Where a New African Museum Fits in a Post-colonial World

About 50 years after cultural leaders first requested their return, several Benin Bronzes are finally making their way home. Regarded as some of the most notable artworks to come out of West Africa, these sculptures can be found on display in galleries and institutions across the globe. Last year, Germany became the first country to formally announce the return of these artefacts to their birthplace of Benin City, in present-day Nigeria. The announcement was met with a largely favorable response, as was a similar move made by the United States Smithsonian Museum earlier this year. Nigerian artists and cultural workers applauded the long overdue repatriation of the bronzes. Construction is even underway for a brand-new institution, the Edo Museum of West African Art, where the returned artworks should live on display permanently.

Originally housed in the royal court of Benin, thousands of these figurative bronze plaques lined the walls of the Oba’s palace — a military-style fortress at the heart of a wealthy, highly organized pre-colonial city. “It is important to note that [the bronzes] were not originally meant to be mere museum pieces displayed for art lovers to admire,” wrote Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, the late Oba of Benin, in his introduction to an Austrian exhibition text in 2007. “Whenever an event of significance took place, the Oba commissioned [his artisans] to make a bronze cast of it. Thus, the bronzes were records of events in the absence of photography.”

This primary function of the sculptures, as an account of history, reflects the subjective nature of the archive in general. Even in their pre-colonial context, the bronzes were not neutral objects. They had intrinsic ties to empire, dictating the city’s history through the eyes of the king.

By the 15th century, Benin-based scholar Osarhieme Osadolor writes in the same exhibition text, the kingdom of Benin had “expanded into an imperial power,” annexing land and resources with the help of its complex and efficient army. The Igun-Eronmwon, guild of casters who made the bronze pieces, lived unsalaried within the walls of the palace, receiving food and drink in exchange for their labor. Military service was compulsory for all men, and the city enjoyed a considerable amount of free labor through its enslaved population.

According to Thomas Uwadiale Obinyan, senior lecturer at the University of Lagos, through these conditions of production, Benin City amassed a considerable fortune, forging strong trade partnerships with the Portuguese, Dutch, and English empires. When British consulate Henry Gallway approached the Oba in 1896, masking his intention to annex the city under a treaty of “trade and friendship,” the Oba forbade all trade with the British and barred them from entering the kingdom. An acting British general then took it upon himself to travel to Benin and was met with military resistance, killed alongside his troops by members of Benin’s army. Historian Dan Hicks tells us that the incident became Britain’s justification for the financially motivated “expedition” of 1897 — a gruesome mosque in which the Oba’s palace was set on fire and the bronzes stolen. Many of them were sold to cover the cost of the expedition, but the biggest collection of bronzes now sits on the ground floor of the British Museum.

Installation view of brass sculptures on current display at the British Museum (2022)

I went to the museum a few days before writing this piece and noticed groups of mostly European tourists stroll through the “Africa” section, before arriving in the corner room where the bronzes are displayed. I’d previously seen the artefacts in various locations, but hadn’t been aware of the depths the British had stooped to in acquiring their loot. Standing in the room with the bronzes, I observed the largely apathetic audience and felt isolated in my rage, unable to maintain an air of neutrality in the face of such violent encapture. On my way out, I watched a French couple stuff 20 euros into the glass donation stand, apparently satisfied with their visit to this cultural institution.

Speaking to Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian, curator and scholar Ariella Azoulay defines the museum itself as an extension of the Western imperial project. “The amount of objects that were looted in the 19th century required the creation of museums,” she explains. As the interview goes on, Azoulay attributes the documentation of such stolen artefacts, and their subsequent decontextualization, as intended for an imperialist audience.

So, the question remains: Is an African museum, designed by an African architect, capable of undoing this level of institutional violence? Can it go beyond a restaging of the artefacts’ abduction? If not for an imperialist agenda, what is the role of the museum in a post-colonial world?

In his lecture “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive,” delivered in 2015 at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Cameroonian theorist and educator Achille Mbembe describes the African museum as “first and foremost an epistemic space,” dedicated to the production of knowledge. From this definition, we can view the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria as an opportunity to reassert the fact that African societies do have a history worth studying. More importantly, their return presents an opportunity to build on this knowledge and recognize that those who get the tell this history and the extent to which this history is told by an institution — these are not neutral choices.

Reflecting on the horrors of Nigeria’s civil war, the Nobel-prize winning novelist Wole Soyinka implores his country people not to overlook the unromantic parts of our past. If the people of Benin and the Republic of Nigeria are to build on the history of these bronzes, this retelling cannot be purely nostalgic. The EMOWAA museum can serve as a cultural heritage point, or a site of ancestral veneration, while also giving a full picture of Benin’s pre-colonial past. It may even point us toward a future in which African sites of knowledge production are shared, in both responsibility and access.

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