In the West, the Looted Bronzes Are Museum Pieces. In Nigeria, ‘They Are Our Ancestors.’
When British soldiers stole the treasured works in 1897, it left a gaping hole in an ancient culture. With a few set to return to Nigeria, can their meaning be restored, too?
“They were made to tell stories, to keep memories, and to hand over all these stories and memories from one generation to another,” said Enotie Ogbebor, an artist from Benin City and the founder of Nosona Studios, where Ms. Obaseki works. Western institutions had turned these pieces into “objects of admiration, when these were objects holding information,” he added.
They took most of those riches.It was “the equivalent of taking the works from the Renaissance in Europe all the way to the modernists,” said Mr. Ogbebor the Nosona Studios founder. “Bach, Handel, Shakespeare, Mozart — everybody. That’s what was done to us. Imagine if that was taken away from Europe for the last 130 years. Do you think Europe would be where it is today?”
Theophilus Umogbai, curator of Benin’s museum, agreed. “It’s like burning down huge libraries,” he said.
The treasures are expected to be returned to a trust that aims to bring together the current oba — the descendant of the king deposed in 1897 — and regional and national governments although some internal disagreements between them need to be worked out.
The young artists working in Nosona Studios, which is in a crumbling former supermarket, have blackened the windows that overlook the old museum and, beyond, the oba’s palace. The modern city, with its hooting cars, its Afrobeats thrum, its hawkers selling padlocks and mangoes from wheelbarrows, reminds them of what Benin could have been, but for the events of 1897.Derek Jombo, the first artist to paint over the windows, said he can’t bear to look out.“I’m aware of what this town should be,” he said.