BENIN CITY, NIGERIA — More than a century ago, as European powers competed for Africa’s resources, ancient art treasures from an ancient kingdom were stolen.
What was once the ancient Kingdom of Benin is now the heart of the Nigerian art world, with statues adorning the streets and an art museum in the Benin City town square. But locals say the displayed art is only part of Benin’s collection. They say British colonials stole nearly 4,000 pieces more than a century ago.
“Originally these objects belonged to the Benin people, and the Benin people want them back," stated Umogbai Theophilus, curator for Nigeria’s National Museum in Benin City. "So I am using this opportunity to send that message across that the objects taken away in 1897 through raw aggression by the Europeans should come back to their rightful owners, the Benins.”
Theophilus says after decades of negotiations, some Benin art has been sent back to Nigeria. “In the past we have had successes, but they were very modest compared to what was taken awa,” he said.
The art was taken at the end of the 19th century when the British launched a “punitive expedition” in retaliation for what they said was Benin aggression, sacking the city and deposing the king or “Oba.”
Local artist Williams Edosowan says art in Benin is more than just decoration. It is how they record their history. “They stole many of our art-craft from the palace. During those days any event that happened, we used to create art work to [remember] the event,” he recalled.
Collectors argue that the history of Benin Kingdom is kept alive by the art as it travels the world. Critics also say repatriating the art requires more commitment from Nigerian officials. Artists in Benin City say every piece lost is a lost piece of their history.