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A view on Benin Bronzes from Nigeria

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Wednesday, 21 Jun 2023, 10:29

I had been interested to come across details of a 'round-table' discussion of the return of Benin Art to Nigeria, being hosted by the Goethe-Institut (the German equivalent of the British Council) in Abuja. I'd heard about it via a Twitter link and eventually ended up watching it via a recording on a Goethe-Institut Facebook page.

A recording can be accessed here:

https://www.facebook.com/nadine.siegert/videos/798083458597257/?mibextid=v7YzmG

These are just a few summary notes of points that were discussed.

The context was the return of artefacts by the German government and debate within Nigeria about 'ownership' of objects and about where and how they might be displayed. The most recent development had been a statement from the outgoing president of Nigeria that the ownership of any returned artefacts would lie with the Oba.

There was a strong 'Benin' feel to the African panellists - the representative of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments didn't attend although a member of the regional government was in the audience. 

Some points that I found interesting:

Martin Huth (Deputy Head of Missions, German Embassy) - gave a potted history of museums and collection in Germany. From the Renaissance an increased interest in ancient art and the beginnings of art collections started with state rulers in the Holy Roman Empire. This became more widespread amongst German elites after 1848, collection became fashionable and was accompanied by a developing scientific interest in ethnology. Germany was a relative 'latecomer' to European colonialism, but as this developed it brought a boost to collection. He highlighted that in the mid 20th century Germany had both perpetrated and been the victim of cultural looting; plundering art works from Jewish people and conquered populations and then losing materials to Soviet Union and Western Allies. He brought up the term the 'nationalisation of art' to describe current desires to repatriate art that had been seen to have been stolen. Huth dated a change in culture to the late 1960's with student activism and subsequent discussions in the 1970's about it being untenable to retain artefacts like Benin Bronzes. He was keen to hear what Nigerian civic society wanted as the model for display of the art and asked whether a 'museum culture' was something that African society wanted to embrace, or was this an overly Eurocentric view?


John Asien (Nigerian Copyright Commission) - was very measured about concerns over the recent Presidential decree - he stressed that the Oba still had to work with others to ensure safe storage and display of the artefacts. He made an interesting point about ownership, highlighting that African culture stressed three parties in ownership,: ancestors, current and future generations.



Prof Ken Okoli (Academic, Art Historian) - made interesting points about the sacred nature of the objects (something stressed by a number of speakers) this was something that was largely passed over in the A111 module materials. He proposed at one point that to view the objects, once returned, people would need to perform various ritual ablutions - and that the objects would need to be purified on return given their 'desecration' in the West. Along with a number of people on the panel and the audience he gave a strong 'Bini' perspective and was clear he thought the objects should be returned to the Oba.


Prince Akeni Prosper (Heir-apparent to the Throne of Elluega I, the Ovie of Ozoro Kingdom) - gave an impressive account of his families' connection back to the 17th century civil wars in The Kingdom of Benin and the magical properties of the artefacts. Whilst the arguments around restitution were familiar, it was very interesting to hear them so eloquently put in terms of a 'traditional' community leader. 



Overall it was an interesting discussion to listen in to. Perhaps understandably, there was very little positive that speakers or audience had to say about British holders of the artworks. Many of the points that would come up on any Twitter discussion about repatriation were also voiced, concerns about the security of the objects, criticism of the national government's interest in the heritage and art communities in Nigeria, questions about how accessible the objects might be once returned. There were some interesting observations about the possibility that strong Christian and Islamic cultures acted to reduce interest in these 'idolatrous' objects and that there might be limited interest amongst younger members of the Nigerian population.

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Steven Oliver

Benin at the BM

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Tuesday, 30 May 2023, 16:27

Managed to 'negotiate' 20 minutes in the British Museum at the end of April. Fascinating both to see the Benin objects and to watch people looking at them. I'm a bit sceptical about the 'museum for the world' rhetoric - but perhaps just a little less having been reminded of what a global city London really is!


However displayed it was interesting to watch how much (and how little) attention the objects received. 



