A Nigerian artist, Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro, who gifted his own work to the British Museum with the hopes of receiving looted colonial art back from them has had his offer declined.
The British Museum accepted a bronze plaque made by Zeickner-Okoro, from Benin City in Nigeria, who entered negotiations for the museum to return priceless Benin Bronzes that were looted by British troops in 1897.
He offered his creation to encourage the museum to give back the sculptures but also to demand acknowledgement of Benin City’s modern-day culture.
Though it acknowledges that it houses over 900 items from the city of Benin, the museum told him the exchange for looted artworks was impossible.
After meeting with two curators from the museum’s Africa department, Zeickner-Okoro explained he was delighted they had accepted his gift, even though they rejected the idea of 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.
A founding member of Ahiamwen, a new guild of Benin City bronze casters and artists, Zeickner-Okoro wanted to change the terms of the debate by offering the museum contemporary artworks untainted by any history of looting.
“Part of the crime that’s been committed is that Benin has been portrayed as this dead civilisation,” he said. “The reparation is not just returning the Bronzes. It’s also acknowledging us, that we’re a living civilisation.”
His six foot by six foot bronze plaque has carvings depicting historical events in Benin City.
The artist said the museum had also pledged to purchase other works by Ahiamwen artists, including a life-size ram made from spark plugs by Kelly Omodamwen, some Benin women’s heads by Andrew Edjobeguo and works by sculptors Ugodo Matthias and Ikolor Osas.
“It’s historic, it’s really significant. I think it’s definitely going to open the door for the return of the loot,” said Zeickner-Okoro.