Reclaiming Culture with the Benin Bronze Arts

When Harry Rawson launched a full-scale offensive against the Benin Kingdom in the 19th century, it was a show of force from the British Empire. Ratified by royals, it was to set an example to any, and every African Kingdom that resisting taxation from the British empire would result in consequences, grave ones.

While met with great resistance from the Benin people, the British eventually broke their defenses and pillaged the city, burning palaces, taking lives, and carting away thousands of Artworks, artifacts and sculptures that served as a cultural bedrock for the people in Benin.

Why Were The Benin Bronze Art Important?

The Benin Bronze Arts are a testament to the advanced artistic skills and rich cultural heritage of the Benin Kingdom. These brass and bronze sculptures depict kings, warriors, and deities, showcasing remarkable craftsmanship and intricate detailing. They hold deep spiritual and historical meaning for the people of Benin and are an integral part of their identity.


Within the artworks, there were etchings that detail progeny, serving the purpose of a griot– they were the history books for a community that didn’t write. A culturally conscious people are aware of their roots and destination– and this makes the loss of these artworks much more urgent.


A Culture in Exile:

A significant number of these artworks were acquired by the British colonial authorities and subsequently distributed to various institutions. The British Museum in London holds a notable collection of Benin Bronzes. Other British institutions, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, also house significant numbers of looted Benin artworks.


In addition to the United Kingdom, some looted artworks found their way into museums and private collections in other European countries, such as Germany and France. These artworks are scattered across multiple institutions, making the process of identifying and repatriating them complex and challenging.


Recovery Process

In 2014, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland returned a Benin Bronze sculpture to Nigeria, marking one of the first instances of restitution of looted Benin artifacts by a British institution. Similarly, in 2020, the Edo State Government in Nigeria successfully secured the return of a group of Benin Bronzes from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.


These instances of restitution reflect a growing recognition of the need to address historical injustices and support the repatriation of looted cultural heritage. Efforts are ongoing to encourage other museums and institutions holding Benin Bronze artifacts to engage in discussions surrounding restitution and consider the return of these artworks to their rightful owners in Nigeria.


But even with these discussions, some arguments exist against the recovery of the Benin Bronze artifacts– some people say they are under better care in the West and would be neglected if brought back to Nigeria. Moreover, some of the recovered artworks were repossessed for personal use by the Nigerian elites.


As the conversation rages on, we at F7 Apparel will continue to do our part in enduring the relevance of these artistic works, infusing them in our wears, and collectibles. This is to foster pride in heritage among Africans living within and outside the continent.

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