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How were the Benin Bronzes originally meant to be displayed

Much is said about context – not least by the British Museum. The reality though is that the original context for which many artefacts were designed was very different from the museum environments in which they are currently displayed.

Modern Ghana [1]

Forever Bronze
By Tam Fiofori

According to Omo N’Oba N’Edo Erediauwa, Benin bronzes were not meant to be kept in museums and used as decorative pieces. Rather, bronzes filled in for the absence of photography in Benin traditional society and the Oba’s court as bronze castings were specifically used to depict and document important events and activities of a reigning Oba of Benin.

Put another way, the thousands of Benin bronzes which were looted by the British from the Oba’s palace in 1897 and, are now in the British Museum, London, and in other museums and private collections in the ‘western’ world represent a ‘stolen library of the history of the Benin Kingdom’ and their rightful place remains the various ancestral spiritual altars/shrines within the Oba’s palace in Benin City.

Stolen property?
Since these Benin bronzes and other ivory and wood artworks were looted and have found ‘new homes’ for over a century, there have been a lot of theories, accusations and counter-accusations on whether they are technically/legally truly stolen property and where they rightly belong.

The British, predictably, have been talking from both sides of their mouth, insinuating that they are war booty, some material consolation for their version of what they now call the Benin massacre.

Not surprisingly, the British are also mired in other controversies over national cultural monuments. For instance, the British Museum has deliberately kept the issue of returning the Greek Elgin marbles in its possession muddy; while the chances of these historic cultural icons being in the rightful possession of Greece diminishes every year and, with successive British governments and their interpretation of foreign cultural relations.

The Benin bronzes in the British Museum, left to the British government, have found a new permanent home! When in the run-up to FESTAC ’77 Nigeria asked Britain and the British Museum to return the exquisite carved ivory mask of Queen Idia which had been chosen as the symbol of the FESTAC ’77 logo, the British had the diplomatic nerve to suggest that the Queen Idia could be loaned to Nigeria for a sum of two million pounds sterling.

Of course Nigeria rejected the ridiculous offer and, Oba Akenzua 11 – Patron of the Benin Bronze casters, Ivory, Wood carvers (and other) Guilds – asked the best of the skilled ivory carvers of Benin to produce a ‘photographic’ copy of the original carving and this was successfully used for FESTAC ’77.

Where is home?
It is in these grey areas of international cultural skulduggery that the British fly kites to raise false hopes of eventually returning the looted Benin bronzes, ivory and wood artworks to Benin City; while at the same time raising the spurious issue of where best these precious artworks should be kept. The British Museum arrogantly believes that these artworks are best preserved by being in the ‘mighty’ British Museum; conveniently forgetting that these masterpieces, many of which were centuries-old when they were looted from Benin, had been well preserved and protected by the original makers and owners long before their theft by British invaders.

The British Museum also puts forward the flawed argument that many more people from all over the world will see these great art masterpieces of the world daily when they visit the British Museum, as it is a must-visit place in the schedule of millions of tourists who visit London every year. How many people will see these Bronzes in the Oba’s palace or the National Museum in Benin City as compared to those who will see and appreciate them in the British Museum, they mockingly ask? But they deliberately ignore the hard fact that these bronze, ivory and wood artworks from Benin have no place in the British Museum.

Other museums in Europe and America where some of these looted great artworks of Benin are now put on exhibition daily, share the same view with the British Museum. Assuming that these self-appointed international cultural do-gooders want to ‘liberate’ these Benin bronzes and artworks and put them in the public domain as against their original places of ‘abode’ within the palace of the Oba of Benin, they overlook the reality that the people with the closest spiritual and cultural links to these great artworks; the Benin people and other Africans, are disadvantaged by financial and visa restrictions from seeing their ‘own’ art masterpieces now on exhibition in Britain, Europe and America.

I suppose it is in a bid to answer this question of cultural ownership and right of display that a growing number of European art critics are now arguing that these great Benin art masterpieces are now to be regarded as ‘universal masterpieces’ which should be justifiably and respectfully housed in appropriate universal museums. You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to guess where these universal museums will be located and who the expert curators will be!

Nonetheless, as Oba Erediauwa insists, the Benin bronzes and other artworks looted for their ‘safety’, from spiritual and documentary relevance within the Benin palace should be returned sooner than later to their rightful home.

A thriving art
Oba Erediauwa points out that there have been a cultural shift and commercialisation of Bronze casting in the Benin City of today; a reality that should not becloud the original purpose of the Bronze casters’ guild in the ancient Benin Kingdom. Today, tourists from all over the world freely visit the famous Igun street in Benin City where hundreds of skilled and mostly hereditary bronze casters reproduce stunning look-alike replicas of the great Benin bronze works of centuries-ago as well as their own contemporary designs for sale as tourist souvenirs.

The Oba as Patron of their Guild, has no quarrel with their commercialisation of bronze casting and their ‘freedom’ to now produce works outside the normal practice of doing only commissioned works based on ‘instructions’ and ideas from the Oba. In fact Oba Erediauwa still commissions bronze casters in Igun Street to produce works for him.

Such is the cultural depth and strength of the centuries-old bronze casting tradition in Benin City that on a recent visit to Igun Street I was astounded by the beauty of Queen Mother bronze heads produced by Ikponmwosa Inneh; their intricacy of detail and inseparable uniformity were truly dazzling in the light of the fact that they are not produced from moulds.

Outside his studio is a giant bronze cast of the now world-famous Queen Idia ivory mask of FESTAC ’77 (and the British Museum). Inneh, who is currently the Public Relations Officer of the Guild of Benin Bronze Casters, is living proof that the great tradition of Benin bronze casting is alive, well and flourishing culturally.