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Benin Bronze: The History, The Meaning and The Magnitude

Africa Direct has a number of modern hand-cast examples of Benin artwork. These are 20th and 21st century works.

The original Benin Bronzes were crafted by specialized guilds serving the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City, now part of Nigeria. They included intricately adorned cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, royal regalia, and personal ornaments. Bronzes in Benin have a rich history, believed to have been cast as early as the 13th century, with numerous pieces from the 15th and 16th centuries. These metal sculptures were crafted using the lost-wax casting technique. In this process, a mold is formed around a wax model, and once the mold is set, the wax is melted and removed, allowing molten metal to fill the void, creating intricate and detailed sculptures.



The history of the Benin bronze is tragic. In 1897, British forces looted thousands of objects, including the bronzes, during a punitive expedition in the Kingdom of Benin under British colonial rule. Subsequently sold to museums and collectors worldwide, the Benin Bronzes remain emblematic of the challenges surrounding the repatriation of cultural artifacts taken during colonial periods.



The British Museum houses over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin, including more than 100 on permanent display. The debate over the return of looted cultural artifacts to their countries of origin has intensified, with activists and scholars arguing for repatriation due to colonial coercion and force. In response, some museums, including the British Museum, expressed willingness to loan artifacts back to their home countries, but permanent commitments remain uncertain. Critics fear this may set a dangerous precedent, potentially dismantling museum collections, while others argue that home countries lack the resources to properly care for artifacts. Some artifacts have been returned; Germany returned a Benin Bronze to Nigeria in 2020


Source: From West Africa to the World: The Significance of the Benin Bronzes - Roots 101 African American Museum