25th SEPTEMBER, 2013: WHAT ARE THEY CELEBRATING IN BOSTON
WHAT WERE THEY CELEBRATING ON TWENTY-FIFTH SEPTEMBER, 2013, IN BOSTON MUSEUM WITH LOOTED BENIN BRONZES?
According to information on the homepage of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, U.S.A. there will be a series of celebrations on the opening of the so-called Benin Gallery in the museum. (1) The museum appears to be proud that it has acquired a number of the Benin artefacts that were looted in the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897 by a British army that massacred thousands of innocent children, men and women for resisting British hegemonic attempts during the reign of Oba Ovonramwen. (2)
Oba Ovonramwen, during whose reign the British looted the Benin Bronzes, with guards on board ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J A Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (3) defines “celebrate” as follows:
“to show that a day or an event is important by doing something special on it”;
“to perform a religious ceremony, especially, the Christian COMMUNION service”
“to praise somebody or something.”
The Boston museum may wish to celebrate its acquisition of precious national treasures of Nigeria which, under normal circumstances, the peoples of Benin and Nigeria would not have allowed to leave Nigeria. These treasures left the country illegally without the consent of any established authority. As readers know, the Nigerian authority charged with the preservation of Nigeria’s cultural heritage, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has repeatedly called for the return of these national treasures. The Boston museum has refused to return any of the Benin bronzes but has instead opened a permanent gallery to display these looted treasures. The people of Benin will thus not be able to see their cultural objects whilst every US American citizen can do so anytime they choose.
Portuguese soldier, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States of America.
If the museum management has no guilty conscience in displaying looted cultural artefacts of others who seek their return and has decided to celebrate this acquisition, we leave it to their own conscience and sense of justice. The museum is in a town often associated with struggle for liberty. Henceforth it may become more associated with looted artefacts.
But what are the Edo, Nigerian and African persons who are associated with the events of to-day celebrating? Do they have any grounds for joy? Should they not be commemorating the destruction of Benin civilization which was brutally truncated by an aggressive imperialist British force in 1897? The glory of a defeated African kingdom attacked by a European force surely cannot be a cause for Africans to celebrate in Boston with those holding on to the looted artefacts. Since when do owners celebrate the looting of their goods with the successors of the looters or holders of the looted items?
A Benin dignitary with drum and two attendants playing gongs, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.
Nigerians and other Africans have suffered long enough from Western domination. It is time for us to stand up and insist on our rights. We should not confuse right with wrong. We love dancing and festivals but should we not distinguish between what is in our interest and what is not? Can dancing and singing in Boston and elsewhere be accepted as alternatives or part of alternatives to returning our cultural and religious artefacts looted in the past?
Like most people born in Africa and as a member of a family of dancers, I am most keen on African drumming and dancing. However, I do not understand how others can travel to dance in the presence of looted Benin bronzes that are, as a noble Benin prince put it, the records of Benin history, and a constant reminder of a nefarious crime against civilization by Europeans. Westerners do not like to talk about such crimes. When they do talk about them, they try to present such aggressive acts against non-Europeans as a beneficial act for mankind. Museums such as the Boston museum argue that more people would be able to admire the glory of Benin now that the looted objects are in their museum.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has had problems with Italy over looted artefacts from Italy and had been obliged to return some of the looted objects. (4) But we should take note of the attitude and methods of the Italians that finally secured the return of the artefacts from various US museums and institutions: they used threats of cutting off co-operation with the museums that hold their looted objects, they pursued legal actions and used pressure, they tried an American curator who was in jail for a while, they visited the museums and made studies of the objects that were widely published in the media. In short, Italy did all it could and obtained success.
There was no thought of inviting the Italians to come to Boston to dance for the entertainment of Bostonians. The very thought would have caused major rows. Is Nigeria going to learn from the successful experience of Italy? Has there been an approach from the Nigerians to the Italians in this matter or are they still taking advice and training from the very institutions that are illegally holding Nigerian artefacts?
By establishing the so-called Benin Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has once again reaffirmed its position on the issue of restitution of the Benin artefacts: the museum has no intention of returning any of the looted Benin bronzes it acquired. Could its position on this issue be clearer?
