Last exhibition of the Benin Bronzes in Cologne before their return | Arts | DW

Peju Layiwola carefully removes the inventory labels from the Benin Bronzes; his movements are deliberate, almost respectful. The moment is captured in a film which is shown at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, as part of the “I miss you” exposure.

When she first touched the objects, the Nigerian artist and art historian says she felt nostalgia, knowing the history of these works. While she says she felt captivated by the beauty of the Benin bronzes, she could not forget “that these works were removed in the context of killing people – that people died in the process. installation works here,” she told DW.

The Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum (RJM) houses the world’s fourth largest collection of so-called Benin bronzes, works of art in brass, ivory, coral and wood from the ancient kingdom of Benin (now Nigeria).

In 1897, they were stolen from the royal palace in Benin City. Under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, 1,200 elite British soldiers attacked the former royal city, killing countless people and burning the city to its foundations.

Admiral Sir Harry Rawson (centre) with ‘his’ booty

The destruction of a mighty kingdom

Until this attack, the Kingdom of Benin was independent from the rest of Nigeria, which had already become a British colony.

With the devastation of the city and the exile of the king, the British were able to expand their colonial territory and destroyed one of the most important and powerful kingdoms in African history.

Much of the looted art treasures ended up at auction in London in the early 19th century, from where they made their way to Europe and America – 96 of them ended up in the collection of the RJM in Cologne.

Peju Layiwola, a woman in an orange dress gestures as she speaks in front of a mirror with the words

Peju Layiwola already wanted to become an artist as a child

Peju Layiwola’s great-great-grandfather, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, was the “Oba” – as the kings there are traditionally called – of the Kingdom of Benin when the British invaded Benin City.

His grandfather, Evewka II, rebuilt the palace in the middle of the 20th century.

“My mother grew up in the king’s palace,” says Layiwola. And as her mother was very interested in her origins, she told her daughter many stories about Benin, allowing Layiwola to develop her sensitivity to the art and culture of the kingdom.

Encouraged by her mother, who was an artist herself, Layiwola studied fine art in the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Ibadan. She focused on the history and art of the Kingdom of Benin during her studies.

She had already heard of the British invasion of Benin in 1897 as a child, but she actually understood its impact “much later, when I started studying art and history and to see how very violent this event was”.

“Historical injustices”

Layiwola has organized several exhibitions on the history of Benin in recent years. Among other projects, she designed a room for the RJM exhibition “Resist! The Art of Resistance”, an exhibition told from the point of view of the colonized.

In her artistic work, she also aims to draw attention to “historical injustices”, as the effects of colonial rule are still felt to this day.

It is also the subject of the current exhibition in Cologne, “I miss you”, for which Layiwola worked closely with museum director Nanette Snoep. “‘I miss you’ is about shattered memories, colonial phantom pains and trauma caused by archaeology, by the colonial legacy of devastation and dispossession and passed down from generation to generation,” says Snoep, who has led the RJM since 2019. “In this So, ‘I Miss You’ serves as a platform for mourning, for an ongoing, never-ending process of healing colonial divisions in our society.”

A drawing of two African sculptures having a conversation about African migrants and looted art.

A cartoon by Jimga Jimoh Ganiyu, part of the exhibition ‘I miss you’

Africa has “lost” most of its cultural heritage

The bronzes of Benin are the most striking example of looted colonial art, but throughout the African continent during the colonial period, many other works of art and cultural property were stolen or misappropriated through injustices such as blackmail or deception.

Many sacred objects were also stolen. Experts estimate that between 80 and 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is found outside the African continent. For many Africans, the loss of culture is accompanied by a loss of identity.

Turning point in the restitution debate

The debate on the restitution of these objects has been gaining momentum throughout Europe for several years.

Germany want to make “substantial returns” to Nigeria this year. This is why the Cologne exhibition has a start date, but it is not yet determined when it will end. The idea is that the bronzes will go from Cologne directly to the West African country.

Negotiations between all parties involved have made major progress, according to Nigerian Ambassador Yusuf Maitama Tuggar: “Our hope is that we can sign before June,” he told DW at the opening of the exposure.

A vibrant art scene

Peju Layiwola looks forward to the day when the items return home.

She points to a traditional sword in the exhibit: “It’s the ‘Eben.’ It belongs to the king, but is also worn by great chiefs in Benin.” The sword is forged from steel, but various other materials such as cloth, plant material, ivory and leather have also been used in its manufacture, said the art historian. “It is a unique piece that demonstrates the artist’s ability to work with a wide variety of materials and reflects how demanding art was in the past. ‘era.”

Different exhibitions of the Benin Bronze collection in the museum's display cases.

The ‘Eben’ sword is shown here on the left

Such swords are still made today in Benin City, home to important guilds such as ivory carvers and bronze smelters.

During the annual Igue festival held in honor of the King of Benin, the sword is twirled by the chiefs in honor of the king and his ancestors, and the ceremony ends with the king himself waving the sword.

“Benin is therefore a living culture. It is a culture that is evolving and that will not die out,” says Peju Layiwola.

The absence of various cultural assets has inspired artistic practices on site; their return will certainly generate even more art and culture, believes Layiwola.

To date, it has not yet been decided to whom the objects will be returned. To the State of Nigeria, to the current King of Benin or to the State Museum of Benin City? Or maybe all three?

Whatever the solution, museum director Nanette Snoep wants to continue working with Nigeria and start new collaborations.

This article was originally written in German.

James C. Tibbs