Interviews: Finally we get to see the Benin Bronzes in Benin City

Phil Omodamwen Beeld Petterik Wiggers

Authorities from Europe and Nigeria have agreed to build a new exhibition space in Benin City to host the Benin Bronzes, that were stolen in 1897 from the royal palace. European museums will lend some of the objects in their collections to the Royal Benin Museum, which should be finished in 2021. What do Nigerians directly connected to the Bronzes think about this? 

PAYING THEM TO SEE WHAT WE MADE - THAT FEELS TERRIBLE 

Phil Omodamwen (1971), bronze founder

“You are born a bronze founder. The oven is on the family yard, as a child you see how everything works. But women are not allowed to learn it, because if they marry, knowledge would end up outside the family. Only eleven families still belong to the bronze foundry guild, established by Oba Oguola at the end of the 13th century. If people who do not belong to the guild still cast bronze, then we have a few tough men who take everything from them.

We only cast bronze heads and reliefs for the Oba, others were not allowed to own them. It was the guild’s task to record the history, battles and important events in bronze. A few years ago I cast a relief based on a painful historical photograph from 1897. The British had just robbed the palace and banned Oba Ovonramwen. The photo shows Oba Ovonramwen on the British yacht that takes him to exile in Calabar. That is also our history, you can’t change that, that’s why I made that relief. A copy of it has been exhibited at the Ethnological Museum in Stockholm.

I’m afraid I’m the last generation of bronze founders. My sons find the work too heavy, and you don’t make much money with it. This set of two leopards in my studio takes six to eight weeks of work, and costs around $ 1500. I almost exclusively sell to expats: Americans, Germans, through a gallery in Lagos. We used to just go to those oil companies and sell our bronzes. But now it’s too unsafe there; robberies and abductions are frequent, also in the area where we buy beeswax.

Some fifty people used to work for me, now only twenty. Many have left for Europe. Three members of our family died en route.

People from the British Museum came here at the end of last year. They asked me if I wanted to make a relief. It was a tempting offer, but no thanks. I don’t want African refugees to link my name to their misery.

In 1990, I was at the British Museum. It felt terrible to have to pay to see the images we made. I don’t even have the money to buy a catalog.

I am very sad about this arrangement, in which European museums lend to us what we have been forcibly robbed of. But if the objects ever come back, let them give them to the Oba, not to the federal government bodies, because they would just resell those objects.”

Prince Gregory Akenzua Beeld Petterik Wiggers

THESE RELIGIOUS OBJECTS NOW HAVE A NEW, CULTURAL MEANING 

Prince Gregory Akenzua (1938), Professor of Pediatrics, Prince, brother of the previous Oba (king), Enogie (duke), delegate of the Royal Court in the Benin Dialogue Group

“As an Enogie, I represent the Oba in a region outside the city. People often prefer to go to me rather than go to court. Traditional law revolves around mediation between communities, often about land. The land law (1978) included all the Oba’s the land.

I also represent the Oba in the negotiations with European museums about the Benin Bronzes. Some people here see the loan agreement and a new museum in Benin City as a sign that we have not fought hard enough. But we do not give up our claim to ownership. I see this agreement as a step towards return. As far as we are concerned, they can exhibit copies in Europe; we would happily abandon copyrights.

Right, originally the objects had a religious meaning, they were not intended to be in a museum. But the current Oba, His Majesty Ewuare II, recognizes the objects have taken on a new cultural meaning, that is best preserved in a museum. That is why he is participating in building a museum for it. 

Previous Obas have done it before, they donated objects to museums in Lagos and Benin. This Oba has studied in the UK and the US, he was ambassador in Scandinavia and Italy. He is now using his previous experiences and training to improve our culture.”

Victor Ehikhamenor Beeld Petterik Wiggers

GIVE THEM BACK, WITHOUT CLAUSES 

Victor Ehikhamenor (1970) Visual artist, photographer, columnist

“I was born in a catholic hospital, was baptized catholic and went to a catholic school. But traditional altars were everywhere. My grandfather was still religious in a traditional way. He prayed to his ancestors at the house altar and had six wives - all grandmothers who told me the stories I grew up with.

As a toddler I was already obsessed with drawing. Only later did I realize that praying to saints does not differ substantially from praying to the spirits of ancestors, as my grandfather did. When I studied computer science in the UK and the US, I became aware of my artistic roots: my uncle was a photographer, I drew ‘photos’ of my friends. And I drew the altar images and the symbolic religious signs that I saw all around me. I still use these in my paintings and sculptures.

