The testy waters of looted Benin artifacts
There is a story about the FESTAC 1977 where the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture was held. Upon deciding to use an ivory mask of Queen Mother Idia as a symbol for the event, the collective of artists asked to loan the mask from the British Museum. Ultimately, the British Museum refused to loan the mask to the festival leading to a replica been made.
This is a poignant example of the frustrations voiced by activists who object against the housing of historical cultural artifacts in foreign countries, often former colonizers. These calls are not just limited to Nigeria, Africa, or even cultures and countries that have been colonized. Greece, for example, have asked that the British museum return allegedly stolen marbles from the Parthenon in one of the longest cultural rows in Europe.
History and objects tied to it are very sensitive subjects for a great number of people. Demands to return items that are thought to be looted or stolen to their homeland have caused some to ask if cultural artifacts should only be privy to those whose cultures creates them. In the case of Nigeria and other colonized nations, the answer to that question is not so simple especially when centers of learning are involved.
Cambridge University recently bowed to student demands to remove a bronze cockerel that stood in the hall of one of its colleges, Jesus College. The cockerel was one of the many brass objects looted by British imperialists after they successfully defeated the kingdom in an expedition that took place in 1897. Benin was once a powerful West African kingdom even though its capital has been wiped out today. Part of the splendor of the elite of the Benin empire involved commissioning pieces of art forged in brass or carved from ivory. The cockerel is said to have been commissioned by the King of Benin to decorate the Queen Mother’s ancestral shrine.
This rich history is likely to have gone unnoticed by those who passed by the cockerel while it stood in Jesus College. Students who campaigned for the cockerel to be removed cited decolonization as a driving force. Cambridge is not unique as some of the most renowned universities globally have dark historical links present today in the display of looted materials, and in buildings named after slave owners and imperialists.
Returning of looted items, removal of statues honoring imperialists, are these essential for decolonization? Let us know your thoughts in a comment below or on Twitter @rafeeeeta