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Point of View: Trouble at Home

Category: Museum Magazine
A Benin bronze of a warrior with a large machete like knife raised above it's head.
Eronmwon Iyase (plaque of an Iyase), ca. 16th century, Brass Igun guild of casters, Benin City, Benin Kingdom (Nigeria). Purchased by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1983.

Controversy swirls around the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes.

Repatriation of art stolen from the Kingdom of Benin during the late 1800s in what is now Nigeria continues to gather momentum in the West. Numerous cultural institutions in Europe have begun to deinstall and return some of these art and artifacts to Nigeria. In North America, few institutions have actively deinstalled and returned works belonging to Benin, though, notably, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have done so. And many others have begun the process.

The Nigeria quasi-federal system has three major tiers: the national (president), states (governors), and local governments (chairmen). There is also a fourth tier: the traditional council that encompasses traditional institutions (where kings and chiefs are located). It had been expected that the national government would give officials in the state of Edo and the local government in Benin City authority over the artifacts return.

However, in March 2023, before the end of President Muhammadu Buhari’s term, the Nigerian federal government published its decision that the Oba of Benin—the traditional ruler and the custodian of the culture of the Benin people of Edo state—should henceforth be solely responsible for the collection and care of all the Benin art and artifacts returning to the country. This (overtly political) declaration ignored the state and local governments in addition to the work of the Nigerian government’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), which had been handling negotiations for the return of art and artifacts. This move can be read in Nigeria as kata kata for house, or confusion at home.

Because the return of Benin bronzes is occurring voluntarily, and strictly on moral and ethical grounds rather than through any legal statute, intellectuals and cultural workers in the West have led the charge in determining how museums should address the repatriation of this art. But how are people within Benin City, Nigeria, or on the African continent reacting to these discussions about voluntary repatriation and the government’s decision to give custody of the returning items to the Oba of Benin? I’ve spoken to a variety of individuals within Benin City, the capital of the Edo state, to understand the changing perceptions about repatriation from within the city and the country in general.

Repatriation Reactions in Nigeria

The federal government’s edict regarding the return of Benin art objects did not sit well with many in Nigeria, especially those within the state government who have done much of the heavy lifting on preparing for the care and display of these objects upon their return to Benin City. The once novel idea of creating a world-class museum within Benin City is now a thing of the past. The proposed Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) will now be the Museum of West African Art (MOWAA), with Aindrea Emelife, a British/Nigerian curator of contemporary art, at its helm. MOWAA will not have access to the returning Benin art and artifacts as was initially planned for EMOWAA. The name change by Governor Godwin Obaseki symbolizes the confusion within Benin City and Nigeria in general.

Reactions from within Benin City and the larger Nigerian nation are varied. I spoke with Mr. Godfrey Ekhator, the Secretary of the Institute of Benin Studies, on August 14, 2023. He told me that he believed “the federal government’s declaration scuttled the noble effort at creating a world-class museum in the city.” He was, however, optimistic that the state government will be willing to work with the palace of the Oba of Benin to create the new Benin Royal Museum, which is in the formative stages.

Jess Castellote, the Director of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at Pan Atlantic University in Lagos, thinks too much noise is being made about repatriation from outside of the country. He believes that “the growing consciousness about museums within Nigeria should be nourished and encouraged to grow.” He identified areas where his museum needs help, including with collaborations with Western museums on exhibitions and training in the more scientific aspect of conservation. Museums on the African continent also need funding to create programs of mutual benefit, such as joint exhibitions and exchange of personnel. Without such investments, Castellote believes, the apathy with which people have perceived museums in Nigeria will continue.

A cross-section of scholars from various academic institutions across the length and breadth of the state, as well as local chiefs and important dignitaries, hold diverging views of Benin art based on their different social and religious beliefs. While some scholars think that these objects need to be repatriated to compensate for the injustices of the past, others do not think it is necessary as the objects will not be appreciated much upon their return. Others believe that such objects have “demonic” connotations that will not bode well for the progress of the city and country at large. Their thinking is hinged on the Abrahamic religious doctrine that considers cultural practices a fetish.

Some traditional chiefs hold similarly negative views of the repatriation conversation. Chief Osemwegie Ebohon decried what he referred to as the trust issues between the people and government of Nigeria in the repatriation conversation. He was skeptical about who should be financially compensated when monetary decisions are made related to the returning art, stressing the distrust that was rife among the people in Benin. This skepticism may have led to the federal government’s decision to give the objects to the Oba of Benin, the traditional arm of government that sits at the lowest rung of the government hierarchy, as opposed to a state government.

There was also the squabble that led to the Oba denouncing the Legacy Restoration Trust, an independent nonprofit created to fundraise for the creation of EMOWAA. When the trust started raking in funds from international donors, the Oba became incensed about the makeup of the group. This led him to publicly declare that funds should be paid to his palace rather than the trust. He also denounced the proposed name for the museum and instead sought to name it the Benin Royal Museum.

These intrigues have led to a kind of apathy within international circles about repatriation activities. A BBC article on May 10, 2023, “Nigeria Benin Bronzes: Buhari Declaration Blindsides Museum Officials,” discussed the developments in Nigeria, indicating that some European cultural institutions have begun to question their decisions on repatriation. If the trend continues, the gains that have been made since Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 declaration that France will repatriate African art will wither away, especially regarding Benin art.

Political tension among various government entities and leaders is diminishing the belief that Nigeria can create a world-class museum to care for repatriated Benin objects and motivate the public to appreciate the artistic achievements of the Benin artists. The national government and Benin City must now work together on plans to receive and put the repatriated art works to uses that will benefit their citizens and the world at large.

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