions, government authorities, student groups and activists will soon be insurmountable. Although this will undoubtedly impact the collections of galleries and museums globally, it must not be seen as a loss, but rather as an opportunity to adapt. With the cooperation of institutions worldwide, the Edo Museum of West African Art is expected to house the world’s ‘most comprehensive’ display of Benin bronzes, restored to their rightful home.  

Image courtesy of Chris Loades via The Guardian