A Nigerian group of artists has offered to donate artworks to the British Museum in London to encourage it to return the priceless Benin Bronzes that were looted from the city’s royal court by British troops in 1897.
The Ahiamwen Guild of artists and bronze casters said that 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.”
The looted bronze were created in Benin, Edo State, Nigeria from the 16th century onwards, the bronze and brass sculptures are among Africa’s finest and most culturally significant artefacts.
Many of the looted bronze artworks are currently hosted in European museums.
It was reported that the British Museum said the offer was a matter of discussion between itself and the group offering the objects.
The artworks offered to the British Museum was 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.
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 not made a clear commitment to return the objects.
British Museum on its website quoted its director, Hartwig Fischer, saying he 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”.
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.
He, however, said the British Museum should return the bronze 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,” Zeickner-Okoro 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.”
A bronze caster in Benin City shares Zeickner-Okoro’s sentiment and sees 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,” Nosa Ogiakhia said.