The items that have been stolen from us must be returned, without clauses. If the art that the Nazis robbed of Jews must be returned to the entitled heirs, the Bronzes must be returned to the present Oba, Ewuare II. He is the heir to Oba Ovonramwen, from whose palace the British stole the artefacts in 1897.

Whether the palace is accessible to everyone, whether everyone can see the objects there? That question betrays your western perspective! Those objects were intended not to be seen by everyone. Should every American have access to the White House? They were never meant for aesthetics, ‘art for art’s sake’, that’s not how we Africans look at it.

Moreover: the Oba, Edo state, and the federal government are now working together to build a museum. They see the loan agreement as a step towards return, I know that. But my personal opinion is: we should never agree with that borrowing. Europeans continue to insult us with this. So we can borrow our own stuff and then send it back to the British Museum!? And those questions like ‘what will they do with it if we return the objects?’ - it’s all a repetition of the mistreatment of my people.”

Ekhagousa Aisien Beeld Petterik Wiggers

THE WEST HAS TAKEN GOOD CARE OF THEM 

Ekhagousa Aisien (1939), surgeon, chronicler of orally transmitted stories about the Benin Kingdom

“Four centuries ago, you Dutch were our best trading partners. The pope had forbidden arms sales to pagans, and that is why the Portuguese only brought us beads and such. They were greatly appreciated at the court, but you sold us pistols. And metals, with which we have copied those pistols by the thousands. This enabled Benin to expand its empire.

I have written eight history books about Benin. They are mostly based on the stories my father heard in the palace. He was the educator of Oba Eweka II (king from 1914 to 1933), designated to do so by an oracle.

Already my grandfather, a village chief, had contacts at the royal court, thanks to his reputation as a warrior. Once he sent his servant to buy palm wine. But Itsekiri, a neighboring people, imprisoned the man and offered him to their God of War. No, the Benin people were not the only ones who did that. When later Itsekiri sailed past the river, my grandfather had them overpowered. He crucified seven, and left them on the bank for fear. The others he donated as slaves to the Oba. In the war that broke out, he smashed a banana tree with one blow of his sword and an enemy hiding behind it in half.

In 1897, when the British advanced to Benin, the king sent him out as a scout. From the forest, he fired a shot at a British officer who was having tea. I also found that incident described in a diary of a British army medic with the troops. My grandfather was later punished with sixty lashes.

The British crushed us. They had their Maxim machine guns firing thirteen bullets per second. Our guns had to be reloaded after every shot.

It’s wonderful that European museums will lend objects to a new museum here. Return? Oh well, it was spoils of war, that’s how it went then. It was an unjust war, but what war is just?

One of the good things that came out of it that the Benin Bronzes created a more sophisticated image of Africa in Europe, at least among art connoisseurs. They showed that Africans could be artistic.

Had the British not taken those objects, we might have sold them here and there. Fortunately, it has been well looked after. That is why we will still be able to see them. At present we still lack pride and appreciation for those artefacts. But hopefully that will grow, and we can take care of it ourselves in the long term.”

Kate Osakue Beeld Petterik Wiggers

BURN THESE ALTARS 

Kate Osakue (1972), evangelist

“I took all my house altars in 2007, on which I prayed to the ancestors and gods, to a church and burned them. First I combined traditional with Christian belief. But me and my family didn’t do well. My children didn’t listen to me. In church I sometimes got into a trance, then I had visions that I was holding the Bible and telling others about it. A minister told me that I had a calling by God.

Then I started a church myself. I have redeemed more than twenty people. Now I call churchgoers to burn their altars. Last time we did it in my church was only a week ago. Yes, it must happen in the house of God: newcomers who are still under the influence of priests will see that nothing happens when you do so. First we pray together for a week, then we bring the altars into the church, pour them on with blessed oil, and burn them with gasoline. The altars still contain supernatural power - from rivers, seas and forests. As we read in the Bible, Ephesians 6:12: “ For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Yes, I know that the British stole many objects from the Oba palace altars in 1897. I think they have to return - not to worship them, but they are part of our civilization. I myself would not go to that new museum. What would I have to look for?”

Ebosetale Idiogbe Beeld PETTERIK WIGGERS

I REALLY LIKED THESE BEAUTIFUL BEADS 

Ebosetale Divine Comfort Idiogbe (2010)

“There will be a new museum? I didn’t know. I went to the Benin National Museum yesterday. Look, I’ve written down everything I’ve seen there, so I can remember it better.

What has impressed me the most is the ogluwu, a wooden statue of the God of Death. The Oba had his servants bring one to somebody on death row. Whoever received the object knew he would be killed. I really liked the beautiful clothes of the Queen Mother, with beads, and a high crown. The king and the queen mother kept their jewels in a box in the shape of a fish.

