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Victor Ehikhamenor describes his childhood in Benin City, Nigeria, as magical. “My grandfather was a big chief, so we grew up in a very, very huge family compound,” he says. “Grandmothers told stories. A lot of them did paintings on their walls.” He recalls the numerous festivals, the coral beads traditionally worn by Benin Obas and chiefs, and the way Indigenous art and Catholic imagery, first brought to Nigeria by Portuguese adventurers in the 15th century, mingle in churches that still exist today.
And, of course, Ehikhamenor, a multimedia artist, photographer, and writer who moved to the United States in 1996, remembers the bronzes. A visitor to Benin City could easily find many contemporary examples of the sculptures, made by pouring molten bronze or brass into a mold. Artists create and sell them on Igun Street, home to Nigeria’s Royal Guild of the Brass Casters, and Ehikhamenor says finding a bronze in a Benin resident’s home is not uncommon. “It’s a living culture,” he says. “It has never stopped, and it will never stop.”
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Yet many of the artists on Igun Street have never seen some of the most exquisitely rendered versions of their art, which have been made since at least the 16th century. In 1897, British soldiers looted the royal palace in what was then called the Kingdom of Benin, taking several thousand metal plaques, sculptures, and other precious works. The pieces have since been scattered around the world, purchased and sold by both private collectors and public museums—including a plaque depicting a nobleman held at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) since 1955.
Now, though, the DAM has taken the first step toward repatriating (the word scholars use when cultural items are returned to their country of origin or former owners) the plaque by deaccessioning, or formally removing, it from its collection.
The Denver Post first reported in November that the DAM had begun researching the provenance of 11 artworks in its collection that had come from the Kingdom of Benin. According to an emailed statement from the DAM to 5280, just two of the 11 artworks would have been in Benin during the 1897 raid (the other nine are from 1910 to 1950). One is the plaque, which the museum confirmed had been looted by examining ledgers held in the British Museum. The other is “a small bronze pendant or belt mask,” the origin of which is still being researched by the DAM.
Repatriating the bronze represents an important step forward in museum collection ethics. For years, curators in Western museums felt justified in holding art and other cultural artifacts that had been stolen from their original countries. The United States government got involved in 1990, when it passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law that created a system under which tribes could demand federally funded museums return items of cultural importance, including the remains of their ancestors. But that piece of legislation only applied to Indigenous tribes in the U.S., meaning members of other nations who’d had items stolen had to rely upon museum staffers to give them back.
In the case of the Benin bronzes, institutions have only very recently decided to repatriate. France returned 26 Bronzes in November 2021, and in March 2022, the Smithsonian agreed to send most of its 39 pieces back to Nigeria. At least 16 U.S. museums in total are currently undertaking the process, according to a recent investigation done by the Washington Post.
Museums that choose to hold on to suspect pieces allow the market for stolen art to continue to thrive. “The art market is fueled by the desires of collectors, whose desire is born by seeing those objects in museums in the West,” says Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College, part of the City University of New York. “It’s a cycle of desire and looting.”
Holding stolen art like the Benin bronzes reinforces the sense of Western supremacy over colonized nations, says Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford and a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which displays the university’s extensive archaeological and anthropological collections. Hicks’ book, The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, was the first to include excerpts from the British soldiers who carried out the attack on the Kingdom of Benin. “The work of looting was a military tactic, to seek to lay claim to sovereignty, to seek to destroy traditional religion, to seek to undertake lasting cultural dispossession,” Hicks says.
Mere weeks after the invasion of Benin, museums in London, Berlin, and Oxford put the stolen bronzes on display, often alongside works from ancient Egypt, the Bronze Age, and the ancient Near East (civilizations in roughly the same area as today’s Middle East). “The message was absolutely clear: This is a dead culture,” Hicks says.
As Ehikhamenor’s memories indicate, neither the Benin culture, nor the practice of bronze casting is dead. Contemporary Benin bronzes, however, have been impacted by the loss of the royal palace’s artwork, because modern artists in Nigeria haven’t been able to interact with the masterworks made by their ancestors. “If a Western artist goes to a museum and sees a Caravaggio, they are probably going to come back and say, ‘OK, I want to paint like that,’ or ‘I don’t want to paint like that,’ or ‘I want to paint like that but break the rules a little,’” says Ehikhamenor, who wrote about the frustration of seeing pieces of his own culture behind glass outside of Nigeria in a 2020 op-ed in the New York Times. “There’s a lot that came from that era that, if they were in our midst, we’d be able to reference them.”
Repatriation can take a long time to complete. Last year, the DAM returned a tablet believed to have been stolen from Nepal, but the piece is still in the Nepalese embassy because the small country southwest of China can’t afford to ship it, Thompson says. The DAM didn’t offer a timeline for the plaque’s official return.
Still, scholars like Hicks say the DAM’s decision to deaccession the bronze plaque is a good step. “What that opens up,” he says, “are the other conversations we can have in the museum. Instead of a hangover from the colonial period, we can create spaces that share a whole host of different ways of making, seeing, believing and thinking outside of the Euro America or Eurocentric perspective.”
(Read more: The History of Museums Is More Fraught Than You Might Think)