21 August 2017

West Africa: European Museums to Return West African Artefacts

This incredible panel is one of the Benin bronzes looted from the palace of the Oba.

There is a demand for the return of stolen artefacts to the continent. Over 3,000 bronze statues were stolen from the palace of the Oba of Benin, Oba Ovọnramwẹn Nọgbaisi after the British invaded Benin Kingdom and killed its inhabitants by sending a punitive force of 1,200 soldiers.

After many bronze artefacts were stolen from places such as the Benin Kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria and displayed in European museums such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and the British Museum, there is an ongoing plan to return them to where they were stolen from.

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin has the largest collection of art from the Benin Kingdom, followed by the British Museum. These collections were stolen during the reign of the Benin King Oba Ovọnramwẹn Nọgbaisi when the British burned down Benin Kingdom, killed its inhabitants and looted the palace of the Oba of Benin.

Early last year, one of the stolen artifacts, a bronze cockerel known as Okukor, that stood in the dining hall of Cambridge University was voted by the students under the Jesus College Student Union, to be removed and returned to Nigeria, from whence it was stolen. The bronze cockerel was one of the over 3,000bronze statues looted by the British during the Benin Punitive Expedition in 1897.

Dr Michael Barrett, a senior curator at Stockholm's Världskulturmuseet told the Guardian that returning the stolen artefacts is a way "this generation of curators . . . finds ways towards reconciliation."

One of the major issues raised had to do with security arrangements and insurance costs, aside from the legal framework that would be established to guarantee that the artefacts aren't seized in Nigeria.

The negotiation of stolen properties from Africa is one of the things African countries suffer despite the negative effects of colonialism. Sarah Baartman, whose body parts were exhibited in France at the Museum of Man for more than half a century only just had her remains returned to South Africa in 2002 where she was given a proper burial. These vestiges of colonialism are a testament to the savageness of the Europeans and a testimony to their attitude towards the continent and its inhabitants.

Considering the statements by Emmanuel Macron stating that Africa's problem is civilisation, and also the depiction of African culture and civilisation to be primitive, it is contradictory that such artefacts of such quality which testify otherwise are still being kept in western and European museums.

At a time when the world is redefining its ethical stance on slave owners, and pulling down statues of colonial masters, this is the best time to also return artefacts, and stolen wealth taken away from Africa and carted to various colonial empires.

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