The return of the Okukor

29 November 2019


European colonial rule in Africa has been a controversial topic for all parties involved, and recently the issue of looted artefacts has come to the forefront of discussion. Valuable pieces were looted from their African homes, and since their independence in 1960, Nigeria has sought for their return, with very little success, until now.


News came out this week that Jesus College, Cambridge University has decided that they will return a small bronze figure of a cockerel, named ‘Okukor’, to its home in Nigeria. The cockerel had been donated to the College by a father of a student but is one of thousands that had been robbed from Benin City during raids carried out by the British forces. It will be one of the first Benin City bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution since the 1897 expedition to the country. The College stated that Okukor “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin” in a show of understanding of the cultural significance of the piece, although there hasn’t been a date set for the return yet.


However, other British institutions, most notably the British Museum, have not been so understanding and welcoming to the idea of returning the star goods back to their original owners. In 2018, a deal was made with the Benin Dialogue Group, a collective of artists and museum representatives who seek ways to return the cultural goods. The deal would see some of the most iconic pieces in various European collections be returned on a temporary basis. Essentially, Europe plans to loan objects that are not theirs to loan in the first place, to the societies that they belong to.


Additionally, a spokesperson for the British Museum explained how European museums would be playing an active role in developing ‘an elite institution suitable for housing exhibits’ of artefacts such as the bronze cockerel, suggesting that professionals in this area, already working in Nigeria, are not cable of curating a display of high standards, highlighting the sustained influence of neo-colonialism.


However, looking forward, the emergence of pressure groups such as the Benin Dialogue Group and the Open Society Foundation, who have pledged $15 million to fund the return of artefacts to Africa, means that steps can be taken to discuss and plan for European nations to proceed. Such can be seen through President Emmanuel Macron’s recent decision to release a report highlighting this issue and planning for future returns of valuable artefacts.


The Guardian described the development as ‘an unprecedented step that adds momentum to the growing repatriations movement.’

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