Oba ownership

Nigeria: Do Benin Bronzes belong to Oba kingdom or the people?

By Dami Ajayi

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Posted on June 2, 2023 07:48

 © Some of the Benin bronzes stolen by the British from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, on display at the British Museum. (Photo:Joy of museums/Wikimedia commons)
Some of the Benin bronzes stolen by the British from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, on display at the British Museum. (Photo:Joy of museums/Wikimedia commons)

The Oba of Benin is the rightful owner of the Benin Bronzes, according to an official gazette signed by then-president Muhammadu Buhari on 28 March. The priceless objects were looted from the Kingdom by the British in 1897 and stashed away in museums and private collections in Europe and the US for more than a century.

This singular executive act has several implications for restituting these copper-alloy art masterpieces forcefully removed from present-day Edo State, Nigeria. The Cambridge, UK, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which holds 119 artefacts, the second-largest collection of Benin Bronzes, did not return the pieces on 16 May, as agreed.

This quiet schedule disruption may share more than a temporal relationship with then-president Buhari’s directive. The museum has not yet provided an official statement.

History of the punitive expedition

In February 1897, during the reign of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, more than 1,000 British soldiers and local allies attacked the Benin Kingdom, desecrating his palace.

The ‘punitive expedition’ carried out by the British was in retaliation for the killing of James R. Phillips, a British deputy commissioner, and seven others in his party. They came to visit the Oba unannounced and were killed by Benin Kingdom officials after they refused to wait for a meeting with him, as requested by the sovereign.

The palace was sacked of more than 5,000 copper-alloy and ivory artefacts produced by the Royal Guild from the 13th to 17th century. They are symbols of the totem-based communication channel between the Oba of Benin and his ancestors.

Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was captured and subsequently sent to exile.

The month-long punitive expedition led to the deaths of hundreds of Edo people and has been classified as one of the most brutal instances during the scramble for Africa.

In the aftermath of the attack, these artefacts circulated in Europe and the US, moving from private collections to museums under a Western gaze, underscoring both artistic achievements and the sophisticated civilisation of the Benin Kingdom.

Who owns the Benin Bronzes?

As the West reckons with its violent past of colonialism and slavery, the debate about the true ownership of the Benin Bronzes came to the fore.

The long journey towards restitution began with a dialogue among stakeholders, including museum curators, top diplomats, art activists, and civil servants. These meetings have started to yield action.

Last year, Nigeria received 20 artefacts from Germany in a symbolic ceremony in Abuja attended by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerback. Some 1,000 Benin expedition artefacts have been returned to Nigeria, including Okukor, the masterfully crafted bronze statue of a cockerel formerly in the care of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Although members of the Benin Kingdom greeted the president’s official gazette with joy, there was a flurry of agitation in the Western media. Chief among their concerns is that the priceless Benin Bronzes could become the private property of the reigning Oba of Benin, Ewuare II.

The presidential declaration contradicts the agreement of the multilateral international collaborative group, the Benin Dialogue Group, which states that the Benin Bronzes will be housed in the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye and co-funded by European governments.

The Oba of Benin and his palace officials have advised that a museum separate from EMOWAA will be built within the palace grounds where the Benin Bronzes will be returned, signifying a different path to restitution of the Benin Bronzes, which the federal government of Nigeria has now endorsed.

Abba Isa Tijani, the director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and a major stakeholder in the restitution dialogue, has sought clarification regarding this presidential gazette, adding that NCMM was not officially notified.

Opposing views

Victor Ehikhamenor, an acclaimed visual artist from Edo State, is not amused by the uproar in the West. In several interviews regarding the restitution of Benin Bronzes, he supports the Nigerian government’s directive that provides the Oba of Benin, an institution in his own right, to look after these Benin Bronzes forcefully removed from his ancestor’s palace.

Benson Eluma, with the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, and a native of Edo state, holds a different view that upholds the artists’ role.

“When we see art as the finished product alone, or as the artefact, chances are that we may downplay its nature as something that was put through the process of ‘being made’ by a person, the artist, who works within a given social and cultural context,” he wrote in his essay Art, Anonymity, Anger, and Re-appropriation, published in Benin 1897.Com:Art And The Restitution Question (Wy Art Editions, 2010).

Eluma’s views have not changed in the 13 years since his essay was published.

“The Oba didn’t produce those works. They took them from the artists. The [bronzes] should be restored to the people who made them, and to the people who would appreciate art, rather than confiscate and appropriate it as an apparatus for personal aggrandisement,” he tells The Africa Report.

However, the Edo people continue to be disenfranchised in all these restitution conversations.

In an interview, cultural historian, art and heritage specialist Oluwatoyin Zainab Sogbesan said: “The restitution discourse is yet to become an inclusive topic in Nigerian institutions – privileged elites alone seem involved.”

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