The returned looted Benin bronzes look set to end up as ornaments in private palaces of the country’s wealthy ruler after Nigerian officials’ decision to hand them over to the Oba of Benin.
The Nigerian government officially recognised the artefacts as belonging to the traditional king, Oba Ewuare II, rather than to the state or anyone else, meaning they are unlikely to ever go on public display, according to German media.
The renowned Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper says: “The dream has burst. For now, the vision of a modern public museum in Benin City as a new location for the 1,130 Benin bronzes which were passed to Nigerian officials by Germany has been shattered.”
German media assume that Oba Ewuare II would store the artefacts at his estates instead of letting the public admire the precious sculptures and figures.
According to the FAZ, the 69-year-old Oba’s royal palace “features a small museum but access to it is managed by the royal court.”
The paper adds: “The decisive difference between a palace and a museum is accessibility. Museums are public, a palace is private. Museums can be entered by acquiring a ticket, royal estates only with an invitation.”
Oba Ewuare II became the Oba of Benin – the traditional ruler and the custodian of the culture of the Edo people, a local ethnic group – in 2016.
According to NewswireNGR, Oba Ewuare II got his A-Level Certificate from South Thames College in London.
The Nigerian news website also reports that he graduated with an Economics degree from the University of Wales in Cardiff before obtaining a Master of Public Administration degree at Rutgers University Graduate School, New Jersey, in the United States.
Before his coronation, Oba Ewuare II held several ambassadorial posts and worked for the United Nations.
Oba Ewuare II has five wives and father to at least 11 children, including the quadruplets – three boys and a girl – who his youngest wife, Queen Aisosa, gave birth to in August 2021.
The king reportedly fell in love with Aisosa during a visit to her sister, his fourth wife, Queen Owamagbe.
He praised the quadruplets as an “unprecedented and historical event” in the Benin Royal family.
The Kingdom of Benin was an empire in what is now southwestern Nigeria. It has no historical relation to the modern republic of Benin.
The Benin Kingdom was formed out of the previous Edo Kingdom of Igodomigodo around the 11th century and lasted until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.
British troops under Royal Navy officer Sir Harry Rawson conquered the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.
They seized artworks from the royal palace and exiled King Oba Ovonramwen in revenge for an attack on an earlier British expedition.
Rawson’s troops captured and sacked Benin City, bringing to an end the Kingdom of Benin, which was eventually absorbed into colonial Nigeria.
Thousands of objects were shipped to London, but many more ended up in museums across Europe and North America.
Today, the looted Benin bronzes are scattered across different institutions all over the world due to the activities of merchants, seafarers and art traders. With 928, most of them are currently reportedly housed at the British Museum in London.
In July 2022, the Nigerian Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Nigerian counterpart, Zubairu Dada, signed a declaration to transfer the ownership of more than 1,100 artefacts.
Dada said back then: “I am delighted to be part of this auspicious event which, in my opinion, will go down as one of the most important days in the celebration of African cultural heritage.”
Yusuf Tuggar – Nigeria’s Ambassador to Germany – called the ceremony, which took place in Berlin, “historic.”
Tuggar added: “Germany has set the bar high for righting colonial wrongs. This is a new era in cultural diplomacy.”
Earlier this year, the Nigerian federal government reportedly officially recognised the Oba of Benin as the rightful owner and custodian of all Benin artefacts that were stolen from the country.
The Artnet online newspaper recently referred to an official government statement as saying: “Repatriated artefacts may be kept within the Palace of the Oba or such other locations within Benin City or other places that the Oba and the Federal Government of Nigeria may consider secure and safe.”
German media speculate that the royal would continue to stash the bronzes in his private treasury instead of handing them over to the curators of a planned museum which was meant to be subsidised by Germany.
Last year, the German Foreign Ministry announced: “Germany has struggled for a long time to deal with the history of art from colonial contexts.
“There are more than a thousand bronzes from the former Kingdom of Benin – in what is today Nigeria – in the storerooms and collections of a total of 20 German museums.”
According to the ministry, academics assume that more than 5,000 bronzes were stolen and illegally brought to Europe in the context of pillage.
Several other countries – including France, Belgium and the United Kingdom – have also begun repatriating Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
The first objects transferred from Germany to Nigeria in the summer of 2022 were a commemorative head of a king and a relief plaque depicting a king with four attendants.
The artefacts – from the Ethnological Museum Berlin – had originally been brought back to Germany by an ambassador and a businessman.
The museum has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group since 2010. The aims of this international group, formed in 2007, are cooperation between museums in possession of Nigerian cultural heritage items and the restitution of illegally acquired artworks.
And in September 2022, Hamburg city councillors agreed to transfer 179 artefacts worth around EUR 58 million (GBP 51 million) from the city’s Museum of Ethnology to Nigeria.
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Story By: Thomas Hochwarter, Sub-Editor: Marija Stojkoska, Agency: Newsflash
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