Some Nigerians have gone to Boston to dance and celebrate with the museum its acquisition of the looted artefacts. Are they conscious of what they are doing and of its far-reaching implications for the quest for the restitution of looted African cultural artefacts in Western museums? What do we gain by celebrating with holders of looted Benin bronzes who refuse to recognize the criminality and immorality of the initial attack on Benin that spread the artefacts throughout the western world? We may be able to drink tea with them, after they have paid our air-fares to and from Boston. They may even pay us subsistence allowance during our stay in Boston and put us in the best hotels. But what are all these enticements in contrast to our obligations to the African peoples and countries to assist in the cessation of centuries of domination, oppression and corruption?
Under the general heading of “A Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture,” the Museum of Fine Arts is organizing events in connection with the opening of the so-called Benin Gallery. The museum has not considered returning these artefacts so that the people of Benin could properly celebrate their own arts and culture as they see fit. Or do the specialists at the museum, just as they stated it was their duty to tell the history of Benin, also feel they are better qualified than the Benin people under their Oba to celebrate the glory of Benin culture?
However, according to a press release issued by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,(5) these festivities are being organized by the museum in conjunction with an entity designated as “Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organizations representing the current Oba of Benin.”
We have no information about who constitute this group and what their functions are. Certain questions spring up immediately:
1. What is this body and who are its members?
2. Who appointed them?
3. When was this body established?
4. What is the legitimacy of this body to deal with matters on which various Nigerian governments have taken decisions?
5. Does this body now represent the Oba in all matters relating to restitution of the Benin Artefacts or only in connection with those artefacts in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston?
6. What is the legal and constitutional status of this body within the Benin/Nigerian legal system?
7. Has the Benin/Nigerian public been duly informed and acquainted with the authority and functions of this body?
8. Will this body soon issue an outline of its policy towards the restitution of Benin artefacts in general and in particular, the Benin artefacts in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston?
9. How do we communicate with this body? Could we have its address and information about its website?
These and several other questions need to be addressed and it would be helpful if the Benin Royal Palace would issue a clarifying statement.
Kwame Opoku, 25 September, 2013.
Under the general heading of “A Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture”, the Museum provides information on events of the day. www.mfa.org
A note on the homepage states:”
Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director; Dr. Arese Carrington; and His Royal Highness Professor Gregory I. Akenzua will begin the evening with a welcome and remarks in the Carol Vance Wall Rotunda. Chief Esosa Eghobamien, The Obobaifo of Benin Kingdom, and Chief Nicholas O. Obaseki, The Aighobahi of Benin Kingdom, will also be in attendance for the celebration
We learn also about “Dance performance – Ugho Dance, drumming and singing
One announcement reads as follows:
Free admission for all starting at 4pm
Join the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Coalition of Committed Benin Organizations for the opening of the Benin Kingdom Gallery and celebrate the arts and culture of the Edo community. Enjoy an evening of dance performances, art, gallery activities for families, and more! All events are free! Visit our website for a complete list of events:
Another announcement reads as follows:
“The new Benin Kingdom Gallery opens today. The gallery features the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of 34 rare West African works of art. Best known for its sophisticated artistry, the Benin Kingdom, whose inhabitants are Edo peoples, goes back to the late 12th century. Learn more here:, and join us for a free celebration tomorrow evening:
