On the busy streets of Nigeria’s Benin City, inhabitants cannot wait to receive their Bronzes back – for them their return represent restitution for some of the immoral act committed by British troops during the colonial era.
A statue of a cockerel is one of inestimable value artefact soon to be returned home, after Jesus College handed it over to representatives from Nigeria at a special ceremony at Cambridge University on Wednesday.
It is among thousands of metal sculptures and ivory carvings made in the middle of the 15th and 19th Centuries and plundered by British troops in 1897 from the West African kingdom of Benin, in modern day Nigeria’s Edo state.
“I feel happy that the work of my great-grandfather will be coming back to Benin,” says Monday Aigbe, who, like his forefather, is a sculptor.
He runs a workshop for casting metal in Benin City, the capital of Edo state, where his craftsmen work silently but skillfully on brass statues.
The trained workers fashion a multitude of shapes out of metal, inclusive of busts of the Oba – the title of the traditional king of Benin – in addition to statues of animals and carved doors.
They have been producing bronzes here for six generations. In the middle of the workshop is a large statue of Mr Aigbe’s great-grandfather.
He worked for Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi when the raid and looting took place on the Royal Palace over 120 years ago.
“It makes me upset because they came, they destroyed the palace, they made my great-grandfather run from the city to the village,” Mr Aigbe declares.
The loot was among the admirable African artworks ever made – and was sold or gifted to private collectors and museums around the world.
Bronzes are still made in Benin City using the same techniques – this sculptor works at Monday Aigbe’s foundry
With the increasing return of the stolen artefacts expected back in Nigeria – on Thursday the University of Aberdeen in Scotland will also be returning one of its Bronzes – Mr Aigbe plans to take his children to see them when they go on exhibition.
This will be at the Edo Museum of West African Art – an introductory step by the governor of Edo state to house all the returned Benin Bronzes.
The officials say it will not be completed for not less than five years – construction on the building, moved to be designed by renowned British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, has yet to start.
Still for Theophilus Umogbai, deputy director and curator of the National Museum Benin, this is no reason to justify delay in returning the Bronzes.
The artefacts are related to a library as they tell the story of the kingdom of Benin, he says.
“You now have empty shelves. The return of those objects will be like filling those shelves. There’s a lacuna in our history because those objects were taken away.”
The British government has contended that the Benin Bronzes “properly reside” in the British Museum, which has the hugest collection of them in the world – with over 900 pieces.
Hosting the earliest objects in London also guarantees they are reachable to the world, the UK authorities say.
Yet it is an argument that Mr Umogbai takes exclusion to, saying that most Nigerians will never get to see them there given visa and travel costs.
“I went to the British Museum because my trip was sponsored. I wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise, even as a public servant.
“It’s easier for those abroad to visit us, because of the economic buoyancy of Europe, compared to Africa.”
As far as he is concern the Bronzes simply do not belong in Western museums.
“When I saw the Bronzes in the British Museum I was happy at first. Then that thought was replaced by the feeling that these objects were incongruously sitting where they shouldn’t be. They should be back home.”
The past ‘feeds inspiration’
Twenty-eight-year-old artist Joe Obamina concurs – as he believes it is the past that stimulates the future.
In his sunlit studio in Benin City he makes pixellated paintings – aroused by his childhood spent under the roof, playing Tetris.
Amid a distance the paintings look like a assemblies of multicolored boxes, small symbols peppering the odd square. Yet if you squint, or better still, watch the paintings through your phone camera, the overall image becomes clear.
“Each pixel is a continuous story. Besides the overall image, I tell other stories inside each cube,” Mr Obamina says.
In-spite of using modern imagery, most of his work does throw back the history and culture of Edo state.
One painting portrays the Idia mask, one of the most renowned Benin Bronzes. It is believed to be a carving of the face of the mother of an oba from the first half of the 16th Century.
“My painting of the Idia mask was inspired by the ongoing restitution of the Benin Bronzes,” Mr Obamina says.
“We grew up without seeing the actual mask, just the replicas. Our heritage has been scattered, so I had to paint something to depict that: the scattered heritage that is abroad.
“But nevertheless we still have our own identity and cultural practices. That’s why when you take a picture of it with your phone you can still see the mask in full.”
Mr Obamina’s paternal great-grandfather was a sculptor. Even though he does not know whether he worked on any of the ancient bronzes, he is of the opinion that seeing them will help connect him to his past.
“I’m a Nigerian, I’m an Edo citizen – so I can’t really detach myself from that, it’s rooted in me.
“These artefacts being returned is going to mean a lot, because it will help me connect with my ancestors.”
A assembly of complex intricately made brass and bronze sculptures and plaques from the palace of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi
Produced by experts guilds working for the royal court
The plaques provide a historical record of the Kingdom of Benin, inclusive of the first contact with Portuguese envoys
Most of the pieces were made for ancestral altars of past kings and queen mothers
The word “Benin Bronzes” is also used to mean artefacts made from ivory, leather, coral and wood In February 1897, the British embark on a punitive undertaking against the kingdom after seven British officials and traders were killed Benin City was invaded British forces looted the Royal Palace, which was burnt down. The oba, was sent into exile
Museums in Europe have decided to lend on rotation some of their bronzes to a new museum to be built in Benin City more than sixty years after Nigeria’s independence