Benin Bronzes And Restitution, The Journey Thus Far

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Ambassador Yusuf Tuggar

Much has been written and said of late about the Benin Bronzes and Africa’s  struggle for restitution of its stolen cultural properties in general. As one of the interlocutors who has helped to revitalise this longstanding issue that continues to trigger curiosity and capture public attention, I feel obliged to share my perspective on the long struggle for the restitution of these priceless cultural assets and take stock of the journey thus far. At the centre of this global debate are the Benin Bronzes, an open-and-shut case of theft, murder and racism that transpired in 1897 and, for that reason, the locus classicus of looted African art. The Benin Bronzes stand in contrast to other looted African art that may have been ‘lifted’ from an archaeological dig or burial site; the Benin Bronzes were forcibly stolen from the city after it was violently invaded by a British ‘punitive’ force, desecrating/burning the palace of the Oba of Benin and breaking all Just War doctrinal conventions since the days of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. In Benin, Victorian missionary and explorer David Livingstone’s 3 ‘C’s – Civilisation Commerce and Christianity – did    not get a look in. Instead, it was a case of the 3 ‘R’s: Racism, Robbery and Rapaciousness.

 

It is important to remind ourselves that the premise for the 1897 Benin massacre  was laid 12 years earlier in Berlin during the 1885 Conference that established the ground rules for the Scramble for Africa. The Berlin Conference created the framework for European colonial powers to partition an entire continent and forcibly take physical control on the ground whilst avoiding conflict among themselves. It adopted the Hinterland theory that granted a would-be colonial power with a coastal possession or foothold the right to lay claim to unspecified territory in the adjoining hinterland. This provided a basis for Britain, with an established foothold on the  Niger Delta Atlantic coast, to send a ‘punitive’ force to the inland kingdom of Benin  on a murderous expedition in the quest to establish full control over the hugely lucrative oil palm trade. Soon enough, Maxim guns and explosives produced a bonanza of antique Benin Bronzes and ivory, thereafter carted away to Britain.

Whereas the Oba of Benin was captured and exiled to be replaced by a British Resident as the new symbol of colonial power, the Bronzes and other looted items created a sensation in Europe popularised by the Illustrated London News weekly magazine. This sordid episode of plunder was further whitewashed even supported by a couple of books at the time that framed and glamorised an indiscriminate bloodbath as part-anthropological, part-civilising expedition into darkest Africa.

 

Participants in the Benin carnage and state officials would go on to sell the   proceeds of their crime to Museums and private collectors in Europe and North America, while others were offered as impressive gifts. The very existence of the Benin Bronzes and other cultural properties in Western Museums are a validation of Krishna Menon’s definition of colonialism as a permanent aggression. And, for as long as these proceeds of aggression remain tucked away in anthropological and ethnological Museums that are meant to serve as some sort of moral morgue for the colonial atrocities, the aggression continues to this day. They debunk national mythologies of appealing to moral suasion and rule of law, good governance and international best practice. And even as they remain for the most hidden in often dank basements and store rooms, blackamons – showcasing the precolonial

 

depiction of black Africans by European artists – remain on full display in public spaces. None more so than those in the Mohrenrondell Park on the grounds of the fabulous Sansoucci Palace of Potsdam.

 

Nigeria has been consistent in its demand for the return of its stolen cultural assets over the course of history. Our requests for restitution are a matter of record, notwithstanding thoroughly dishonest, disingenuous and now discredited attempts to pretend otherwise. The Benin kingdom began demanding for the return of the so- called Bronzes shortly after the 1897 massacre. After independence in 1960, the new Nigerian state began demanding the same. Director of the Federal Department of Antiquities Eyo Ekpo was unvarying in his request for restitution, including a 1972 Note Verbale sent to European Embassies through Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, making reference to a 1971 Resolution of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) on the ethics of acquisitions.

 

The matter was brought into full international public glare during preparations for the 1977 Festival of Black & African Arts & Culture (FESTAC 77) hosted by Nigeria to celebrate black art and culture, with representation from Africa, North & South America, the Caribbean and even Australia. The 16th century Queen-Mother Idia Benin ivory mask was chosen as the symbol of FESTAC; the only problem was that it was part of the Benin massacre loot languishing in the British Museum. All attempts by the Nigerian government to secure the mask in time for the festival  (even as a loan) proved futile. Instead, Nigeria had to make do with a replica hastily carved by local sculptors. For Nigerians from my generation born in the ‘60s into an independent nation and who grew up in the ‘70s, FESTAC left an indelible mark on our psyche. It was a moment of collective pride and validation of our nationhood   and rich cultural heritage for black people that had endured slavery, colonial subjugation and institutional racism. It was- to paraphrase Jurgen Habermas- our Verfassungspatriotismus moment. FESTAC was also the final nail in the coffin of Hegel’s notion of black Africa as being un-historic with no history worth noting prior  to contact with enlightened outsiders, partly because it lacked sufficient written history.

 

My generation was benefitting from the works of Africanist history scholars with a fresh perspective on historiography and methods of recording history to include oral tradition, art (cultural pieces) and anthropological analysis. Cultural pieces were therefore physical validations of our identity and heritage, and an authentication of African history and historiography beyond a simplistic account of the history of Europeans in Africa.

 

Eyo Ekpo’s requests for return or even loan of Nigeria’s stolen cultural properties from Britain and Germany are well documented in Benedict Savoy’s German language book Afrikas Kampf Um Seine Kunst (Africa’s fight for her Art). Savoy includes interactions with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin’s public museums (including the defunct Dahlem Ethnological Museum and the new Humboldt Forum); they kept denying Nigeria had ever made an official request for repatriation. Successive Nigerian Ministers of Information & Culture have consistently called for a return of looted cultural properties, notably Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, who attended a 2008 Benin works exhibition in the

 

 

 

 

 

 

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