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Dreaming of Bilbao in Nigeria: An update on the Benin Bronzes

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Written by Mike Wells

The saga of the Benin Bronzes continues to make international news, with many twists and turns frustrating the attempts of galleries and museums across the western world to ‘return’ these artefacts to… where exactly? In the update below, Mike Wells provides more information.

The controversial Benin Bronzes have inspired much debate in recent years, but last month Business Day in Lagos published an article [1] that was unusually candid about the murderous nature of the Benin regime which owned these Bronzes until 1897, and explained why the President’s decree in March 2023 – ruling that all returned Benin artworks should not go to the Nigerian people, but to Benin’s Oba (king) – brought restitutions from Western museums to a halt. Business Day also broke the seeming embargo in Nigeria on naming New York’s Restitution Study Group [2], which speaks for millions of black Americans and others who descend from slaves originally captured and sold by Africans, particularly by Benin’s rulers, in calling for the Bronzes not to be transferred to Nigeria. The RSG’s short film about the Bronzes has just won two awards at the Cannes Festival in May of this year.

By contrast, the international monthly of the art trade, The Art Newspaper, led its June front page with a curious article by the head of Nigeria’s Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) project, Phillip Ihenacho [3]. Fluent circumlocution about “creating opportunities, networks and skill sets for the present and future” and coded references to “delicate balances and overlapping responsibilities between federal, state and community leadership” are less than convincing. Mr Ihenacho tiptoes around so many elephants in his (projected) gallery – to be built in Benin City, foreign-financed and originally supposed to house returned Benin Bronzes: see https://www.emowaa.com.

Western museums’ stumbling block with regard to the restitution of Benin artefacts is President Buhari’s decree in March that all such artefacts, including works given to the Nigerian people (to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, NCMM, that is) must be handed straight over to the Oba of Benin as his personal property. This is hardly what Germany understood would be happening to the 1,130 pieces the restitution of which it trumpeted last year; all but a couple of dozen of these have yet to leave Germany.

Meanwhile, an undeclared number of Bronzes have gone missing from the Nigerian state’s own museums in recent decades. Of those not recently looted, many are said to be locked in storerooms for their own security, rather than placed on display. Even three pieces restituted by New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2021, having previously been stolen by Nigerians from the NCMM’s Lagos museum, cannot now be accounted for.

The “Bilbao Effect” Ihenacho predicts for Benin City, implying “build a Guggenheim and the art world will come”, is fanciful. His own government warns that it is too dangerous to drive the few hours between Lagos and Benin (because of carjacking and worse) and advises that visitors should therefore fly. Endemic robbery and kidnapping deter not just foreigners but even all but the most determined Nigerians. Who, then, would be the patrons of this theoretical artistic quarter?

The “tragic underinvestment in arts and culture” which EMOWAA’s Ihenacho laments is caused by Nigeria’s most serious problem, corruption, its vast oil and gas revenues being so unevenly distributed. For the large proportion of the 220 million citizens of Nigeria who have to scrabble for a living, a museum complex and artistic renaissance centred on Benin City would be an irrelevance.

The grand EMOWAA project as originally supported by the Benin Dialogue Group, which brings together Western curators and Nigerians, has been a dead letter since last year. The projected David Adjaye-designed flagship museum has been deleted from its website, and there is no more talk of loan exhibitions derived from the Bronzes held in the rest of the world’s museums. In Benin the foundations of a much smaller “pavilion” have been dug; the many millions of funding already provided by Germany and the British Museum have presumably been diverted to this diminished “MOWAA” (the original “Edo” of its title has just been dropped without explanation – perhaps something to do with Nigerian local politics?).

Naturally, there is not a word about the brutal, slave-trading regime of the Obas who originally commissioned these Bronzes to celebrate their own ancestors, and whose mass human sacrifices sprayed the artefacts on their altars with blood. These sights, and the stench of dead bodies, appalled the members of the 1897 British expedition which put a stop to this never-ending murder.

The Art Newspaper has just been purchased by the somewhat opaque company, AMTD Digital of Hong Kong [4], though this change of ownership may not necessarily be the reason for such a non-story leading the front page of the art world’s monthly journal of record. As a manifesto for an imaginary artistic renaissance in a theoretical prosperous and secure sub-Saharan country, Ihenacho’s article might have a place in an art magazine. But applied to Nigeria as it is today, it is pie in a West African sky.

 

Endnotes

[1] https://businessday.ng/columnist/article/benin-bronzes-oba-of-benin-and-descendants-of-slaves/

[2] https://rsgincorp.org/blog/

[3] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/05/31/benin-bronzes-whose-restitution-is-this-anyway

[4] https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20230608005456/en/AMTD-adding-The-Art-Newspaper-to-its-global-media-portfolio-after-L’Officiel

 

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Mike Wells