There was also an image of a woman with very many breasts, because she had many children to feed. They were all around her.

I also saw palace guards on bronze reliefs, and a warrior chief who loved fighting. I think we still have a warrior chief, but I’m not sure.

I didn’t know that the British took all those things. My father told me that we have seen a feature film about the British invasion of 1897, but I don’t remember it. We haven’t talked about it at school yet. I will definitely visit the new museum and see what came back.”

Princess Elizabeth Olowu Beeld Petterik Wiggers

YOUR BABY WILL TURN INTO BRONZE, THEY SAID

Princess Elizabeth Olowu (1937), daughter of Oba Akenzua II (king from 1933 - 1978)Artist, bronze founder

“My father, Oba Akenzua II, was a very fatherly person. He came to the harem every afternoon at around four. ‘Kau!’ he cried, ‘I’m coming’. Then he wanted to see all his children, so around that time we all had to be in the harem.

I still remember all the songs. Once, when I was very young, my father got dressed for the annual Igue festival. His chiefs spent three hours on his tunic, hung with coral beads. His women sang: “The Oba is getting ready to go outside, he is dressing like a warrior, as if he is getting ready for battle.” When he entered the harem, the women sang: “You are more beautiful than the most beautiful woman.”

I thought: is my father a woman?

All the women followed him in procession: number eight, ten, twelve, depending on their position. A woman having her period could not come along. She was seen as unclean and had to stay in a separate building.

That is one of the reasons why the bronze foundry guild does not tolerate women in the melting furnaces. If they menstruate, they would contaminate the oven and cause accidents. You don’t joke with molten bronze.

When they heard that I was casting bronze, they said: “If you become pregnant, your baby in your lap will turn into bronze. You will die when giving birth.”

First I was a painter. As a child I already scratched motifs in the skin of gourds that I saw in the palace. My father often took me to the ancestral altar when he made sacrifices. I saw him perform all rituals, pray, and ring the bell.

Once I picked up the bell. “Put it down!” my father roared. I was shocked! He later explained: “If you ring that bell, you call on the spirits of the ancestors.”

I thought: when I grow up, I want to make a bell like that.

Opposite my school was a blacksmith - not a bronze founder, that is another guild. He was an old man. I brought him kola nuts and tobacco, and watched how he made fire and melted metal into round balls, just like gold.

“What are those balls?” I asked him.

“Bullets,” he said. “To hunt antelopes.”

He allowed me to watch. I learned.

“I love that work,” I said, “I want to cast bronze later.”

He said: “What!? Leave that out of your mind! The bronze founders will never allow you, as a woman. They will beat you up.”

He didn’t know who I was. I said: “What if the Oba gives me permission?”

He said, “If you want to be killed, do as you like.”

One of the first things I cast was a bell. I gave it to my father.”

Benson Osadolor Beeld Petterik Wiggers

A WELL DOCUMENTED CRIME  

Benson Osadolor, Professor of History at the University of Benin City. Specialist on military history of Benin kingdom

“The Portuguese reached Benin in 1472, and from 1485 the first Portuguese reports on the situation here appeared. This was followed by reports from Dutch, British and Italian traders and missionaries. These are important primary sources, in addition to oral lore by members of the still existing guilds and palace organizations.

The looting of the Bronzes has been a piece of colonial injustice. The crime has been extensively documented and photographed. Colonial authorities wrote to London that they would finance the war with loot, especially ivory. They knew they had to set up an international force to beat Benin; had they been defeated it would have meant a loss of ground to the French or Germans, competitors in the strategic areas around the Niger Delta.

The objects have been stolen and must be returned, immediately and permanently – no loans. For Africans, and especially Nigerians, there are high barriers to getting visas, how can they ever see their stolen things in the US? Let the Americans come to us if they want to see the Bronzes.

Yes, I would definitely like the job of curator at the new Royal Benin Museum. First of all, I would ensure that no objects disappear, as has often happened in Nigerian museums. I recently visited the existing Benin National Museum, and I was disappointed how little was left of what I saw there in my youth. I am confident that the new museum will be well protected with cameras and such.

In the West, museums market their exhibitions: they organize lectures, they have the means to teach children something about their history and heritage. You don’t have that here, and that’s why exhibitions attract so few visitors.

With those objects I would tell the history of the society in which they originated - yes, also about things like human sacrifices and slaves. The neighboring peoples, such as Igbos and Yorubas, still see the Bini as bad people. They suffered from the fact that Bini caught and killed them or traded them as slaves.

