REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
The British Museum has reportedly decided to keep contemporary Nigerian artworks offered to it in a proposed exchange for historic bronzes in its collection. As reported by Museum Next in September, a guild of artists from Benin City had sought to recover a series of famous artworks, known collectively as the Benin Bronzes, from the museum’s collection in London. The group, known as Ahiamwen, announced their intention of swapping modern-day artworks from Benin for the culturally significant items that are housed in the British Museum. Rather than asking for the bronzes to be repatriated to Nigeria, the guild of artists thought that the idea of exchanging them for new works of art would be more appealing.
The priceless Benin Bronzes were taken from their homeland by British troops in 1897 and they have been a source of controversy for many years, particularly since Nigeria gained independence from the British Empire in 1960. In recent years, there have been multiple calls on the British Museum to return the stolen items to the authorities in Benin City. However, the guild of artists, led by Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, decided that they would offer something of an incentive instead. They claimed that a cultural exchange would mean that the bronzes could be returned while the British Museum gained something that was more representative of the city’s contemporary culture in return.
REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
To this end, Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro travelled to London to discuss a possible swap. However, after meeting with the museum’s Africa department, a different outcome came about. According to the artist, his discussions with two curators in the museum led to an expression of interest by the British Museum in his works. Along with other pieces by other Ahiamwen artists, it is understood that the British Museum accepted the offer of contemporary artworks merely as gifts rather than as items that would be exchanged for the disputed Benin Bronzes.
According to a spokesperson who commented on the museum’s behalf, the British Museum was grateful for the points raised by Zeickner-Okoro during their meeting with him. However, the spokesperson went on to add that there had been no formal talks about purchasing any of these sculptures and other artworks for the museum’s collection. Nevertheless, Zeickner-Okoro’s large plaque – which features carvings depicting historical events in Benin City – was accepted by the museum as a gift. The artist said that although he had intended to exchange the item for at least some of the disputed bronzes in the museum’s collection, he was pleased that the artwork had been accepted as a goodwill offering.
Zeickner-Okoro said that it was disappointing not to have secured the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria but the conversations he had held with the museum constituted a good first step. Along with his two square-metre plaque, Zeickner-Okoro said that the museum had accepted a life-size sculpture of a ram by Kelly Omodamwen made entirely from old spark plugs as well as some sculptures of the heads of Benin women by Andrew Edjobeguo.
The idea that the British Museum might accept gifts of contemporary artworks from the guild without offering anything in return may seem strange to many. However, for Zeickner-Okoro’s group, part of the problem with the stolen bronzes isn’t so much the fact that they’ve been looted. The Ahiamwen guild sees the way the bronzes have been curated as part of the crime. They claim the museum houses them in the same way as it does ‘dead’ cultures, such as ancient Egypt. They point out that Benin’s culture is part of an ongoing tradition from the 16th century to today. As such, displaying the bronzes alongside more contemporary works will help to recontextualise them. The Benin Bronzes may not be heading back to Nigeria anytime soon but for Zeickner-Okoro’s group, this new context represents a partial win for them. Meanwhile, German museums with similar pieces have said they intend on repatriating all of their bronzes unilaterally.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.