Cologne Museum shows bronze from Benin for the last time art | DW

Peju Layiwola carefully removes Benin bronze inventory tags. His gestures are deliberate, almost reverent. They are captured in a film that is being screened on the floor of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne as part of the “I MISS YOU” exhibition. When he first touched the objects, the Nigerian artist and art historian says he was nostalgic because he knew the history of these works: “If you look at the works of Benin, you are one of them. Beauty fascinates. But you also remember that they withdrew in connection with the murder of people, that people died when these works came here. “

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, short for RJM, houses the fourth largest collection of so-called Benin bronzes. These are courtly works of art made of brass, ivory, coral and wood in the former Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria). In 1897 they were robbed of the royal palace of Benin City: under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, 1,200 British elite soldiers attacked the former royal city, killing countless people and burning the city to its foundations.

Destruction of a powerful kingdom

The Kingdom of Benin was independent of the rest of Nigeria, which was then a British colony, until that attack. With the devastation of the city and the exile of the king into exile, the British were able to expand their colonial territory. They destroyed one of the most important and powerful kingdoms in African history. Much of the looted art treasures ended up in auctions in London in the early 19th century, from where they made their way to Europe and America: 96 of them passed to the RJM collection in Cologne. .

Historical image of British soldiers posing in front of their prey: mainly tusks and sculptures.

Admiral Sir Harry Rawson (center) poses with some of his men in front of his booty

Peju Layiwola is a descendant of the Beninese royal family. His great-grandfather, “Oba” – as the kings are traditionally called – ruled Ovonramwen Nogbaisi when the British invaded Benin City. His grandfather, Eweka II, rebuilt the palace in the mid-20th century: “My mother grew up in the king’s palace and there she gave birth to me,” Layiwola told DW. “She was very interested in her background and told a lot of stories about Benin and I got to know this art and culture very well.”

Portrait of Peju Layiwola at the opening of the exhibition

Peju Layiwola wanted to be an artist from an early age

Encouraged by her mother, who was an artist herself, Layiwola studied fine arts in the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Ibadan. He was also particularly interested in the history and art of the Kingdom of Benin during his studies. that was the event. “

“Historical injustices”

Layiwola has curated several exhibitions on the history of Benin and has worked on projects in recent years. Among other things, he designed a room for the RJM exhibition “Resist! The Art of Resistance”, which wanted to give space to the perspective of the colonized. In his artwork, he also seeks to draw attention to “historical injustice,” because the effects of colonial rule can still be felt today.

This is also the theme of the current exhibition “I’M ENJOYING” in Cologne, for which Layiwola worked closely with museum director Nanette Snoep. “‘T’ENYO’ is about broken memories, colonial ghost pains and trauma caused by archeology, the colonial legacy of devastation and dispossession and passed down from generation to generation,” said Snoep, who has led the RJM since 2019. “In this way, ‘TE FALTO’ becomes a platform of mourning, of a continuous and endless process of healing the colonial fractures in our society.”

Africa has been stripped of most of its cultural heritage

Benin’s bronzes are the most prominent example of looted colonial art, but throughout the African continent, art and cultural property were stolen during the colonial period or embezzled in a context of embezzlement, such as extortion. or deception. Among them are a number of sacred objects. Experts estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is 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 over the return of these objects has been gaining momentum throughout Europe for several years. Germany wants to make “substantial returns” to Nigeria this year. That is why the Cologne exhibition has a start date, but not an end date. The idea is that the Cologne bronzes go directly to the West African country.

“Our negotiations are well advanced,” Nigerian Ambassador Yusuf Maitama Tuggar told DW at the opening of the exhibition. “We look forward to signing before June.”

Two bronzes sit mourning side by side.  His feet are chained.  At the bottom is a sign that says: Africans staying illegally in Europe must leave.  African objects illegally in Europe should remain

Cartoonist Jimga Jimoh Ganiyu puts the debate in a nutshell: “Africans illegally in Europe must leave. African objects illegally in Europe must stay.”

Peju Layiwola longs for the day when the objects will return home, so to speak. He points to a traditional sword that can be seen in the exhibition: “This is the ‘Ebony’. It belongs to the king, but it is also carried by the high chiefs of Benin.” The sword is forged of steel. But according to the art historian, various other materials were also used in its manufacture, such as cloth, plant material, ivory, and leather. “It’s a unique piece that demonstrates the artist’s ability to work with a variety of materials and shows the demand that art was at the time.”

Vibrant art scene in Benin City

These swords are still made today in the city of Benin, home to the guilds of ivory and bronze cutters, among others. During the annual Igue Festival, held in honor of the King of Benin, the heads spin this sword and even the King himself brandishes it at the end of the ceremony.

View of the showcases of the exhibition.  On the left the sword Eben, on the far right a sculpture of a king's head.

The “Eben” (left) is a fan-shaped ceremonial sword

“Therefore, Benin is a living culture. It is a culture that is evolving and will not go extinct,” says Peju Layiwola. Even the absence of the different objects inspired the artistic creation in situ. The artist is sure that the presence of objects will generate even more art and culture.

It has not yet been decided to whom the objects will be returned. In the state of Nigeria, the current King of Benin or the Benin City State Museum? Or maybe all three? Regardless, museum director Nanette Snoep definitely wants to continue working with Nigeria and start new partnerships.


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Elizabeth Peyton, Pastel in Celebration – Editorial

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