The Bini needed blood for their altars, for which they sacrificed slaves, not their own people.

In Washington, the National Museum of the American Indian also shows the genocide of Indians. To dwell on the injustice that has been done to others, to strive for reconciliation by showing that you regret it: we should do the same in that museum.”

Chief Sam Igbe Beeld Petterik Wiggers

YOU CANNOT FIX CULTURE 

Sam Igbe (1929), Iyase (‘prime minister’) to the Oba

“Already in 1958 I saw the Bronzes in the British Museum. Then the British were still in charge. The call for restitution was not yet heard that much; it only became stronger after the independence of 1960.

The Bronzes were made for the Obas, for the palace, and not for a museum. But the Oba also thinks it is important that they come to a museum and that everyone can see what we were able to make then; that we can be proud of it.

No, I am not afraid that our traditional culture will disappear. We cannot fix our culture, it is developing. I’m an Anglican myself, but at home I also have an ancestor altar, no problem. I once heard a minister say in church that who, like me, holds a traditional position will not go to heaven. I told him: “You and I don’t know who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. God decides that. “

I also asked the bishop if I could explain on the pulpit what I was doing here at the palace. But he told me not to worry and that the preacher was stupid. I left it at that.

I honestly did not know that those objects would be on loan in the new museum. I don’t think that’s a good decision. Those objects are our property. They were stolen.”

Prince Folarin Shyllon Beeld Petterik Wiggers

HAVE WE TAKEN CARE OF OUR HERITAGE OURSELVES? 

Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon, art collector, opens his own museum in Lagos in October

“I come from an industrial family working in the oil. I have been drawing myself since I was young and studied art books in the school library. Working for a company importing agricultural vehicles I traveled a lot, also outside of Nigeria. I bought traditional art everywhere, often altar pieces.

Christian evangelists have brainwashed people en masse. There are said to be ‘demons’ in museums. Even museum staff often see traditional objects as ‘fetish’, something ‘devilish’, because they are Christians or Muslims. They put government money in their own pocket. Museums are collapsing, they are yielding nothing to politicians.

I own a pair of bronzes. For a long time the West denied that we Africans had a history. The bronzes are the hallmarks, the benchmarks of our history. That is why we need the originals. I think Western museums have to pay for showing the bronzes, also in recognition that they are our property.”

Theophilus Umogbai Beeld Petterik Wiggers

A BUS TICKET, INSTEAD OF AN AIRLINE TICKET 

Theophilus Umogbai (1966), curator of the National Museum in Benin City, delegation member of the Benin Dialogue Group

“Yes, there will be a new museum of the state of Edo and the Oba, next to this museum I am the curator of, and which is owned by the federal state. But I am not afraid that my museum will become superfluous. Both museums tell a different story. The new museum will display antique works from the palace, court art, which European museums lend to us from their collection. Whereas my museum focuses on the culture of the rest of society.

I am often asked if the items in my museum are authentic, and then they mean from before 1897. Then I answer: how should that be possible if the British robbed almost everything? Most of the objects here, about two thousand in total, are from after 1897. In that year, the British had banned the sitting Oba. So the palace was empty when they allowed his son to become an Oba again in 1913. So he ordered new objects from the various guilds - wood carvers, ivory carvers, bronze casters. The altars filled again under the successive Obas, and in 1947 the palace needed a repository.

This museum was made from that repository in 1973. Altar objects that people have donated are also on show here. Until the 1970s, most residents had an altar at home. But many have been discarded, especially under the influence of evangelical Christians.

No, those stories that many objects have disappeared from this museum are incorrect. If people have seen items in our collection and then miss them, they assume they have been stolen and spread conspiracy theories. Objects from this museum have been lent to other museums in Nigeria, via the central museum authority NCMM in Lagos. And then they stay somewhere. From 2001 to 2012 I was a curator at the National Museum in Owo. I needed four Benin objects from this museum for an exhibition. Guess where they are now? Still in Owo!

A museum with borrowed objects from Europe is of course not the ultimate goal. But giving back is a matter between governments. In the Benin Dialogue only curators have spoken about the new museum. A curator cannot bag some objects from his museum and send them to Nigeria. But we can exchange, we can arrange that as trustees, it happens more often.

Finally we shall get to see the objects that we have been missing since 1897 - for the price of a bus ticket, instead of an airline ticket.”

Read all our stories on the Benin Bronzes via trouw.nl/thebeninbronzes

Send an email to the author on E.Brassem@trouw.nl

These articles have been produced with the support of the Fonds Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten (fondsbjp.nl)

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