Outstanding art from Benin will be showcased in two rooms of the Humboldt Forum. Together with Nigerian partners, the Ethnologische Museum has completely revised the originally planned presentation. The exhibition will tell the story of the Kingdom of Benin and its conquest, and, along with the historical objects, will also show works by contemporary artists, including films, textiles and bronze casts that are still produced today in traditional way.
The “Benin Bronzes” hold a special position in the debate about the decolonisation of museums: In 1897 British troops conquered the Kingdom of Benin, sacked the royal palace and exiled Oba Ovonramwen, the last independent king, to Calabar. After the invasion, thousands of objects were shipped to London as looted items and sold there. Many more of the looted objects initially remained in colonial Nigeria, but subsequently found their way to European and North American museums, including Berlin’s ethnological museum, through networks of European and African businessmen and traders.
Since 2010, the Ethnologische Museum has been a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, in which museums in Europe discuss the future of Benin objects in the collections of the participating institutions with Nigerian partners. These talks created the basis for the transfer of ownership of the more than 500 “Benin Bronzes” from the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz to the state of Nigeria in August 2022. About a third of the transferred objects will remain on loan in Berlin for an initial period of ten years, and will be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum.
The recently redesigned Benin-exhibition in the Humboldt Forum takes these current processes into account: it refers to the debates about the restitution of the “Benin Bronzes” and conveys the history of their collection and reception between Benin and Berlin. The few historical objects that are on display as loans are examined in terms of their artistic character and their central importance for global art history. On the other hand, the focus is on their respective materiality as a carrier of memory and ritual inventory. A documentary section of the exhibition examines the significance of historical Benin objects for modern art in Nigeria and the aesthetics of decolonisation.
There are works of art by contemporary Nigerian artists and designers who have appropriated the imagery, techniques and content of Benin arts, and have translated them into new materials and reinterpreted them. In his work “The King, the Priest, the Chosen One” (2022), Victor Ehikhamenor refers to the King of Benin in his double function as political ruler and most important priest. On a tapestry with net-like lace fabric, orange-red plastic rosaries frame the red-robed dignitary, and miniature bronzes also serve as material. The work deals with the aesthetic and content-related principles of historical works of art.
A large working table in the area offers space for discussion, encounters, joint research and curating with cooperation partners. The complexity and polyphony of the debate on the restitutions beyond the official negotiations will be reflected in video statements by German and Nigerian scientists, artists and representatives of museums and the royal family in Benin City. They explain the history and significance of the “Benin Bronzes” and their views of the current debate, and look to the future from multiple perspectives.