The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than 3,000 brass plaques and sculptures dating mainly to the 16th and 17th century.
On Saturday, 19 February, two Benin Bronzes—the Okpa (cockerel also called ‘Okukor’) and Uhunwun Elao (Oba head)—were returned to the traditional palace of the Oba of Benin, in Edo State, Nigeria. The return was celebrated in a grand ceremony at the Oba’s palace and attended by members of the royal family, traditional rulers from Edo State, Nigerian officials from the UK and Benin residents.
Last year, the returned artefacts were repatriated to Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK, Sarafa Tunji Ishola, from Jesus College, University of Cambridge, and University of Aberdeen. While handing over the artefacts to the Oba Ewuare II of Benin, Ishola cited how the return was a historic moment, as the commission had in the past encountered several blockades in securing the artworks to Nigeria. ‘I have on many occasions met the holders and told them that these Benin artefacts are not artworks, they are life arts, they are part of the history of these people, they are not works for commercial values or aesthetics,’ Ishola said.
In a speech read by his younger brother, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the Oba said the day was a joyous one to him and all the people of Benin at home and in the diaspora. We are witnessing today the beginning of the restitution of our artefacts which were looted in 1897. He also said that contrary to reports that the expedition of 1897 was a retaliation for the killing of some British soldiers, ‘The truth is that there was a calculated and a deliberately conceived plan to attack Benin for its territorial dominance and also for her treasures.’
The Oba and Ishola both commended the two institutions for preserving the artworks and maintaining their original looks 125 years after they were looted. While the cockerel and Oba head will remain with the Oba, Ishola noted that Nigeria is developing the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, where many of the returned bronzes are expected to be housed. He also mentioned that the value of the cockerel today is £2 million, while the Oba head is £500,000.
The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than 3,000 brass plaques and sculptures dating mainly to the 16th and 17th century. In 1897, they were looted by British troops from the Benin Kingdom (in present-day Edo State, Nigeria). The return, according to Reuters, is another milestone in the years-long fight by African countries to recover looted works, as numerous European institutions are grappling with the cultural legacies of colonialism.
More than 90 per cent of known ancient African artefacts are scattered across Europe in museums such as the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London. In recent years, calls for the return of these artefacts have been gaining momentum with some museums in Germany, America, and France agreeing to repatriate them to Africa⎈
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