Poster campaign in Dresden draws attention to Beninese bronzes looted from city museum

Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh has launched a poster campaign that aims to bring urgency to the long-running discussion over the return of Beninese sculptures looted by British troops and displayed in museums across Europe and North America.

His posters, on public display in Dresden and neighboring towns, show images of Beninese bronzes in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden with the text “Disappeared in Benin”. Ogboh was commissioned to create the posters by the museum, which has five Beninese bronzes purchased in London between 1899 and 1904.

“To date, the reparations dialogue has failed to bring the artifacts back to their country of origin, Benin, in Nigeria,” says Ogboh. The campaign stems from “a sense of impatience and necessity” and aims “to frame the stagnant and abstract discourse surrounding colonial reparations with the urgency and gravity of a public service announcement,” he says.

The Dresden State Art Collections are part of the Benin Dialogue Group, whose members also include the British Museum and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. The group’s museums have pledged to “contribute from their collections in turn” to a future royal museum in Benin City. But no one has yet committed to a timetable for the final repatriation of the looted sculptures.

Nigeria’s Ambassador to Germany, Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2019 demanding the return of cultural artworks looted from German museums. Germany would take a “mighty step towards healing the tragic trauma of colonialism by facilitating the return of these artefacts”, he wrote.

Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, director of the museums of world culture in Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut, says discussions with the Nigerian embassy in Berlin have been ongoing for more than a year “to jointly agree on possible steps”. The embassy put the museum in touch with Ogboh, to whom Meijer-van Mensch says she “is grateful for raising awareness and naming the stakes of these objects so clearly.”

The Beninese collections of European museums “have become symbolic of the question of how ethnological museums deal with the thousands of objects in their possession resulting from massive looting or other forms of appropriation in unequal power relations in a colonial context. “, Meijer-van Mensch says.

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