There is just so much going on in some the plaques (Ama), the detail in this one is amazing, the hairstyles, musical instruments, even the patterning in the clothes.

Details from Digital Benin



Oba supported by two attendants 

If you look closely you can make out Portuguese heads in the detail of the Oba's dress

Details from Digital Benin



An attempt to reinforce the depth of the relief casting - I'm still intrigued as to whether they were cast with sprue and channels to enable the brass to reach all the areas (a question for the future)



Ivory hip-pendant mask (Uhunmwu-Ẹkuẹ) thought to be of Queen Mother Idia

Understandable why this image is so iconic, the design alone is really striking even before you get to the historic meaning.

Details from Digital Benin




Figure of European with long hair, beard and moustache

Details from Digital Benin



Four page figures in front of palace compound

Another incredibly detailed and exciting plaque, with altar goods set out that you can see around you in the exhibits.

Details from Digital Benin



Oba with royal page holding a netted calabash rattle

Details from Digital Benin


This last plaque really intrigued me - I wasn't at all sure what to make of it - male?...female? 


Tracking down details online on the train home revealed it was thought to represent an 'Ehioba' carrying a stick/switch.

'Ehioba is leader of the Ooton guild, selected from descendants of previous rulers of Benin, who served the high priest Osuan. The bulge beneath his tunic on his chest represents the concealed jawbones of a deceased Iyase (a political opponent to the Oba).'

Details from Digital Benin

Made me think a lot about all the detailed scholarship and research that will have been conducted by Western experts to 'establish' an interpretation of this object - work that was only needed because it was stripped of all context by its initial Western looters.

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Steven Oliver

From Benin to Devon

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 23 Apr 2023, 19:55


This is a bronze of the head of an Oba - thought to have been cast around 1816 or after. It was part of the loot from the 1897 destruction of the Kingdom of Benin and was gifted to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter by Ralph Locke. He, along with Alan Boisragon, was one of the two British survivors from the initial expedition to Benin and accompanied the group which subsequently sacked the city. Locke served in the consular service in Nigeria and on return to the UK became a prison governor, he was apparently governor at Exeter prison when he donated this casting. He made some other donations (I think the figure of a Portuguese soldier on page 168 of Crossing Boundaries A111 book was given to the BM by him) but sold most of his collection at auction in the 1920's - so presumably it is now all over the world in private and public collections.



There is more detail on the Digital Benin website (which is where I found out about the object in the first place)


The object is displayed as part of the 'Africa' section of a diverse ethnographic collection at RAMM, I've also included the contextual information they provide. The display text includes an image of members of the 1897 expedition and the object is described as 'plundered' - the information also makes a point of saying the object was donated to the museum. There is interesting detail about how the object would have originally displayed and of its original meanings - there was no reference to the relationship between the cast heads and carved ivory tusks, perhaps because the museum does not have anything to display. 




The image below is of a more contemporary casting that is also displayed in the gallery. This is described as a 'Lost wax casting in brass of an Oba or King of Benin on horseback. The casting was made by a Yoruba craftsman in the Benin court style for sale to a British expatriate'

It is recorded as 'purchased 1962-68', presumably this is a date range for original sale as I would have thought that RAMM would have an exact date if a museum purchase had been meant. The object is identified as produced in Owo, Southwest Nigeria. It was interesting to see a 'shiny' bronze and try to imagine what the original royal art might have looked like.


RAMM has repatriated at least one object from its collection in recent years (returned to a first nation group in Canada after a vote by the city council) I don't know if there are any active claims for return of the Oba's head bronze to Nigeria.

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Steven Oliver

The Brutish Museums

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Thursday, 20 Apr 2023, 09:33


The book 'The Brutish Museums' by Dan Hicks is briefly mentioned in the 'Optional' materials in week 27 'The art of Benin: 1897 to present day'. Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which houses a number of objects taken from the Kingdom of Benin.

I've made a number of notes below, chiefly on points that I want to keep in mind from the book and some onward links.