2. K. Opoku, “Will Boston Museum of Fine Arts Return Looted Benin Bronzes?” http://www.modernghana.com
3. Eighth Edition, 2010, p. 233
4. K.Opoku, “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of Arrogant Imperialist Project”,
K. Opoku, “Returned Stolen/Looted Art Displayed by Italy; A Lesson for Africans and Other Countries?”
5. See Annex below.
Press Release – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Opens Benin Kingdom Gallery Showcasing Robert Owen Lehman Collection of Rare West African Art
MFA Hosts Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture on September 25 with Benin Officials and Local Community
BOSTON—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has unveiled a new gallery dedicated to the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of bronzes and ivories created in the ancient Kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria. The single greatest private holding of objects from Benin (not to be confused with the West African Republic of Bénin, the former Dahomey) the Lehman Collection was a gift to the Museum in 2012. The Benin Kingdom Gallery tells the story behind these magnificent works—sculptures, relief plaques, ritual objects and regalia—along with the complex history and traditions of the Edo peoples that inhabit the kingdom. Owned by kings (called Oba), the exquisitely crafted objects were kept in the royal palace in Benin City, the capital of the kingdom, some playing roles in rituals and annual ceremonies that continue to this day. On display for the first time in Boston, the 36 objects (two Lehman Collection loans are included) comprising 30 bronzes and six ivories, all date from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The gallery, which was completely renovated, also includes two early ivories from Sierra Leone and Guinea, crafted by African artists for the European market. The dynamic installation sets the works into their artistic and historical contexts, highlighting a period when Benin traded spices, textiles and slaves for Portuguese muskets, cannons and brass bracelets—which would later be melted down and cast into the magnificent bronzes on display. An interactive touch screen allows visitors to explore the complex iconography of the works, uncovering the meanings of their designs and motifs. To further appreciate Benin’s heritage, the MFA will host a special
on Wednesday, September 25 from 6–9:45 pm. The free event is a partnership between the MFA and the Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organizations (representing the current Oba of Benin, along with a number of Boston-area Edo groups) and will feature dance performances, music, art and gallery activities. The renovation of the Benin Kingdom Gallery was made possible with support from the Robert Lehman Foundation and the Vance Wall Foundation.
“These objects are the Benin Kingdom’s legacy to the world and a testament to the brilliance and creativity of its artists. The MFA is honored to be able to share these treasures with our Boston audiences—and with visitors from around the world—in a new gallery that encourages deeper understanding of this era of African art,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “We are profoundly grateful to Robert Owen Lehman for this gift, which has transformed the MFA’s African collection, along with his generous support in making the gallery a reality.”
According to oral tradition, the history of the Benin Kingdom began in the late 12th century with the Ogiso dynasty, and continued through the second dynasty founded by Prince Oranmiyan, whose kings consolidated the state between the 13th and 15th centuries. In the last years of the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great (about 1440-73), the Portuguese arrived and trade and commerce flourished. An age of great prosperity then followed during the 16th century, with the kingdom thriving and expanding. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Benin remained an important trading partner for European countries, among them Holland, Britain and France. Toward the end of 19th century the kingdom came under British influence and, in 1892, entered into a treaty placing it under British jurisdiction. Five years later, after Benin forces killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the so-called Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 works of art from the Benin palace during this military action. Throughout Benin’s complex history, there have been 38 kings in the present dynasty, including the current ruler Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, C.F.R., Oba of Benin, who ascended to the throne in 1979. Through the many highs and lows endured by the kingdom and its people, one of the constants has been the production of art that ranks with the greatest achievements of mankind.
Among the most famous works from the kingdom are its bronzes, which are actually made of brass (mostly an alloy of copper and zinc). When Portuguese traders arrived in the late 15th century they traded brass in the form of bracelets (called manillas), muskets and cannons for spices, textiles and slaves. Benin artists melted down and recast the manillas, leading to flourishing production by Benin artists in this medium. The highly regarded bronze casters worked exclusively for the Oba, and employed the lost-wax method of casting to create the objects. Superior examples include two royal commemorative heads from the 16th century. The head is a common motif in the Benin sculptural repertoire because it leads a person through life, and a “good head” assures well-being and prosperity. After the passing of an Oba, his successor conducted elaborate funerary ceremonies and commissioned many works to honor his predecessor.Commemorative head of an Oba (late 16th century) is a rendering of an unidentified monarch with a high collar strung from precious coral beads, and a cap-like crown decorated with clusters of beads and braided strings hanging from the sides. Placed on an ancestral altar in the palace, it would have been used by the living monarch to communicate with royal ancestors and assure the wellbeing of the community. Three commemorative heads of defeated neighboring leaders (late 15th–early 16th century), also referred to as a “trophy heads,” are said to have been displayed on altars devoted to the kings’ military might and prowess.
