Nigerian artists want to exchange new artworks for the British Museum's Benin Bronzes

Header Image: One of the new artworks offered by The Ahiamwen Guild. Courtesy of Reuters.

For the return of the Benin Bronzes currently housed at the British Museum in London, a group of Nigerian artists is offering new artworks in its place.

The bronze works in question were looted from the Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now southern Nigeria, by British troops in 1897. These culturally significant bronze and brass sculptures are now located in several museums around the world, usually as part of their African collection. The British Museum owns the most Benin Bronzes, with almost 1000 artifacts in their collection. 

These institutions, which hold an estimated 3000 artifacts stolen from Benin, received increasing pressure to return these works, especially at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. While Germany has committed to returning the Benin Bronzes within their borders back to Nigeria, the British museums have fallen short of agreeing to this repatriation.

A plaque depicting the Oba (king) in royal regalia. It is one of the hundreds of Benin Bronzes owned by the British Museum.

But the artists wanted to change the narrative of the exchange by offering something else to the British Museum. For the return of the Benin Bronzes, The Ahiamwen Guild of artists and bronze casters have created several artworks to be donated to the museum. Unlike the works currently at the British Museum, these new bronze artworks will not be tainted by its looting history and better reflect the Benin culture of modern times.

The artworks included a 2m x 2m bronze plaque with carvings representing historical events in Benin, and a life-size ram made entirely from spark plugs. The unveiling ceremony was attended by several members of the royal court.

"We never stopped making the bronzes even after those ones were stolen," said Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, a founding member of the new guild and the instigator of the proposed donation. "I think we make them even better now."

Besides the obvious stain of Britain’s looting past, Zeickner-Okoro also mentions how the current narrative of Benin by these museums presented them as if they were a long-dead civilization, not one that still exists and is thriving.

Many in Nigeria, including Zeickner-Okoro, want the Benin Bronzes returned so that The descendants of the people who cast those bronzes can see the amazing works their ancestors have done. Most of them aren’t able to afford the cost of flying to London to see their ancestors’ works. “They have these catalogs, PDF copies of the catalog from the British Museum, which they use to reference the work of their ancestors, and I think it's so sad."

While there is no official answer from the museum as of publication, Zeickner-Okoro has travelled to London this month, partly to meet curators from the British Museum's Africa department to discuss his initiative.

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