“Today we are here to return the Benin Bronzes to where they belong, to the people of Nigeria,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during Tuesday’s official handover in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
“We’re here to right a wrong,” she added.
The repatriation of 20 prized bronze statues looted by British colonialists in 1897 and sold to museums around the world was described by Culture Minister Claudia Roth, also in Abuja, as “a historic day”. “We want to give back what was never ours,” she said.
The treasures are a small portion of 1,130 stolen artifacts held in various museums in Germany. The objects, made of bronze, ivory and other precious materials, are among the most important works of art created on the African continent.
“Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, no one could have foreseen that these bronzes would return to Nigeria because the obstacles to repatriation were seemingly insurmountable,” said Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information and culture minister, during a welcome address at the transfer . “But today, with the pioneering gesture of a friendly nation, Germany, the story has changed.”
“This act of restitution represents the recognition of the injustice of a colonial past that appropriated stolen treasures,” Roth told DW. Returning the bronzes was also an attempt to “return the cultural identity we stole”.
Nigeria will celebrate the arrival of the first bronzes with a major exhibition featuring the artifacts in early 2023. The exhibition will enable “Nigerians to see the returned objects,” said Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments from Nigeria. “Part of our history returns, part of our identity.”
“It’s really a huge emotional moment for me,” he added.
Bronze ‘part of who you are’: Baerbock
“Art lives in history and history lives in art,” Baerbock said in her speech at the repatriation ceremony, citing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“Art informs who we are. Art shapes how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive the world,” she added. “That’s why today we’re not just returning objects to you, to the Nigerian people. We’ve learned from you: what we’re returning is part of your history, part of who you are.”
The repatriated objects were kept in museums in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, Leipzig and Stuttgart. In June, the museums first transferred the property rights of all Benin Bronzes. However, some agreements include loan agreements so that items can continue to be displayed in Germany before being returned.
Last week, the city of Cologne symbolically handed over 92 items as Abba Isa Tijani and Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, the Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, began touring Germany to collect the first batch of Benin Bronzes.
Restitution focuses on a dark colonial past
Speaking at Tuesday’s Abuja official restitution event, Baerbock reiterated the need for Germany to address its role in colonial looted art and the failure to return these objects sooner.
“Officials from my country once bought the bronzes, knowing that they had been robbed and stolen,” she said. “After that, we ignored Nigeria’s plea to return them for a very long time. It was wrong to take them and it was wrong to keep them.”
“This is a story about European colonialism,” she added. “It is a story in which our country played a dark role and caused enormous suffering in different parts of Africa.”
Germany supports new Benin Bronzes museum
Nigeria plans to build a modern museum to exclusively display and store the Benin Bronzes.
Culture Minister Roth said the return is also “a condition of us talking here and now about modern art, about cooperation between museums and making common plans so that we can help build a new campus and do archaeological work.” promote.”
Germany will support the museum with financial aid, cooperation and joint archaeological excavations.
This article was originally written in German.
Rosalia Romaniec contributed to this report from Abuja.