The historic Benin bronzes do not originate from the present-day country of Benin; they come from the Kingdom of Benin, which is located in what is now southern Nigeria
After a raid was carried out by British colonial troops in 1897, thousands of Benin artworks were scattered all over the world
They can be found in American and European museums, in galleries and in the hands of collectors. Picasso, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers also owned them
For over a hundred years, there was only one place with hardly any originals: Edo State (location of Benin City), where the artworks were created. A status quo which is about to change
Date of production: 16th/17th century
Acquisition by museum: Purchased from Friedrich Erdmann in 1898
Restitution (transfer of ownership): December 2022
Edo (Benin City), Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria
Laterite soil, copper alloy (process: lost-wax cast in brass)
Unknown workshop of the guild of bronze casters Igun Eronmwon
W 37 cm, D 12 cm, H 50 cm, weight 24.5 kg
C 2301, Loan from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments Nigeria
Back then, inventory numbers were simply painted onto the objects. Red was the “signature colour” of the “Hamburger Völkerkundemuseum” (Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg). Today, reversible methods are used instead.
To remember means to cast a motif in bronze
The two leopard hunters each hold a bow and a bundle of arrows in their hands. Their left wrists are covered by a pouch-like tendon guard. Leopard hunters in Benin Kingdom were affiliated with their own guild. They had the task of capturing live leopards, which were kept tamed in the Oba's royal court. Only the Oba had the privilege of sacrificing leopards to ancestors during the annual Igue celebration. As a royal symbol, the leopard stood for power and strength.
Military leaders on Benin relief plaques can frequently be identified by their necklace made of leopard teeth, or they may also be wearing a tabbard with a leopard motif.
The depiction was meant to protect them and signify the power over life and death which the Oba personally delegated to these warriors. Many Benin artworks make references to the Oba's special ability to control mystical powers.
The historical bronze statues are not simply works of art, they are pages in a history book written over the course of centuries. Important events were recorded this way and preserved for future generations.
In Edo, the former official language of the Kingdom of Benin, “to remember” is translates to sa-e-y-ama. This literally means to cast a motif in bronze. The brutal raid of 1897 therefore not only eradicated thousands of human lives, but also the memory of the Edo community.
In his art, the Nigerian multimedia artist Victor Ehikhamenor focuses on the remembrance and the consequences of colonialism. He aims “to bridge the gap between demonisation and sanctification” by means of his art. This artwork from 2017, composed of rosary beads, refers to the kings and royal dynasties from the Kingdom of Benin.
At the time, the former colonial metropolis Hamburg played an integral part in the distribution of the looted art. Since the mid-19th century, trading companies from Hamburg maintained local branch offices along the coastline of Nigeria, formerly known as “the Bight of Benin” (“Beninbucht”). After the Kingdom was dismantled, Benin art reached local markets.
Trading agents became intermediaries who brought the pieces into circulation via the port of Hamburg and into museum ownership. At the former “Museum für Völkerkunde” (Museum of Ethnology), the predecessor of today’s MARKK, Georg Thilenius, then the museum’s director, and Karl Hagen, the curator in charge at the time, used their networks in the port city to build the museum’s collection. Friedrich Erdmann (1866 – probably 1907) was also a key figure in the flourishing “Benin business”. The tradesman from Hamburg worked as the managing director of the trading company Bey & Zimmer in Lagos. It is known that Erdmann visited Benin City after it had been conquered by British troops and took pictures of the area. He also took works of art which, with the approval of the British militia, he intended to market. In 1898, he sold 13 objects to the MARKK, one of which was the relief plaque with the two leopard hunters.
After more than one hundred years, numerous requests and demands for restitution and endless negotiations, ownership of the 179 Benin objects located in Hamburg was transferred to the Republic of Nigeria in December 2022. Three of these works were then physically handed over during a festive ceremony. Some Benin artworks will stay in Hamburg as loans, others will travel back to their place of origin over the course of the years to come.
Since launching in November 2022, digitalbenin.org offers an overview of the global dispersion of Benin works of art for the first time. The website contains data on 5,246 objects currently located in 131 institutions in 20 countries. The relief plaque with the two leopard hunters can of course also be found there - just click HERE and learn more, including the Edo name of the work and how to pronounce it.