Does Germany promise to return the looted objects to Benin? | Culture | Reports on the arts, music and lifestyle of Germany | DW

Located in the southwest of present-day Nigeria, the city of Benin, with 2.5 million inhabitants, was once a thriving commercial center, famous for its precious bronze sculptures.

The so-called Benin bronzes, which can be found today in many major European museums, come from that once strong pre-colonial monarchy called the Kingdom of Benin.

Several bronzes are expected to be the centerpieces of a major exhibition when Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum opens in the fall – but this has raised questions about the restitution of art in the context of colonialism.

Today in Benin City, bronze is cast in exactly the same way it was 700 years ago and is a craft passed down from generation to generation. Osarugue Okundaye was born on Igun Street, the street of the Bronze Casting Guild, and learned from his father.

The fact that the works of art of his ancestors are outside Nigeria fills him with deep sadness, he says: “The bronzes are very, very important to the Benins because they symbolize dignity and royalty. We look forward to the day when these items that were stolen from the Beninese palace will be returned. “

Still, he doesn’t stay overly optimistic, citing many broken promises from various governments over the years.

Sir Harry Rawson (pictured above, center) led the Punitive Expedition to Benin in 1897

The stolen heritage of Benin

In 1897, the British invaded the Kingdom of Benin in what is now considered a punitive expedition. They exiled the king, burned down the city and looted thousands of works of art, including 3,500 to 4,000 bronze works. About 1,100 of them reached Germany, where they were purchased.

Berlin has 440 bronze pieces from Benin, making it the second largest collection in the world. Although they were legally possessed by the Germans, many consider their presence in Berlin illegitimate because of the way they were obtained.

Shortly after the 1897 massacre, the kingdom of Benin claimed the bronzes, to no avail. Yet since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has struggled to recover valuable items – so far unsuccessfully. But since the start of 2020, there has been a movement in a complex debate that has reached the highest level of diplomacy: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has spoken out in favor of a correct restitution and an honest approach to colonial history.

Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters tasked Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, to develop a “strategy” for museums that appropriate art in contexts of injustice.

Bénédicte Savoie

A sensational development, according to historian Benedicte Savoy

A paradigm shift is on the horizon

“I think we’ve come to a kind of cultural collapse of the wall,” said Savoy, comparing the paradigm shift to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Savoy is considered one of the most academic voices. most important on the subject of looted art. For five years, she says, people have been hiding behind excuses; that the objects have been acquired legally and that they must be exhibited as witnesses of European history. “And suddenly they say, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll give it back to them, we’ll organize this, we’ll do a conference,’ and that’s very new. It’s electrifying.

In any case, the Humboldt Forum is already preparing for the possibility of exhibiting without the originals: “We have to see if it makes sense to leave holes or gaps and tie them up with text… or if it makes sense to display a plaster cast, ”explains Jonathan Fine, responsible for the ethnological collection at the Humboldt Forum.

“As a curator, it’s very exciting to engage in global change and to try to view an exhibition not as something static, but as something that is part of the dialogue and that really dares to engage the public in the change as and when. “

Benin City National Museum

The national museum of Benin City

Who returns what to whom?

But is change really happening? The 440 bronzes do not actually belong to the Humboldt Forum, but to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The latter pointed out that restitution should be “considered as an option”, but, in the end, the question remains to whom the artistic treasures should be returned: to the royal palace? To the Nigerian State, to the National Museum of Benin City or to the new Museum of West African Art, which is to be built in Benin City by 2024 and for which Andreas Görgen, head of the cultural department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, must create cooperation between museums?

The “Benin Dialogue Group”, in which German museum officials work with representatives from Nigeria, has also been criticized. In a press release on March 27, 2021, Yusuf Tuggar, the Nigerian ambassador to Germany, criticized the work of the group, which has been fighting for dialogue since 2010.

“It has been going on for so long now and nothing has happened and it seems to be more lending oriented and which is totally unacceptable on the Nigerian side because you cannot lend to someone. Let’s say you break into their house, steal their watch, and then sell it to a pawnshop. And whoever picks it up from the pawnshop after the police arrive says, OK, well, I’m going to lend it to him to go to a wedding with. And then he gives it back to me. See, I mean, it’s not a rule of law. It’s not good governance, ”Tuggar told DW. He also called for the return of not only Beninese bronzes, but also Ife bronzes found in the 1930s in the Nigerian town of Ife, as well as other works of art from the Nok culture.

Symbol of colonial humiliation

The very moving discussion is about more than just the return of artistic treasures. The bronzes have become a symbol of colonial humiliation. Even more, for some, they testify to the persistence of colonial structures.

Congolese activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza made headlines in the summer of 2020 when he stole an African totem pole from the Quai Branly museum in Paris and shared his actions on social media. He then had to appear in Paris court, but escaped with a fine of € 1,000 ($ 1,177), which was perhaps a somewhat symbolic punishment meant to deter impersonators.

Oyenike Gallery Owner Monica Okunaye: We artists have to create new things!

Oyenike Monica Okunay, dressed in a modern variation of traditional clothing, smiles and raises her left hand

Diyabanza offered a new voice and a new perspective. This time it was not a politician, a scientist or a museum representative, but a Congolese living in Paris who spoke on behalf of the African diaspora.

In an interview with DW, Diyabanza explains that he and his pan-African group “Unity, Dignity and Courage” are also planning actions in Germany. “The German public is divided on the issue of restitution. Many people no longer want to be associated with these heinous crimes,” said the activist.

Nigeria’s vibrant arts scene

Diyabanza is not the only one who wants to make a fresh start. Nigerian artist Oyenike Monica Okundaye also wants to close with the past, albeit in a very different way than Diyabanza or Ambassador Tuggar.

“We don’t need to collect the works. If they are in European museums, we want our children who cannot come back to live in Nigeria to also have a memory of them and see them where they live, ”says Okundaye, who runs the largest art gallery in Nigeria. the region in Lagos. Over 5,000 Nigerian artists exhibited with her.

Works like the bronzes, she says, “represent our spirit and our country in every museum.” She says it’s important to see new works that Nigerian artists are creating these days.

As for the Beninese bronzes in Berlin, it remains to be seen how this decades-long dispute over reparations and identity will play out – and how long it will take before a decision is made.

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