It is heartening to know that after decades of calling for the return of the Benin Bronzes and other artifacts that were looted at the turn of the 20th century, these calls are finally being heeded. However, there seems to be a disconnect regarding why this mission is important.
The conversation around repatriation is not new; it has been discussed at length for decades. It’s important to understand that returning these artifacts is just the start of healing the wounds of the theft of my people’s culture and property.
Germany is the first nation to begin the process of relinquishing these works back into the hands of the rightful owners. Fellow countries in Europe and the western world should follow suit. They should discuss how they can assist in doing right by the citizens of Benin and Nigeria in determining what is rightfully theirs. But the day when every one of these artifacts is returned to its place of origin does not mean that the work of showcasing these significant pieces of art stops. The exact opposite is true.
For years, European and American institutions have displayed some of the most remarkable pieces of African art and profited from these items through exhibitions and installations. Equity should be discussed in the form of these institutions partnering with the Benin government and the Legacy Restoration Trust to ensure that the public can see these works when the Edo Museum of Western Art is constructed and operational. Plans for the Edo Museum of Western Art in Nigeria are well underway.
Organizations like the Legacy Restoration Trust are working with the Benin government, the Digital Benin Project, art historians, and museums throughout the world to ensure the creation of a sustainable, world-class institution to showcase these treasures.
We can begin to right the wrongs of the past by helping ensure that future stewards of these works have the resources to tell the story of Benin for generations to come. It will take time, patience, and deep discussions about establishing practices that will guide these decisions going forward, and it is something I am committed to doing in my capacity as an advisor for the new museum.
Through like-minded partnerships and collaborations, we can move forward together in telling the story of the kingdom’s past in ways that highlight why these works are considered such wonders. This work is just beginning, but it is just and truly noble in its endeavor to correct past offenses.
In my role as the Françoise Billion Richardson Curator of African Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, I am fortunate to work at an institution that is as committed to participating in the processes of repatriation as I am. The museum has signed up to be a part of the Digital Benin project, along with furthering the conversation about repatriation at academic conferences and in other art spaces.
While indeed the Benin Bronzes were created for the Oba, they now belong to the citizens of Benin, Nigeria, who in turn want to welcome those who want to see their world. And just like artists who want others to be moved by the beauty of their creations, so too will Benin be proud to host the world as it joins us in celebrating our dynamic artistic heritage.
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