Benin Bronzes

Head plastic of a queen mother, uhumnw-ealo (Edo, Benin Empire, ca. second half of the nineteenth century), brass, Collection Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

In 1897, a little over a decade after the Berlin Conference (1884/85) that led to the partition of Africa, another historically significant event took place. After British officers were killed in a trade dispute with the Kingdom of Benin, the colonial power deployed a punitive expeditionary force numbering 1,200 men to avenge the deaths. The force deposed the Oba of Benin, looted valuable plaques, copper alloy sculptures, bronze and brass reliefs, and ivory carvings produced between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, popularly known as the “Benin Bronzes.” The estimated 3,000–5,000 looted objects, which told of life in the royal courts, rituals, family structures, and the richness of Benin’s culture, were shipped to the British Museum and sold to museums all over the West, supposedly to pay for the cost of the expedition. The Kingdom of Benin was completely destroyed.

From 1876 to 1882, the German sculptor Carl Friedrich Echtermeier (1845–1910) took upon himself the duty of producing a series of sculptures entitled “Länderfiguren” (National figures). These sculptures personifying European nations including France, Spain, Greece, Germany, England, and Italy, are still in Kassel’s Neue Galerie today. Echtermeier’s attempt was to create the canon par excellence. What Echtermeier left out of his equation was the arts of the so-called “rest of the world.”

The Benin Bronzes—on loan from the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich—in juxtaposition with Echtermeier’s sculptures evoke histories of exclusion, fallacies of canonization, narratives of dispossession, and colonial legacies. The constellation also poses questions about, and situates itself within, debates over national heritage.

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