Benin bronzes: The long journey home

Molemo Moiloa on why African voices need to be heard in the debate over the restitution of looted artefacts

The World Today Updated 1 December 2022 Published 4 June 2021 2 minute READ

Molemo Moiloa

Joint organizer, Open Restitution Africa project (based in Johannesburg)

Over the years, the Benin bronzes, many of which are now housed in the British Museum and other European collections, have become a symbol of the broader restitution debate. More significant than items already returned to Africa, such as the Hendrik Witbooi Bible and whip, handed back to Namibia by a Stuttgart museum, or the Omar Tall sword returned to Senegal by France, they are a good starting point to discuss the issue of restitution.

Despite their popularity and the seemingly clear moral case for their return they represent only the very beginning of a long and complex journey to restitution.

Bust of Idia, a Benin King Mother

Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie, who ruled from 1504-1550, was granted her own palace as a reward for using her mystic powers to bring victory in Benin’s war against the Igala

The Benin bronzes – a catch-all term for items that include ivory, brass, bone and wood sculptures and carvings – were stolen. They are unquestionably precious to the world and cherished by their own people. This, together with the building of a new museum in Nigeria in which to house them, makes their return inevitable. 

In 1897, the British sent 5,000 troops on a murderous march to the palace of Benin City, in what Peju Layiwola, the Nigerian artist and historian, calls the ‘Benin massacre’. They razed villages to the ground, killed thousands, sacked the palace and took everything, including 4,000 works of artistic, spiritual, medicinal and genealogical value. According to Zacharys Gundu, the archaeologist, they were taken to be sold in Europe ‘to pay for the expenses incurred in removing the king from his stool’.

Now Germany has said it will start to hand back to Nigeria priceless artefacts held in Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum in 2022, following a similar move by France in 2020. In April 2021, the University of Aberdeen said it would repatriate a Benin bronze bought at an 1957 auction.  Britain and the United States still retain hundreds of pieces.

The European importance of the bronzes lies primarily in their elegance. They hold a distinct visual power and have played a vital role in changing the assessment of intellectual, technological and artistic development of Africans. 

The bronze works in particular are early examples of the complex lost-wax technique, displaying a technical mastery. Today, museums throughout the world value their technical and aesthetic brilliance.

When first encountered in 1910 by Leo Frobenius, the German ethnologist, they were said to be too ‘lovely’ to have been made by ‘this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity’. 

Benin Bronze sculpture of a guardian

A ‘guardian’ sculpture taken from  the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 and currently on display in the Linden Museum, Stuttgart

The debate over the return of stolen artefacts currently centres on ‘experts’ from universities and museums in the global north. While they are vital to the debate, African voices are needed to bring balance.  While African voices have been calling for the bronzes’ return since they were first taken, with the issue becoming most intense in the 1970s, increasingly they are speaking louder, and to each other, about what needs to be done.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim, the Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker, has pointed to the absurdity of arguments that artefacts taken under colonial control but ‘paid for’ should not be considered as taken under duress. 

The complex power frameworks that decide which artefacts are chosen for restitution are explored by Njoki Ngumi, the Kenyan activist and artist. She points out that the museums which often pick and choose for display from the masses of ‘things’ that were taken have themselves been unable to accurately catalogue, understand and care for the artefacts. Some remain in crates, unopened since they first arrived in the 20th century. Others have been ‘treated’ with arsenic and cannot be handled without protective clothing, she says. 

Chao Tayiana Maina, the founder of African Digital Heritage, has worked to increase access to African cultural heritage. Her work reminds us that there are heaps of records, archives, fundamental knowledge of our history that remain locked away in European basements. 

Wazi Apoh, the archaeologist and cultural heritage specialist,  has written about what it will take to reclaim not just the physical, tangible objects, but the historical, spiritual and social knowledge around them that is vital to the restitution of African life.

A bronze openwork plaque from Benin

A bronze openwork plaque from Benin

For Felwine Sarr, the Senegalese academic, and Bénédicte Savoy, the French scholar on the provenance of looted art, restitution is not simply a question of ‘objects’ but a vital part of rewriting the ethical relationship between Europe and Africa, not just concerning the past but how they relate in the future. 

‘Europe owes us the truth about what happened,’ says Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian philosopher. ‘But you know, when you look at the history of our engagement with Europe, the one thing a lot of our thinkers and historians have found is that Europe has a serious problem with the truth.’

It is important that no one assumes that some ‘things’ can be returned and the book be simply closed on a chapter of difficult history. Instead, to return the artefacts is just the beginning of a process of restoration. To keep and learn from that which is returned – through academic research or even children’s education programmes – all requires substantial resources as well. 

The imminent return of the Benin bronzes is a moment of celebration, yes. But it is also the first step on a long road of awkwardness, tumultuous emotions and complex accountability. We will need to remain committed to the process.

This article contains research carried out as part of the Africa No Filter Academic Fellowship.