The Benin Bronzes Are among Africa’s Most Important Works of Art

21 februari 2019

Head of an Oba, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, ca. 1550. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Head, Guinea Coast, Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, possibly mid 16th or early 17th century. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The famous Benin bronzes are going home—at least some of them, some of the time. In October, a group of representatives from Nigeria and officials from European museums met in the Netherlands to broker a deal that will create a permanent display of artifacts from European institutions at the forthcoming Benin Royal Museum in Benin City, Nigeria, through a rotating loan system.
The agreement came more than a century after the Benin bronzes were taken, nearly a half-century after Nigeria started calling for their return, and more than a decade after the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) was formed specifically to advocate for their restitution. It coincided with broader conversations, fueled in part by French president Emmanuel Macron, about restituting or arranging long-term loans of African artifacts in European museum collections to institutions in Africa.

Figure: Leopard, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, 1550–1680. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the recent discussions about repatriation, the Benin bronzes have often been cited as a prime example of African heritage that is housed chiefly in European and North American museums. This is partially due to the circumstances under which the artworks were seized, during a retaliatory invasion and ransacking of Benin City by British troops in February 1897. Not coincidentally, the British Museum ended up with one of the world’s richest collection of Benin bronzes; it has agreed to lend some of them as part of the BDG agreement. In exile, these artworks have come to exemplify African nations’ alienation from their respective cultural heritages, an effect that is amplified by their incredible number, formal refinement, and historic significance.

“They speak about a very sophisticated and complex court system,” said Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, which participated in the BDG talks and will lend some of its 180 Benin objects as part of the agreement. “Through the study of these objects and their oral tradition, we are able to access knowledge about how the works relate to the history of the kingdom and how they developed stylistically.” The long-term stability of the kingdom—and the durability of its thousands of surviving metal artifacts—makes this abundance of information “quite rare for African art,” Plankensteiner said.