Lukas Zeickner-Okoro has many strings to his bow: a multi-hyphenate among multi-hyphenates, he is an artist, writer, musician, and filmmaker. As the founding member of the Ahiamwen Guild, Zeickner-Okoro is also at the forefront of a global push for the restitution of looted colonial art.

Based in Edo, an inland state in central Nigeria, the Ahiamwen Guild — a collective of Nigerian artists and bronze casters — is deeply rooted in the soil and oral history of Benin City. Led by Zeickner-Okoro, the guild has called on the British Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of Benin sculptures and plaques, to return its sizable cache of Nigerian artefacts.

The group has offered to exchange a selection of contemporary pieces for the famous brass and bronze works amassed by the museum. We caught up with Zeickner-Okoro to learn more about The Ahiamwen Guild, discussing everything from ongoing restitution efforts to the British Museum's relationship with the city and art of Benin.

Here's what the artist had to say:

What is the Ahiamwen Guild?

The Kingdom of Benin was renowned for its ancient guilds. Each was assigned specific roles and responsibilities by the Oba (the ruler), focusing on particular crafts. Art guilds, such as the Igbesamwan ivory and woodcarver's guild, acted as record keepers: They were responsible for recording events within the Oba's palace. With art being the official form of writing at the time, I observed that we were missing some accounts of Benin's history, there being a lack of insight into what went on outside the palace.

We also lacked a record capturing the evolution of Benin art, as no guilds were formed to chart its development. The Ahiamwen Guild of Benin Kingdom was established out of a necessity to formally include the new forms of art which have arisen in Benin as an expansion of our “writing” style.

“Ahiamwen,” the Edo word for “bird,” symbolizes a “bird’s-eye view,” one which encompasses all of Benin’s history. As Benin Kingdom's first non-royal guild, Ahiamwen emphasizes that Benin history belongs not only to the royal palace but to all Bini people. It’s a guild that calls for the acknowledgement of and reckoning with the present.

What inspired your pitch to the British Museum?

I believe that we should acknowledge the role that museums have played in recounting Benin's incredible history. So many amazing civilizations remain virtually unknown to the rest of the world. It could be argued that, if not for the likes of the British Museum, few people would know of the Benin Bronzes and our amazing culture. The Benin Bronzes have found their place in history as a result of the exposure they’ve been afforded.

We pitched our proposal to the British Museum to make a point: the Kingdom of Benin might be an ancient civilization, but it is not a dead one. It's never been dead, but that's how museums have portrayed it. They themselves created the concept of “Ancient Benin” as a way to dissociate it from the Benin Kingdom, which is still standing and alive today. They acted as though Benin Bronzes were dinosaur fossils they unearthed, yet we never stopped making the bronzes. We make them even better now and we have expanded our repertoire. Ahiamwen represents the new and expanded vocabulary of Benin's written history. Our civilization is living and we want the British Museum to know that.

What was the museum’s response?

I was invited by Judith Hudson and Dr. Lissant Bolton of the British Museum to discuss the offer. They informed me of the museum's clear interest and we are having talks at a senior level.

Do you see this as a win — a step in the right direction?

Definitely. This changes the narrative and offers a new avenue for the British Museum: a chance to be on the right side of history. I think the establishment of the guild and the official continuation of Benin's written legacy is the real win. A thousand years from now, this time will also be “Ancient Benin,” and the records created by Ahiamwen will be passed down for posterity to discover, explore, and enjoy.

In an ideal world, how would you oversee the return of the Benin Bronzes? What would you do with them?

A lot of people are arguing about where the bronzes should go and who should have ownership of them once they come back. The answer is very simple. It lies in another question: If those artefacts had never been stolen, where would they be now? The Oba’s palace.

There’s a sense that those previously opposed to restitution are more receptive to the idea. Why do you think that is?

People are waking up. Injustice is overlooked no more. Museums have to acknowledge [their] wrongdoings, or they risk making themselves socially unacceptable places to visit. It is written in plain English that the Benin Bronzes were looted even on the British Museum's website. They have no valid ownership or reason to hold on to them. Now, we are giving the museum the offer of these historic Benin artefacts: the largest Benin bronze plaque, which has made history and houses over two tons of brass (perhaps more brass than their entire collection), and the new records from Ahiamwen. We are doing this in order to change the narrative — we don't want it to be a fight. Benin’s ancient civilization continues, and they can house the Kingdom's living history.

What would restitution mean to the next generation of Nigerian artists and art lovers — to the communities whose histories and cultures the bronzes so richly reflect?

I think part of the problem is that we have been stuck in time. The artefacts being returned are not as important as the new ones we can make. A thousand years from now, this will be “Ancient Benin.” That's something I really like to remind the world.

Why has the British Museum been so bullish about its refusal to return its collection of Benin Bronzes?

The museum itself is a symbol of colonialism. I believe they can change and set an example.

The museum is reportedly being backed by the British government in its bid to retain its collection of Benin sculptures. Does that complicate things?

I believe whatever decision the British Museum makes will reflect the British government. I think the British government should follow the example set by Germany, with the German government recently announcing its decision to return its looted Benin collections.

How do you explain to museums and governments just how much these pieces mean to their countries of origin?

I just say in Benin, these were our written records, so they mean a great deal to us. The British literally stole our library. We haven't stopped writing, but we want to bring what our forefathers wrote back home.

The Nigerian government has just sent a letter to the British Museum calling for a return of the Benin Bronzes. What’s your take on this news and the letter itself?

The British Museum has openly said that part of the reason it has failed to give back the Benin Bronzes is because it had never received an official request from Nigeria (despite all the requests it continuously received from the Kingdom of Benin itself). This is checkmate.

What can people do to support the work of collectives like the Ahiamwen Guild and bring more attention to restitution efforts?

I believe amplifying the cries of justice is the biggest way to bring attention to our work. As is attending exhibitions showcasing the historic Ahiamwen artefacts — when they are eventually put on display in museums back home and across the world.

 

Ahiamwen has officially partnered with the Living History Foundation to "produce a new era of Benin artefacts for Europe's museums." To learn more about the guild, visit: www.livinghistory.museum.

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