A "missing" poster in Dresden for one of the Benin Bronzes. The posters are a project by Emeka Ogboh. Photo: Oliver Killig.

A new project by the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh aims to remind the German public about its role in his native country’s missing heritage.

The work, which was unveiled on December 29, is comprised of a series of “missing” posters pasted throughout more than 200 locations in Dresden, which is home to five notable objects from the former royal palace in Benin.

In 1897, the palace was looted and razed by British soldiers during a punitive expedition, and the bronzes are now dispersed throughout major international Western museums. Germany holds the largest number of the objects of any country.

Ogboh’s posters depict five of the bronzes currently in the collection of Dresden’s Museum für Völkerkunde, alongside the works’ dimensions, provenance, and the date they went missing. The project is done with the support of the museum.

A small brass relief plate from the Benin Empire depicting royal hornblowers from a drawer of a rolling shelf in the depot of the Dresden State Art Collections in Dresden. Photo: Arno Burgi/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Ogboh, who wants to pull the repatriation debate out of the museum and into the larger public sphere, says his project was created out of a sense of “impatience and necessity” and a desire to imbue the conversation “with the urgency and gravity of a public service announcement.”

“No one is exempt from the repercussions of colonialism and as long as issues of agency, ownership, and freedom continue to exist, society must act as a whole to repatriate artifacts that are simply not theirs,” Ogboh says.

Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, the director of the Volkerkünde Museum, says it has been in touch with the Nigerian Embassy in Berlin, which submitted a formal letter in 2019 to German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking for the Benin Bronzes to be returned. The embassy connected the museum with Ogboh, a prominent artist in Germany who was included in the 2017 edition of Documenta, among other major exhibitions.

“We are grateful that the artist raises this awareness amongst all of us, including the museums and Dresden’s urban community, with his action and for naming so clearly what is at stake with these objects,” Meijer-van Mensch says.

Emeka Ogboh by Marco Krüger. Courtesy Ostgut Ton.

The Benin collections in European museums have been a growing source of controversy in recent years, as issues of colonial violence have become part of mainstream discourse.

In a statement issued on January 6, the head of the Prussian Cultural Foundation, which oversees the new Humboldt Forum museum and its ethnographic collections, said restitution is a “must” in some cases, but that it could only take place “on the basis of a dialogue in which it is jointly considered which things should return, which should stay here.”

The Humboldt Forum holds about 530 historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, including 440 bronzes.

Learn more about Emeka Ogboh and the Volkerkünde’s project here.

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