Ancient sculptures urge Germany to consider colonial past – art & culture



With their wide eyes, intricate headgear, and elaborate armor, Benin’s bronzes are among the most prized possessions at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

But the 16th and 18th-century metal plaques and sculptures that once adorned the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin may never see the light of day again in a German museum.

After years of negotiations, Germany announced in April that it would begin returning the bronzes, looted during colonial times, to what is now Nigeria from next year.

The move is part of a series of recent moves by Germany to atone for colonial-era crimes, including official recognition in May that it committed genocide in Namibia.

“I think all parts of society are more and more aware now that Germany also has a colonial history,” said Hermann Parzinger, chairman of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which manages the museum of Berlin.

“The awareness (of this period) has been somewhat clouded by the great catastrophes of the 20th century – the world wars, the Holocaust. But we are slowly becoming more aware of this historical period and its implications.”

One of the reasons for this, according to Parzinger, is the completion of the Humboldt Forum, a controversial new museum complex housed in a reconstructed Prussian palace in the heart of Berlin.

The complex, which opened in December, drew fierce criticism for planning to show colonial artifacts such as Benin bronzes in what was once the main residence of the Hohenzollerns, instigators of German colonialism.

Juergen Zimmerer, professor of colonial history at the University of Hamburg, also believes that the Black Lives Matter movement “played a role” in mobilizing support for a new approach to colonial history in Germany. .

440 bronzes

Benin’s bronzes, among the most popular works of African art, are now scattered in European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin has 530 historical objects from the old kingdom, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection outside of the British Museum in London.

Discussions are ongoing on the details of the return of the artwork and if Berlin can still keep any.

“We would like to continue showing the art of Benin at the Humboldt Forum,” Parzinger said. “The important thing is that we have a dialogue about this and a common idea with the officials in Nigeria.”

Theophilus Umogbai, curator of the National Museum of Benin City, said the plans to return the bronzes were a “welcome development” for a country that “has always called for the repatriation of these stolen artefacts”.

“We also call on other museums in Europe and in other countries to return the artefacts to Benin, the original owners of the works,” he added.

In particular, Germany’s decision increases the pressure on the British Museum, which has some 700 Beninese bronzes.

Elsewhere in Europe, similar action is underway to return looted artifacts.

Read also: Germany says it committed genocide in Namibia during colonial rule

The Dutch government voted in February to start repatriating artifacts to former colonies like Indonesia, with Culture Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven saying there was “no room in the Dutch state collection for objects of cultural heritage acquired by theft “.

In France, following a landmark speech by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, a plan was approved last year to return 27 works of African art to Benin and Senegal.

“Crime against humanity”

Although smaller than those of France and Britain, the German colonial empire encompassed parts of several African countries, including present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia, and Cameroon.

Long before the advent of the Nazi concentration camps, the country was responsible for the mass killings of the indigenous Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia, which many historians call the first genocide of the 20th century.

In recent years, Germany has returned to Namibia skulls and other human remains that it had sent to Berlin during the period for “scientific” experiments.

In May, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany would now officially label the killings in Namibia “genocide” and pledged € 1 billion in financial support for the descendants of the victims.

But many Namibians rejected the deal, arguing that descendants of the Herero and Nama were not involved in the negotiations and that the Namibian government was heavily armed in the deal.

Historian Zimmerer, too, finds it “regrettable” that Germany did not go further to truly face the atrocities of the colonial period.

“In Germany – and this applies to all European societies – there must be a clear recognition that colonialism was a structurally racist system of injustice and a crime against humanity,” he said.



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