A strange intervention has given another twist to the farce of the Benin bronzes. Nigerian Prince Nosuyi Ovonramwen has suggested in a blog post that “descendants of the slaves” (referring to the ones Benin sold) should be allowed to “share in the value of the bronzes”. Surely, a call to sell up and distribute the proceeds?
A British expedition of 1897 overthrew Oba (King) Ovonramwen and his regime in Benin, which still gloried in mass human sacrifice of slaves and war captives. Slaves were freed, the mass murders stopped, and Ovonramwen’s son was reinstated in 1914, with his line continuing to today’s essentially ceremonial Oba Ewuare II. Prince Ovonramwen, who lives in Nigeria, is the overthrown Oba’s great-great-grandson, which is why his opinion carries weight.
Thousands of bronze, ivory and wooden artefacts were removed from Benin in 1897 and ended up in the world’s museums, the bronzes widely admired for their sophisticated casting, evidence of unsuspected artistic skills in Africa in the Middle Ages. Until March this year, Nigeria’s campaign to get the artworks restituted was going nicely, with well-intentioned (or colonial-guilt-obsessed) curators and trustees handing collections to Nigeria’s Museums Commission (NCMM, that is, the Nigerian people): Jesus College, the Smithsonian, London’s Horniman Museum, and most spectacularly, 1,130 of pieces in Germany’s state museums – with more in prospect.
As the Daily Sceptic reported on May 15th, Nigeria’s President quietly decreed in March that everything restituted to the NCMM would in fact be handed to Oba Ewuare, as his private property: past auction records show these pieces have huge market value, the record currently standing at £10m for a bronze head. The President’s bombshell brought restitutions to a halt. Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology had a rethink only days before handing over more than 100 pieces, and German curators and politicians have tried to face down the uproar (only a couple of dozen pieces having left Germany so far).
It remains to be seen what these trustees and curators will make of a Benin Prince’s idea that their museums’ works should now be sold by Nigeria and the money handed out. Nothing of what has already been restituted has been seen by the Nigerian people, and no-one will say where those works are today. Three important ones, stolen from Lagos Museum some years ago, ended up in New York’s Met Museum, but after having been sent back yet again they’ve vanished.
Meantime the Restitution Study Group, speaking for millions of American and Caribbean descendants of the slaves whom Benin and other African kingdoms sold, is gaining support for its claim that the bronzes should stay on display where they are, around the world, as memorials to the sufferings of their ancestors and to shame those who captured and sold them to foreign traders.
Professor Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin wrote in May about the shambles of the restitution process from a German viewpoint and on August 6th she published another trenchant article in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, saying that the post-colonial debate has been missing the point – the ‘victims’ are not the Benin kingdom, but its slaves; and that as slavery was abolished slave owners in British and French colonies were handsomely compensated – she gives surprising figures – but the slaves themselves got nothing.
She ends by arguing:
The recent history of the bronzes has been accompanied by a change in meaning: as the embodiment of ancestors, they were persons, instruments of power and objects of worship. But with the British subjugation of Benin they lost their sacred character; they became spoils of war, commodities to be sold on the art market and private property. A large part ended up in public museums around the world as cultural assets, where they became what they are today: a first-class cultural World Heritage.
All those whose actions and suffering are embodied in the artefacts have rights to them. They and all those connected to them – indeed, all of us – are entitled to co-ownership. It is time to give up the exclusive concept of private property of cultural assets in favour of a communal concept of ownership. ‘Shared heritage’, in other words.
It’s worth reading in full, she demolishes the idea that the Benin works are nothing more than stolen private property.
Hauser-Schäublin’s article is headed by pictures of a carved wooden box from Benin which she noticed in Hamburg’s MARKK Museum. It glorifies human sacrifice. On one end, an executioner brandishes his sword over a headless corpse with bound legs and arms; on the lid an official displays a severed head while drummers celebrate.
But images like this from Benin itself, giving the local view of what went on there, might vanish from the world: the Smithsonian is among museums which have handed to Nigeria image rights in artworks along with the pieces themselves. The Obas have never apologised for their ancestors’ murderous, slave-trading past: why would they want the world to see the evidence?