Around the World and Black Again: U.K. University to Return Stolen Benin Sculpture to Nigeria

Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England.
Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England.
Photo: Dan Kitwood (Getty Images)

As Britain’s present-day racism continues to come to light in the context of the whole Meghan Markle debacle, a reckoning with the historical racism of the British Isles is also emerging.

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The University of Aberdeen in Scotland on Thursday announced that it plans to return a bronze statue depicting a ruler of the Kingdom of Benin to Nigeria, which British soldiers outright stole from Benin in 1897.

According to a report from Al Jazeera, at the time when the sculpture was stolen, Nigeria was colonized by Britain but Benin was still an independent, Black-led state.

Not satisfied with controlling a region in Western Africa it had no claim to, the avaricious colonizers pilfered thousands of artifacts from Benin and then went on to sell them to European buyers—including the University of Aberdeen, which bought the specific sculpture in question in 1957.

From Al Jazeera:

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances,” said university vice-chancellor George Boyne.

Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed called the move a “step in the right direction” and urged other holders of Nigerian antiquity “to emulate this”.

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said the importance of displaying the Bronze inside Nigeria for the first time in more than 120 years was inexpressible.

“It’s part of our identity, part of our heritage… which has been taken away from us for many years,” Tijani said.

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The sculpture will be headed to Nigeria in the coming weeks, said the university, which after holding on to it for over a century now acknowledges that the way it came into the school’s possession was “extremely immoral.”

Meanwhile, the British Museum boasts on its website that it has “over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin” in its collection, obtained through the bloody occupation of the kingdom by British forces who looted shrines, executed chiefs in the kingdom and exiled the ruler depicted in many of the sculptures they stole. The British Museum acknowledges that the Benin Royal Court in Nigeria has repeatedly made requests for the return of their people’s belongings, and says it is “committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions” concerning the Benin Bronzes.

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While most of the artifacts are held by institutions and private collectors in Europe, some are in American museums like the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Interestingly, Congress has said that the Nazis’ looting of art from the Jewish people was part and parcel of their genocidal actions during the Holocaust, and the U.S. government has continuously backed Jewish descendants in their attempts to reclaim their rightful property from this country and those in Europe, including through the courts.

As for the Nigerians, decades of hopeful dialogue with the people who killed your ancestors and stole their precious creations is all well and good, I guess, but damn there’s a reason why the Killmonger approach in Black Panther felt so cathartic to watch.

Writer, speaker, finesser, and a fly dresser. Jamaican-American currently chilling in Chicago.

DISCUSSION

feministonfire
FeministOnFire

I’m not getting the through-line...although the artifacts were stolen from Nigeria, were they CREATED by Nigerian artists? If so, why would Nigerians be creating art of a neighboring country’s rulers?!

It seems more likely that the Nigerians stole the items from Benin (or took them as spoils of war) and should return them to the people who will treasure them.