London-In 1897, the British army violently attacked Benin City, now known as Nigeria, and seized thousands of priceless treasures known as Benin bronzes.
Since then, there has been hope to bring them back from Western museums.
Last Friday, with the release of the first batch of images of the planned Edo West African Art Museum, the distance between hope and reality is getting closer and closer. If construction funds can be raised, the museum will provide loans borrowed from European museums. About 300 items.
This three-story building designed by David Adjaye is almost like the palace of the ancient Kingdom of Benin. He said in a telephone interview that Mr. Ajaye planned to complete it in five years.
These developments will push activists to urge the return of cultural relics acquired from Africa during the colonial era. But in a telephone interview, Mr. Ajaye, the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, was most excited about what this means to the people of Benin. He said that this may inspire “African Cultural Renaissance” and provide residents with a space to reconnect with the past and provide displays for contemporary artists in the city.
He said: “It must be the community first and the international site second.”
Mr. Ajaye also talked about his ideas behind the museum, his obsession with Benin bronzes and his views on the debate about returning African objects from Western museums. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
For decades, there have been calls for a museum of Benin bronzes in Nigeria. What attracted you to participate in this project?
Showcasing the power of 21st century museums. This is not just a container of curiosity. This makes no sense in Africa-there is no empire, and no “discovery” by the United States or China.
But the real key is to deal with the elephant in the room. This is the impact of colonialism on African culture. That is the African continent needs to have a central discussion on its own history and the structural destruction of colonialism. Because there is actually a myth that Africans understand their culture, but because of colonialism, many people are demonized, and because of the subsequent colonial structure (Christianity, Islam, etc.), many people are misunderstood .
I am not criticizing those religions, but they have degraded the cultural heritage of the African continent. Therefore, the basic meaning of these objects needs to be relearned. For me, this retraining proves that the rethinking of museums on the African continent is correct. It will not be a Western model.
Therefore, showing the returned bronze is not your end, but a starting point?
Exactly: the beginning of the African cultural renaissance. You need these objects because they provide the source and physical conditions to start contacting you.
What is different when you talk about creating non-Western museums? The image you posted still contains a showcase with objects.
When I say it will be different, I mean it will have a different meaning. The actions you are trying to perform are different.
Yes, there are objects inside. But it’s not just, “This is the return of these bronzes, and the situation here is pretty good.” That won’t attract locals-not many people, maybe elites. We have spent a lot of time building the museum into a community center, which will become part of the daily activities and life of the community.
The design is almost like a fortress. What story do you want to tell?
The building is slightly romantic. I have been to Benin City several times. For me, this is the greatest place in the world: Egypt, Kyoto, Athens. To understand sub-Saharan African culture, this is a center. But you are gone now, it is like a concrete jungle, so you need to dig the past and restore it to its original state.
Thankfully, many of them are still underground. Therefore, part of our collaboration with the British Museum is to dig out old walls. I have always been obsessed with these walls: concentric circles interact and create this extraordinary pattern. From satellite images, it is bigger than the Great Wall of China. Therefore, we want to dig in to make them visible.
For the buildings, this is a reenactment of the palace walls. Behind these towers and pavilions is their appearance. This is an abstraction of the true nature of the city of Benin—what you will encounter if you do pre-colonization. It is trying to make the experience of contemporary language fragmented.
Benin bronzes are things that activists really want to return to Benin City and exhibit in the museum. What do these objects mean to you?
The first time I saw them was really meaningful, and it still does. Looking at these brass nameplates and these extraordinary brass heads in the palace, this is truly a dignified and incredible civilization. It immediately broke the image of these cultures that I had, to some extent it was underdeveloped. It shattered the whole process and showed me the artistry and mastery of culture here.
When I was working at the Smithsonian Museum, I really started doing a lot of research on Yoruba and Benin City, which really inspired my mind
Your work at the museum puts you in the debate about whether you should return African objects from Western museums. Are you standing there?
Eventually it must be restored. Need to return the object. In the 21st century, this is no longer a discussion. But timetables and how to bring them back must be developed on the African continent, as well as the skills to manage objects. And I think this is also part of the work of museums and Western cultures and societies that now have these goals: to support the construction of infrastructure and allow countries to take back these objects. This is their cultural heritage.
Archaeological excavations usually take time. When do you think the museum will be completed?
All of us are working on a schedule of about five years, which is fast for cultural infrastructure. It took nine years to build the Smithsonian!
I think, given that the people of Benin City have been waiting since 1897, another five years will not be that much time.
No, I hope so. The people really deserve this.