I have been watching the scenario unfolding over the repatriation of Benin artefacts and I am surprised at some of what I read and watch on television. It shows that either we have no sense of history or we have decided to set facts aside in pursuit of self-interest.
Can anyone with the knowledge of the colonial violence unleashed on Benin, its monarchy and its people with the attendant plundering of thousands of Benin artefacts from the palace of the king contest ownership with His royal Majesty? The Oba of Benin is the custodian of Benin art and these looted objects are clearly his heirloom. The Oba must therefore be a key figure in any discussions regarding the return of Benin cultural treasures. In addition, the property rights of these objects must remain with him. The Oba had always held the objects in trust for his people. He instituted and catered for the guilds that produced these treasures.
Several of these objects were removed from his bedroom and the shrines of the palace. The various versions of the Queen Idia masks were taken from his bed-chamber showing the deeply historical, personal, emotional and spiritual connections the Oba had with the Queen mother over centuries. The ancestral heads are idealised images of Obas and not any other individual. In this struggle for the repatriation of Benin tangible patrimony, members of the Benin royal family have been at the forefront of the clamour long before the Nigerian state or any state government showed any interest. As far back as 1935, HRM Oba Akenzua II solicited the help of Lord Plymouth for the return of two looted Benin stools in Berlin. He waited for four years to receive plastic replicas of these stools which he considered very important in palace ceremonies since the Germans were adamant about returning the originals. The Oba paid 1.582 Reichmarks for these stools. In the 1930s, when the regalia of Oba Ovonranwen were returned to Nigeria, they were given to HRM Oba Akenzua II and not to any representative of the state or Federal government. These items of regalia were assimilated into the sartorial traditions of the palace. The epochal return of the two bronzes by Dr Adrian Walker in 2014 were given to HRM Oba Erediauwa I in the palace. There can be no other place to return these looted objects other than the palace of the Oba of Benin where they were taken from originally. I recall HRM Oba Erediauwa’s deep concern for the return of Benin artefacts and the several pleas he made to keepers of this looted ancestral heritage, without impute from elsewhere. A case in point is the plea to the British House of Commons in 2000 by HRH the Enogie of Obazuwa, Prince Edun Akenzua.
The Oba of Benin is central to receiving and directing on where these treasures should be domiciled. The reason put forward for restitution over decades is that Benin culture is an extant tradition. Benin rites and traditions are still very much in place unlike in the case of the Nazis. The Benin King sits on the throne as a custodian of his people just like the Asantehene who also lost a lot of personal gold treasures to the British. The Benin example is a model for the handling of returns of other pillaged art from territories in Africa. What is important here is that ownership rights should remain with the Oba.
Profesor Peju Layiwola is an artist. Her 2010 exhibition ‘Benin1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question’ is the first solo exhibition to address this issue of art pillage in Benin City. @pejulayiwola
Image: Looted Art in the RJ Museum, Koln, Germany.
For further details see:
http://audreyperaldi.com/txt/2017_oba_akenzua_II_restitution_requests.pdf accessed 8 July 2021
Great submission Peju, as a princess of the kingdom you should have first hand knowledge of who these artifacts belong to.
**The Root of all Evil: The Benin Artefact’s Saga**
Sir, what’s your view on the Benin Artifacts imbroglio?
Money and Love are not the roots of all evil. The Bible is right, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The love of money that caused some people to travel thousands of miles by ships to pillage and steal sacred artefacts in 1897 and forced the people’s leader into compulsory exile is still as alive now as it was then. For verily, why should there be conflicts about who to decide where returned artefacts stolen from someone’s bedroom, palace, shrines and nation be kept when the rightful owner and custodian is still alive, able and capable? In deed, the love of money is also the roots of all insults upon injuries. It is the root of affront and disrespect to traditional institutions.
The ‘Nigeria factor’ has robbed us of the intimacy we should be having with our cultures.
Politically, we have been decieved to think that what belongs to the indeginous cultures within the geography called Nigeria belong to Nigeria. How can looted artefacts from Nok, Benin, Ife etc, be referred to as Nigeria’s. No Yoruba art Yoruba art, Benin art is Benin art, etc.
Funny enough, the recovered loots by some former state governors
from their state’ covers are yet to be returned to the states.
As we continue to manage our forced unity, this discourse authenticate the fact that there are nationalities within Nigeria and they must be accorded their rights of place.
We can not continue to look towards the centre or serve the interest of the center that care less about it’s strangled members.
In this case my opinion is hustory is repeating its self.The issue is political.The principal actors Lai Mohammed and Obaseki are being mischievous,all rights are with the Oba of Benin.A goat cannot give birth to a tiger.Obaseki is repeating the acts of his ancestors,the Oba should watch him closely.
I have been trying to understand the positions of the Oba and the Governor, and honestly can’t see why this affair has been allowed to create such a major schism between Palace and Government House.
True, the artifacts were taken from the Palace and should be returned there. However, all Edos, and indeed all Nigerians should have access to them, and a museum that is built in such a way as to grant access, without going through the Palace should not be impossible to achieve.
You are right, but we sincerely hope that the Oba will at least order for replicas to be produced and place in a Museum within the city, so that our children can learn from them, since not everybody will be allowed into the sacred chambers of the Palac
By Prof. Pejus’ write up, I think it’s unequivocal as to who should be in custody of our traditional artifacts however, we must do everything within our power to help the public understand the impact of slavery. On the other hand, also enlighten the public of it’s objectives of atonement and repair for past racist and colonialist practices.
There should be no basis of contesting ownership nor custody rights of returned looted artworks to Benin Mornarchy. A museum within the precinct of the palace would have more value and impact
To me, arts in Benin are properties of the Oba because it is he who sponsors the production of those creative works of art. The arts are important to the Oba as his throne and people are important to him also the objects are not in their fullness without the presence of the royal blood. discussion on the return of such cultural objects in the absence of the King is an error because they have existed before Nigeria is invented.
These objects are the Benin people historical archive that documents the essence of the Benin Kingdom.
Thanks for this lucid and salient intervention, Prof!
Absolutely not Public Property. They must return home at the Oba palace complex, No buts or ifs, period.
The Power of Knowledge remains an important Tool against the Art of Colonial Propaganda
Thank again and also for this important article
Perspectives of the People of African Descent Germany