Colonial art: Cambridge takes over plundered bronze to Nigeria

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LONDON – A Cambridge University College handed over a bronze cockerel on Wednesday from Africa on the 19th.

Jesus College is the first UK institution to return one of the artifacts known as Benin Bronze. British colonial forces seized the Okukor statue in 1897 from the court of Benin in what is now Nigeria – among thousands of works of art occupied by occupying forces – and it was given to the college in 1905.

The college removed it from public view in 2016 after students protested, saying it represents a colonial narrative. The college formed a working group, which concluded that the statue belonged to Oba of Benin, head of the historical Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire. The empire centers on Benin City in modern Nigeria.

His Royal Highness, Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, welcomes the supreme decision. “We really hope that others will speed up the return of our artwork, which in many cases is of religious importance to us,” he said as it was announced.

Hundreds of seized Benin bronzes are housed in the British Museum in London, and hundreds more have been sold to collections other than the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Germany said this year that it would return the items in its possession.

The British Museum said on Monday it was working on a partnership with Nigeria, linked to the construction of a new museum in the West African country, which would allow “Benin artworks from international collections to be reunited.” The museum is also embroiled in a decades-long tug-of-war with the Greek government over a restoration of the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles.

Meanwhile, next month, France will hand over 26 plundered artifacts from the colonial era to the Benin government – some of the estimated 90,000 African works of art housed in French museums.

The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones and sacred altar from the collection known as “Abomey Treasures” were pilgrimed 129 years ago by the French army, and are currently on display in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron will visit the exhibition on Wednesday with the Benin authorities. Macron called for more such returns, and lamented in 2017 “that a large part of many African countries’ cultural heritage lies in France.”

Such returns are controversial in Europe, where many museums have works that were purchased during the colonial era. So far, France has submitted only one article – a sword that was handed over to the Army Museum in Senegal.

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