Overall, I wish I could say I enjoyed the book more than I did. I'm broadly in sympathy with Hicks's view that museums and galleries need to take a more active role in repatriation of illegally looted objects in their collections. I'd also agree that they should be actively raising difficult conversations about the awful reality of the British Empire and its ongoing legacy and consider how they can engage in a process of meaningful restitution. In fact there wasn't much about any of the arguments he makes that I'd disagree with, the difficulty I had was really with the writing style. The book is a polemic, which is often invigorating and a necessary part of study - I just found the repeated 'short-cut' language of 'disaster-extraction-capitalism', 'ultraviolence', 'corporate-militarist colonialism', 'white fragility' etc. became wearing and clichéd in the end and detracted from the message for me. 

That said there are lots of points that I want to keep hold of!

An early reference was made to 'Workers investigating their own workplace' and the movement 'Dig where you stand' promoted by Sven Lindqvist. I've subsequently discovered this was a Swedish 'History from Below' movement that encouraged examination of the history of employers and companies by their workers. Hicks makes this link because as a 'museum worker' he is critically examining and exposing the history of his workplace.

Hicks takes the following as a key motto in the book: 'as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire' - I take this to mean that whilst borders divide humanity into so-called 'nations', museums use time to make distinctions between different types of human. 

There is a chapter on the 'Theory of Taking' - which I think really boils down to the argument that material theft should be similarly considered as has land theft in studies of colonisation. That these forms of dispossession are just as important and damaging to survivor populations.

Hicks talks about 'Necrography' - not just the 'life histories' of objects in museums, but also death histories - documenting loss - and the loss of life in particular - associated with objects.

He takes issue with:

  • cultural biography - i.e. the idea of what is added to object through reuse/passage
  • entanglement - a reciprocity of reaction between cultures which come into contact, Hicks seems to argue that this obscures the enormous asymmetry in the damage accruing from these contacts with colonisers.

The idea of necrography seems to be a response to this.

Another term coined was, 'White projection' - essentially projecting colonisers faults onto others - it was Benin's 'fault', they were the savages - even though it was the colonisers who exhibited the savagery.

Hicks makes (to my mind) a good case that the 'Punitive raid' was part of a pre-planned expansion of colonial control for profit. He also promotes the idea of 'World War Zero' for the period of colonial violence worldwide from the Berlin Conference to the start of WWI. Whilst this may have some merit in highlighting the geographic scale, the continuous (if sequential) nature and the horror of these 'Small Wars', I think it potentially underplays their asymmetry - the later WW's were much more 'equal'. However interesting to think about whether this whole period will in fact in time be seen as one of extended (chiefly European) imperial conflict.

There was lots of discussion about museums, objects and 'duration' and archaeology as being involved in 'duration'. I assume that is perhaps about 'what lasts'? Hick argues that museums, (and perhaps display in particular?) cause ongoing violence - extend the duration of the original assaults, he also sees the violence as increased over time. I did wonder if it is really possible to establish who are (and who are not?) the victims of such violence, is this a process of self-identification?

The following points were taken from a number of academics that Hicks draws on - it will be valuable to follow some of these up.

Interesting ideas on what museums do to objects from the work of Achille Mbeme in his book 'Necropolitics' he describes a process of  'mummification, satuefication and fetishization' 

The language of Aimé Césaire was 'chosification', colonisers make colonised into 'things' in his 'Discourse on Colonialism'. Another point linked with this academic was the basic 'equation (Christianity=Civilization Paganism=Savagery)

'Chronopolitics' is a term used by Johannes Fabian in 'Time and the Other' - basically putting individuals who live at the same time in different times - so people in Benin were 'living in the past' - Hicks argues that museums collude, perhaps even exist, on the back of this idea. I gather there was also a geographic component to this idea - the further away from the 'centre' communities are the further 'back in time' they are considered to be.

Finally just a few direct quotes from Hicks to think about....

'Understand artefacts[...] not as frozen moments of time, but ongoing durations' p.13

'Museums are devices for extending events across time: in this case extending, repeating and intensifying the violence' p.15

 

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