BENIN CITY, Nigeria — The young painter flipped through grainy photographs of delicate ivory masks of Queen Idia, looking for ideas for her own painting of the legendary warrior queen. The masks were created around 500 years ago by a carver’s guild located just around the corner from the artist’s studio, Osaru Obaseki.
There are five of these ancient masks known to exist. Ms. Obaseki, on the other hand, has never seen one. None are in Africa, let alone in her hometown of Benin City in southern Nigeria. One of the most exquisite is housed in a display case in the British Museum’s basement in London. Another can be found in the Africa gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
These, and possibly thousands of other works, were stolen by invading British soldiers in 1897, and are now treasured pieces in the collections of some of the world’s most important museums in the United States and Europe.
For years, Nigerian artists, historians, activists, and royals have been clamouring for the return of these artefacts. And, as global conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism have grown in recent years, some institutions are beginning to respond to these calls.
Many Nigerians, however, are outraged that only a fraction of these treasures are even being considered for return — and not even the most prized ones, such as the Queen Idia masks.
The stolen works of art are narratives to them, not just physical objects of art. They are part of the foundation of Benin’s identity, culture, and history — the city in Nigeria that was once part of the Kingdom of Benin, not the modern nation Benin.
“They were made to tell stories, to keep memories, and to pass all of these stories and memories down from generation to generation,” said Enotie Ogbebor, a Benin City artist and the founder of Nosona Studios, where Ms. Obaseki works. Western institutions had turned these pieces into “objects of admiration,” he added, when they were “objects holding information.”
Some of the artefacts, known as the Benin Bronzes, were religious objects used in shrines, though the majority were made of brass and some of wood and ivory. During important ceremonies, the oba, or king, would wear masks similar to those worn by Queen Idia. A series of intricate bronze and brass plaques, some of which are now displayed across a wall in the British Museum, each told a piece of the kingdom’s history, adding up to form a coherent narrative.
For years, museums have fought against the return of foreign treasures. In 2002, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and 16 other museums argued that global collections like theirs benefited “people of every nation.” In Europe, where collections are frequently owned by the state, museums have frequently stated that decisions do not rest with them.
However, Germany announced in April that it would return a “significant” number of Benin Bronzes next year. The National Museum of Ireland also intends to return 21 objects.
The British Museum has previously discussed loans but never full restitution. The Met was not considering returning its Queen Idia mask, according to spokesman Kenneth Weine. No other institution has stated that it will return one of the masks.
The restored works are most likely destined for the Edo Museum of West African Art, which will open in Benin City. It was designed by architect David Adjaye and is expected to be finished by 2026 if the creators can raise around $150 million. A digital project will compile photos and oral histories of the looted items.
At the moment, the planned museum site offers little more than red earth, an abandoned hospital, and some damp-stained walls. Before construction begins, there will be a major archaeological dig to excavate the buried remains of the old city, which will be funded in part by the British Museum.
For the time being, Benin City’s existing museum is a small structure in the middle of a busy intersection that receives little government funding and cannot always afford to keep the lights on.
There are a few lonely plaques and a picture of a Queen Idia mask inside its red walls. A blown-up photograph from 1897 of British soldiers sitting, smoking cigarettes, surrounded by their loot fills one entire wall.
Many people in the United Kingdom refer to the events of 1897 as the Punitive Expedition. According to this version of the storey, a group of British officers travelled to Benin to meet the oba, but were assassinated. As a result, the British sent 1,500 men to avenge their deaths, some armed with early machine guns.
However, in Nigeria, it is known as the Benin Massacre due to the large number of residents killed by British forces. According to Nigerian historians, the British were looking for reasons to attack Benin because the oba wielded too much power. And the soldiers knew Benin held untold riches; they wrote about it in letters home.
They took the majority of the wealth.
According to Mr. Ogbebor, the founder of Nosona Studios, it was “the equivalent of taking works from the Renaissance in Europe all the way to the modernists.” “Bach, Handel, Shakespeare, Mozart, and everyone else. That is exactly what happened to us. Imagine if Europe had lost that for the last 130 years. Do you believe Europe would be where it is today if it had not been for the Holocaust?”
Benin’s museum curator, Theophilus Umogbai, agreed. “It’s like torching huge libraries,” he said.
The treasures are expected to be returned to a trust that aims to bring together the current oba — a descendant of the king deposed in 1897 — and regional and national governments, though some internal disagreements must be resolved. (For example, in a written statement to the media, the oba stated that he should be the sole recipient of the treasures and that anyone working with the trust is a “enemy.”)
Over the last decade, awareness and outrage about the looting of Benin art works has grown.
In a 2010 survey of Benin City residents ranging from market women to politicians, Kokunre Agbontaen-Eghafona, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Benin, discovered that only about half of those polled were aware that the works had been stolen by the British. This year, a pilot study for a planned follow-up survey revealed that awareness has risen to around 95%.
“They are aware,” she confirmed. “They do, in fact, seek the return of our belongings.”
The treasures, though long gone, are still intertwined with daily life. A tailor in the old town keeps a picture of Queen Idia pinned to his wall to inspire his designs. A shrine is tucked away in a corridor in the grand home of John Osamede Adun, a Benin City businessman, with a few bronze royal heads from an unknown era.
“They are our forefathers. Mr. Adun turned on a light, revealing dozens more bronzes in his stairwell, and said, “Our fathers, our grandfathers.”
“They wake up and talk in the middle of the night,” he explained. “I know what language to speak to them in.”
Some members of the ancient bronze casters’ guild continue to practise their forefathers’ trade.
On a May afternoon, men from the ancient Aigbe foundry prepared to cast, one tossing scrap metal — an old radio antenna, a bracelet — into a crucible spewing green smoke, while another stoked a fire around hunks of red earth held together with wire.
The Aigbe family has been casting bronze for so long that one of the plaques stolen in 1897 was made by an ancestor, according to them.
The young artists at Nosona Studios, which is housed in a dilapidated former supermarket, have blackened the windows that overlook the old museum and, beyond, the oba’s palace. The modern city, with its honking cars, Afrobeats thrum, and hawkers selling padlocks and mangoes from wheelbarrows, reminds them of what Benin could have been if the events of 1897 had not occurred.
Derek Jombo, the first artist to cover the windows, says he can’t bear looking out.
“I know what this town should be,” he explained.
Ms. Obaseki, the artist, wishes she could examine Queen Idia masks from various angles and see their true colours.
“It’s quite different when you look at an object physically and see all sides to it,” Ms. Obaseki, 28, explained. She ran her fingers through a handful of the burned sand she was using, which she had collected from a bronze casters’ foundry.
Ruth Maclean contributed reporting from Nigeria’s Benin City, and Alex Marshall from London. Sarah Bahr from Indianapolis and Zachary Small from New York contributed reporting.