An artist from Benin City in Nigeria said the British Museum had accepted his gift of a bronze plaque in what he felt was a possible first step towards the museum’s return of the priceless Benin Bronzes that were looted by British troops in 1897.
However, the museum told him an exchange of new for looted artworks was impossible, he said.
Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, a founding member of Ahiamwen, a new guild of Benin City bronze casters and artists, had offered his creation to encourage the museum to give back the sculptures but also to demand acknowledgment of the city’s modern-day culture, reports Retuers.
After meeting with two curators from the museum’s Africa department, he told Reuters on Thursday they had accepted his gift and expressed an interest in acquiring several works by other Ahiamwen artists.
The museum said it was grateful for the meeting with Zeickner-Okoro but: “At this stage, there have been no formal discussions about acquiring these objects for the collection.”
Zeickner-Okoro said he was delighted that his gift, a 2-metre-by-2-metre plaque with carvings depicting historical events in Benin City, had been accepted even though the museum ruled out an exchange.
“It’s disappointing but this is the first step,” he said.
Created from brass and bronze in the once mighty Kingdom of Benin from at least the 16th century onwards, the Benin Bronzes are among Africa’s most culturally significant artefacts. European museums that house them have faced years of criticism because of their status as loot and symbols of colonial greed.
“Part of the crime that’s been committed is that Benin has been portrayed as this dead civilisation,” said Zeickner-Okoro. “The reparation is not just returning the Bronzes. It’s also acknowledging us, that we’re a living civilisation.”
He said the acceptance of his plaque and proposed acquisition of other works, including a life-size ram made from spark plugs by Kelly Omodamwen and some Benin women’s heads by Andrew Edjobeguo, went a long way towards righting that wrong.
“It’s historic, it’s really significant. I think it’s definitely going to open the door for the return of the loot,” he said.
Germany has said it wants to return Benin Bronzes from its museums to Nigeria. The British Museum, which holds the largest and most significant collection of the items, has made no clear commitment despite demands from the Oba, or king, of Benin.
Asked about its talks with Zeickner-Okoro, the museum said it was discussing new plans for the display of African collections with a wide network of colleagues and “considering a number of different elements around any future displays”.