BENIN CITY, NIGERIA – The young artist flipped through grainy photographs of the delicate ivory mask of Queen Idia, looking for inspiration for her painting of the legendary warrior queen. The masks were created some 500 years ago by a carvers guild just around the corner from the studio where artist Osaru Obaseki worked.
Five of these ancient masks exist. But Ms. Obaseki never saw one. No one is in Africa, let alone in Benin City, his hometown in southern Nigeria. one of the best is in the performance Case in the basement of the British Museum in London. Another Africa is in the gallery At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
These and more than 3,000 other works – and perhaps thousands more – were stolen by invading British troops in 1897, and are now treasured pieces in the collections of some of the most important museums in the United States and Europe.
For years, Nigeria’s artists, historians, activists and royalty have struggled to get these pieces back. And, as conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism have grown globally in recent years, some institutions are beginning to respond to these calls.
But many Nigerians are outraged that only a fraction of these treasures are under discussion for return – and not even the most cherished, such as the Queen Idia Mask.
For them, stolen works are not mere physical objects of art, but narratives. They are part of the basis of the identity, culture and history of Benin – the city of Nigeria that was once part of the Kingdom of Benin, not the modern nation of Benin.
Enoti Ogbebor, a Benin City-based artist and founder of Nosona Studios, where Ms. Obaseki works, said, “They were created to tell stories, to hold memories and to pass all these stories and memories from one generation to the next. ” Western institutions had turned these pieces into “objects of praise when they were objects of information,” he said.
Some of the artifacts – known as Benin bronzes, although most are made from brass and some from wood and ivory – were religious objects, used in temples. Oba, Or the king would wear masks like Queen Idiya during important ceremonies. A series of intricate bronze and brass plaques, some of which are now on display on a wall in the British Museum, each told a piece of the state’s history, together forming a cohesive narrative.
For years, museums have resisted the restoration of foreign treasures. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre and 16 others अन्य argued in 2002 Global collections like his served “people of every nation”. In Europe, where collections often belong to the state, museums have often stated that the decisions do not lie with them.
But in April, Germany said it would return “substantial” numbers of Benin bronzes next year. National Museum of Ireland plans return 21 items Too.
The British Museum has previously presented the idea of a loan, but never carried out a full restoration. A spokesman, Kenneth Wein, said the Met was not considering sending back its Queen India masks. No other organization has said that it will return one of these masks.
Restored works are likely for a new museum in Benin City, which will be called Edo Museum of West African Art. It is designed by architect David Adjaye and is planned for completion by 2026, if the builders can raise about $150 million. a digital project Will bring together photographs and oral histories of looted items.
At the moment, there is little to see beyond the red earth at the planned museum site, an abandoned hospital and some damp walls. Before construction begins, there will be a major archaeological excavation, funded by the British Museum, to excavate the burial remains of the old town.
For now, Benin City’s existing museum is a small building in the center of a busy junction that receives little funding from the government and which cannot afford to keep the lights on forever.
Inside its red walls are some lonely plaques and a picture of the Queen India Mask. A full wall is a blown-up picture of British soldiers sitting in 1897, smoking cigarettes, surrounded by their booty.
In Britain, the events of 1897 are known by many as the Punitive Campaign. According to this version of the story, a group of British officers had come to Benin to visit Oba, but were killed. so english 1,500 men sent, armed with some early machine guns, to avenge his death.
But in Nigeria, it is known as the Benin Massacre, because of the many residents killed by British forces. Nigerian historians say that the British were looking for excuses to attack Benin, as the Oba had too much power. And the soldiers knew there was untold wealth in Benin; He said so in the letters of the house.
He took most of the money from them.
“It was the equivalent of carrying works from the Renaissance to the Modernists in Europe,” said Mr. Ogbebor, founder of Nosona Studios. “Bach, Handel, Shakespeare, Mozart – everybody. That’s what was done to us. Imagine if he was taken away from Europe for the last 130 years. Do you think Europe would be where it is today?”
Theophilus Umogbai, the curator of Benin’s museum, agreed. “It’s like burning huge libraries,” he said.
treasure is expected returned to a trust The aim of which is to bring together the current Oba – the descendants of the deposed king in 1897 – and the regional and national governments, although some internal differences between them need to be addressed. (Oba, for example, said in a written statement to the media, that he should be the sole recipient of the treasure, and that anyone working with the trust is the “enemy.”)
Over the past decade, knowledge and outrage about the looting of Benin art works has deepened.
In a 2010 survey of residents of the city of Benin, from market women to politicians, Kokunare Egbonten-Agphona, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Benin, found that only half of the respondents were aware that the work was stolen by the British. This year, a pilot study for a planned repeat survey showed that awareness has reached nearly 95 percent.
“They are aware,” she said. “And indeed, they want the restoration of our objects.”
Treasures, though long absent, are still woven into daily life. A tailor in the old town hangs a picture of Queen Idiya on his wall, which inspires her designs. In the grand home of Benin city businessman John Osamede Adun, a temple aisle is flanked by some bronze royal heads, epoch undetermined.
“They are our ancestors. Our fathers, our grandfathers,” said Mr. Adun, twinkling at a light to reveal dozens more bronzes in his staircase.
“At night, they wake up and talk,” he said. “I know the language used for them.”
Some members of the Guild of Ancient Bronze Artists still practice the craft of their ancestors.
One May afternoon, men from the ancient Agbe foundry prepared to throw a piece of scrap metal – an old radio antenna, a bracelet – into the green smoke emanating from a crucible, while another held together pieces of red earth. wire set on fire around
The Egbe family has been casting bronze for so long, they said, one of the plaques stolen in 1897 was made by an ancestor.
Young artists working at Nosona Studios, a crumbling former supermarket, have darkened the windows that look beyond the old museum and Oba’s palace. The modern city, with its hooting cars, its Afrobeats thrum, its hawkers, wheelbarrows selling padlocks and mangoes, reminds them not of what Benin could have been, but to the events of 1897.
Derek Zumbo, the first artist to paint on windows, said he couldn’t bear to look outside.
“I know what this city must be,” he said.
Ms. Obaseki, the artist, longs to be able to see Queen Idea’s masks from different angles and see their exact colors.
Ms. Obaseki, 28, said, “It’s quite different when you’re looking at an object physically and you see all sides of it. She took a handful of burnt sand, which she’s using was collected from the foundry of a bronze caster, and let it run through your fingers.
Ruth McLean reported from Benin City, Nigeria and Alex Marshall from London. Sarah Bahr contributed reporting from Indianapolis, and Zachary Smalls from New York.