AFRICANS shouldn't have to travel to Western museums to see the artworks looted from their continent.

LAGOS, NIGERIA : There is an axiom of my elders: The earthworm says it used to own a lot of gold jewelry, but now that it burrows the earth and covers itself in mud, no one believes it.

As a Nigerian, I'm reminded that whenever I encounter some of the exquisite objects looted from Benin City, in southern Nigeria, in Western museums.

I always feel a strong  urge to tell others around me that these works belong to my country, but I know they would doubt me because a revered Western institution claims them as its own.

These artworks, recognized as masterpieces but sometimes dismissed as primitive, ethnographic or animist, have inspired my art over the years, even in my few encounters with them. If returned to where they belong, these artworks would have a great impact on the future of Nigerian contemporary art.

In 2017, when I was preparing for a solo exhibition in London, I visited the British Museum for the first time to see the famed works known as the Benin Bronzes - which, despite the name are not all bronzes - and other artifacts that were looted during a devastating lash desecration in 1897.

That year, British troops sacked Benin City, which was then the capital of the Kingdom of Benin, and ousted the ruler, Oba Ovonramwen.

An untold number of artworks were seized from the Oba's palace. Some of these artworks ended up in other countries, but many are now housed at the British Museum and other British institutions.

In recent years, it has become clear that some of the soldiers involved in the expedition - carried out to punish the kingdom for an earlier encounter that ended in British deaths - also kept objects for themselves, leaving a gaping hole in Nigeria's art history.

Nothing prepared me for the emotional wrench I felt when I stood before the columns of brass plaque suspended from vertical rods at the lower level of museum as if they were washed old underwear left to dry in the wind.

As shrines and altars back home, such work have context and meaning, in the clinical setting of the museum, they seemed diminished and out of place.

The work that left me the most dejected was the Queen Idia mask, an ivory pendant from the 16th century honoring the mother of Oba Esigie, who wore it on his hip during the ceremonies.

It was like happening on a long lost family member in a foreign country. I had the same sense of melancholy when I encountered another Queen Idia mask, which I have incorporated in my own artwork, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2019.

The honor and serving of this publishing, continues. The World Students Society thanks author artist Victor Ehikhamenor.


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