“It has been a privilege and pleasure to study the exquisite works in the Robert Owen Lehman Collection,” said Christraud Geary, Teel Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the MFA. “They are among the finest in the Benin corpus and further our understanding of royal arts and creativity by artists in the service of kings. In exploring the complexities of these objects, I have been moved by their deep significance for the people of the Benin kingdom throughout history.”
In addition to these bronze heads, other works on display include pendants, freestanding sculptures and plaques in high relief. The sculpture Mounted ruler, also referred to as Horseman (16th century) depicts a prominent figure on a horse—a rare and prestigious animal in Benin—holding a lance, shield and bundle of spears. Perhaps a triumphant Oba, he wears a feather headdress and crown, which also may have contained ritual elements.
According to tradition, Oba Esigie (ruled about 1504-50) was the first to commission bronze plaques memorializing Benin’s history, hierarchy and worldview. Around 800 plaques still exist, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, when production is believed to have ceased and they were no longer used. Subsequently, the plaques were stored in a palace courtyard for many years before being taken to England in 1897. In the 20th century, bronze casters revived this tradition, making new plaques and copies of older ones for their patrons. The 15 plaques on display in the gallery portray a range of scenes involving kings, war chiefs, warriors and other prominent individuals in splendid attire, indicating their high rank in the kingdom’s complex social and political order. Other meaningful motifs include leopards, crocodiles, mudfish, river leaves and rosettes. The bronze plaque Three Officials (16th—17th centuries) depicts palace officials during a ceremonial occasion, wearing helmets and leopard-teeth necklaces as part of their elaborate garments. Dignitary with drum and two attendants striking gongs (16th-17th centuries) shows a musician, accompanied by two palace servants at a festival or ritual occasion. Mudfish (16th-17th centuries) portrays the whiskered members of the catfish family that have the ability to breathe air on land for a time, crossing the boundaries between realms. An electric mudfish, which produces a shock to incapacitate prey, is commonly associated with the Oba––objects with this motif allude to the king’s supernatural powers.
“Benin craftsman produced some of the finest examples of bronze casting made anywhere in the world,” said Robert Owen Lehman. “This gallery realizes my vision of sharing these objects with as many people as possible, allowing visitors from around the world to experience their power, beauty and superior technical sophistication.”
Another common subject captured by Benin artists were the Portuguese. The kings of Benin enlisted the support of Portuguese soldiers to pursue their ambitious plans of expanding the kingdom by conquest.Portuguese soldier (16th century) brings this to life in a dynamic sculpture depicting a musketeer with every detail skillfully portrayed—armor and weapons including musket, powder horn and rapier; facial features; and even the cord wrapped around his wrist. The soldier stands barefoot on a base, with the relief of a cannon and cannon balls barely visible.
The works in ivory are as equally significant as the bronzes. Two late 15th- to 16th-century saltcellars by Sapi artists in Sierra Leone and Guinea are on display, as well as works in ivory from Benin, including a staff with horseman finial, a cup and a leopard hip ornament. Pendant with a queen mother (lyoba) playing a gong (late 17th—-early 18th centuries) represents the only female figure in the gallery. An influential dignitary in the Benin court, the queen mother possesses supernatural powers and fiercely supports her son, the Oba, in all his endeavors. This pendant portrays the queen mother in a high coral beaded crown, a beaded collar, crisscrossed beaded bandoliers and a wrapped skirt––possibly embroidered and held in place by a knotted belt. She strikes a gong, indicating she is shown in a ceremonial role.
About the Benin Kingdom
The Benin Kingdom, an empire located in present-day Nigeria, dates to the late 12th century and is inhabited by Edo peoples. The reign of the first dynasty, the Ogiso kings known as “rulers from the sky,” remains shrouded in mystery. Kings of the second dynasty, founded by Prince Oranmiyan, consolidated the state between the 13th and the 15th centuries. During the last years of the reign of Oba (or king) Ewuare the Great (about 1440–73), the Portuguese arrived. Through them, Benin gained access to the Atlantic trade networks, exchanging slaves, ivory, cloth and pepper for imported goods such as textiles, coral beads, copper alloy and firearms.
