Benin Bronzes from Nigeria

Repatriating stolen Benin Bronzes, other artifacts to Africa remains a challenge: Report

*African Foundation for Development’s investigation report reveals the challenges and obstacles related to returning looted African artifacts to their rightful owners  

Alexander Davis | ConsumerConnect

Recent promises to return several stolen Benin Bronzes from certain Western institutions to the former Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria have been hailed my many on the African continent.

However, returning all the artifacts looted by British soldiers 125 years ago will continue to be a challenge.

In recent weeks, a university in Scotland, in the UK as well museums in Germany, Britain has pledged to repatriate the Benin Bronzes it owns, reports VOANews.

The restitution is said to be hugely symbolic to Timothy Awoyemi, a British-born Nigerian who helped repatriate two Benin Bronzes in 2014 from a private collector whose grandfather had been part of the 19th century looting.

African artworks in a museum overseas

Awoyemi says he was elated when he heard about the latest returns, report stated.

Awoyemi said: “They stole it so it makes me happy, because the stolen artifacts are going to be returned back to where they rightly belong.”

The report noted that the British soldiers looted the Kingdom of Benin (currently in Edo state in Nigeria), during a punitive military expedition in 1897.

The high valued plaques, masks and sculptures functioned as an historical archive to the Benin royal palace at the time.

The sculptures made of brass, bronze and ivory are now owned and displayed across Western museums and institutions, according to report.

Oxford Professor Dan Hicks is the curator of the Pitts River Museum, which holds 145 Benin objects.

Hicks, who has authored a book about the bronzes, says the displays of stolen art in Western museums continues to hurt people in the present.

The culture expert said: “The dispossession of arts and culture was a central sort of part of how military operations that sought to remove sovereignty, and sought to destroy traditional religion, and sought to remove identity, culture.

“That was a central part of what the Europeans were doing in the 1880s, 1890s across Africa.”

The argument that Western museums would be emptied out or shut down is unlikely as restitution needs a case by case approach, stated Kicks.

Currently, thousands of bronzes from the former Benin Empire are held in private collections and in over 160 museums around the world. Most have offered to discuss loaning the bronzes instead of repatriation.

The British Museum in London holds about 900 Benin objects, the largest collection in the world.

Its website reads no formal written request has been received for the return of the entire Benin collection, despite the bronzes being filed under “contested objects.”  Additionally, laws would need to be changed because British national collections are prohibited from giving away their collection.

The African Foundation for Development (AFFORD) is a British based charity, which, for the past year, has investigated the challenges and obstacles related to returning African artifacts.

Onyekachi Wambu, Executive Director of the Foundation, stated that even if the national collections aren’t willing or able to repatriate, there are many more places and people owning Benin Bronzes.

Wambu explained that there are “lots of different museums around the country, which have their own collections, and they are not covered by the law.

“There are others that are in private collections, and those are going to be much more difficult to do because, you know, those people sometimes don’t want to do it.”

It is said that over 90 percent of African cultural legacy is held outside the continent.

Although many Western countries have laws ensuring the return of Nazi-looted art, this approach has not been extended when it comes to artworks stolen from Africa and other parts of the world, the report said.

ConsumerConnect recalls that experts appointed by President Emmanuel Macron advised him 2018 to allow the return of the stolen artifacts.

France had promised to return 26 works of art to Benin, as the French President took delivery of a report recommending the widespread return of cultural artifacts removed from Africa during the colonial era.

The report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedicte Savoy marked a potential milestone in the fight by African countries to recover works pillaged by Western explorers and colonisers.

Macron was reported to have become the first Western leader to initiate a comprehensive review of colonial loot after telling Burkinabe students in 2017, that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

Sadly, 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is now believed to be in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris alone holds 70,000 African objects, as does London’s British Museum, Savoy told Reuters in 2018.

Western museums have traditionally resisted appeals to return looted objects to their countries of origin, which they often argue lack the necessary resources to care for the works.

Kindly Share This Story