In the late 15th and 16th centuries Benin experienced an age of great prosperity . Oba Ozolua (ruled about 1481–1504) and his successor Oba Esigie (ruled about 1504–50), with the help of their Portuguese allies, expanded the boundaries of the kingdom and gained control of trade routes and commerce. Court arts flourished and attested to the kingdom’s wealth. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, Benin remained an important trading partner for European countries, among them Holland, Britain and France.
With the rise of imperialism in the 19th century, Benin’s fortunes changed. In 1892, Oba Ovonramwen (ruled 1888–97) entered into a treaty with Great Britain, placing the kingdom under British jurisdiction. Five years later, after Benin forces killed members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British dispatched the so-called Punitive Expedition to the capital. They defeated Ovonramwen, sent him into exile, and removed more than 4,000 works of art from the palace. Many were sold to defray the costs of the campaign, and were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe and the United States.
From the early 14th century to the present, there have been 38 kings in the second dynasty, including the current ruler Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, C.F.R., Oba of Benin, who ascended the throne in 1979. To this day, the Oba resides in the royal palace at Benin City, the kingdom’s capital, which has over a million inhabitants.
Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture
Wednesday, September 25, 6–9:45 pm
This free public event celebrates the opening of the MFA’s Benin Kingdom Gallery with a full slate of evening activities for the community to enjoy. MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and His Royal Highness Professor Gregory I. Akenzua, the current Oba of Benin’s brother, will welcome visitors to the event. The Ugho Dance troupe, led by Eunice Ighodaro, will perform traditional Edo dancing, drumming and singing. Other activities include drawing in the galleries and the opportunity to learn about the ancient technique of bronze casting from MFA objects conservator Susanne Gänsicke. Barbara and Theodore Alfond Curator of Education Barbara Martin will lead tours in the gallery throughout the evening.
This celebration is a partnership between the MFA and the Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organizations, which is representing Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, C.F.R., Oba of Benin. Also attending are Palace Chiefs Esosa Eghobamien, the Obobaifo of Benin Kingdom and Nicholas O. Obaseki, the Aighobahi of Benin Kingdom. Dr. Arese Carrington and her husband, Ambassador Walter Carrington will also be in attendance. Dr. Carrington, a member of the MFA’s Visiting Committee for the arts of Asia, Oceania and Africa, is a descendant of Oba Ovonranwen, who ruled the Benin Kingdom in the 19th century.
African Art at the MFA
In addition to the Benin Kingdom Gallery, the MFA has also reopened the adjacent Arts of Africa Gallery which has more than 70 works on display from across the continent. Recently reinstalled, the Richard B. Carter Gallery explores several themes, including the arts of the masquerade and the passages of life, along with a new section devoted to the elegance of useful objects. In this section, there are a number of objects on view for the first time. Included in the gallery are masks and sculpture from west and central Africa from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A central case highlights arts in metal––objects of beautiful form forged from iron or cast from bronze and brass. Most works were made by anonymous artists who lived and worked in many different countries, ranging from South Africa to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, the Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
The MFA has approximately 820 African objects across its encyclopedic collections, including 79 works from Nigeria. A gift of 10 works from William E. and Bertha L. Teel in 1991 and their subsequent donations of another 54 objects marked the beginning of the MFA’s collection of pieces from sub-Saharan Africa and focuses on tradition-based wood sculpture and objects in metal, terracotta and stone. Gifts from other collectors, including the late Geneviève McMillan, continued to grow the collection and Robert Owen Lehman’s 2012 gift of Benin bronzes and ivories represented one of the most significant in the Museum’s history. There are many outstanding and unique pieces in the collection, among them masks, ritual implements, and architectural elements by artists of the Yoruba peoples in Nigeria as well as masks and sculptures by artists of the Fang, Chokwe and Songye peoples (Central Africa) and the Dogon, Dan and Mende (West Africa). The Museum also has more than 200 textiles—examples of dress and jewelry from sub-Saharan Africa—46 musical instruments, several works on paper and one contemporary object. Additionally, the Museum recently added over 4,000 early postcards photographed in Africa to its collection.