Edo Ivory Mask A human rights group, Edo United for Homeland Empowerment, has urged the Massachusetts Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) to return prized artworks and artifacts that were reportedly looted from the ancient Benin Kingdom in Nigeria.

The group’s demand that the MFA return the highly treasured artifacts comes nearly a year after the Boston-based museum opened a permanent exhibition as the “Benin Kingdom Gallery.”  

In a report first carried by Alltimepost.com, the members of the Edo United for Homeland Empowerment, who are mostly descendants of the ancient Benin Kingdom, stated that they would not stop their advocacy until the museum returns the priceless pieces in its possession to their original owners.

An official of the group told SaharaReporters that the quest for the artifacts’ repatriation to the custody of the Oba of Benin was “a fight to reclaim our cultural inheritance.”

Edo United made the call to MFA during last week in Boston as the group celebrated the recent return to Benin Kingdom of two cultural artifacts from the United Kingdom, according to Alltimepost.com.

The two pieces were handed back to Benin Kingdom by Mark Walker, a British citizen whose grandfather, Captain Phillip Walker, was part of a British expedition in 1897 that attacked the old Benin Empire, burnt the palace of its king, and looted its rich sculptures and other artifacts.

It is believed that thousands of the artifacts looted by British soldiers and officials are currently scattered around the world, held by private collectors as well as museums.

In a communiqué released at their celebration last week, the Edo United for Homeland Empowerment insisted that the Massachusetts Museum of Fine Arts, the British government and other holders of all stolen art from the Benin Kingdom must return their illicit possessions. Edo United challenged the holders of looted Benin artifacts to search their souls and borrow the example of Mr. Walker.

The group’s president, Frank Ekhator, vice president, Dickson Iyawe, and secretary, Omolayo Omoruyi-Ukhuedoba, signed the communiqué.

The statement praised current Benin monarch, Oba Erediauwa, and his younger brother, Prince Edun Akenzua, for their consistency in demanding the return of all stolen treasures.

According to the group’s statement, “The return of the two stolen priceless items would never have occurred except that Walker's conscience was moved by the consistent and principled demands from Oba Erediauwa, for Museums and private art collectors to return all looted cultural items over which they have no legal or moral claim.”

Edo United remarked that public opinion globally opposes those who retain looted artifacts. The group cited the case of the Metropolitan Museum in New York which recently voluntarily returned two statues to Cambodia, bringing a decade-long legal battle to a close.  The group also cited the example of the Japanese government which returned a Korean monument that was stolen during the Russo-Japanese war a century ago. They also gave the example of Italy that returned a 3,000 year-old stone obelisk to Ethiopia. Mussolini had taken the object to Rome in 1936.

“Similarly, the case of Nazi-looted artworks remains active, and Poland has never ceased to demand compensation for its property that was looted or destroyed after Hitler's invasion,” said the group in a statement. They added: “To protect cultural heritage is a basic requirement of human civilization. No responsible family or community can squander its inheritance and still survive.”

The group urged all descendants of the Benin Kingdom to enlist in the campaign to win repatriation of all ancient artifacts illegally taken away from their ancient homeland.

“As declared by UNESCO and the International Council of Museums, the return of such key objects to their originating context forms part of a people’s inalienable cultural right to the basic elements of their identity,” Edo United said. The group’s statement added, “For all these reasons, we the Edo people, as the legitimate collective owners of these artworks, echo the stance of our Monarch that we will never give up our rights; neither will we cease to demand the return of our stolen inheritance.”

The group condemned what it described as the “neo-colonial intrigues” used by which the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston “to justify the launching of its Benin Kingdom Gallery that houses the so-called Lehman Brothers Collections last summer.”

It criticized the museum’s deceptive posture in organizing a grand opening of Benin Kingdom Gallery, giving the impression that the initiative had the blessing of the Oba of Benin. It accused the museum of using some indigenes of Benin in Boston “who colluded in a theatrical sham with some visiting Benin Chiefs, who might have been tricked to talk, sing and dance at the grand opening gala in the presence of [the] world press and the unsuspecting public.”

An official of Edo United noted that Benin Palace sources, including the Oba’s younger brother, Prince Edun Akenzua, disclosed that Oba Erediauwa was displeased when he learned about the Boston episode. The group accused the MFA of “insincerity” for barring Nosakhare Isekhure, a visiting High Priest of the Palace, from even viewing the looted treasures “without payment of an admission fee.”

The organization dismissed a ploy by the museum to present to the Nigerian government “a handful of stolen antiquities with no relevance to the ones stolen from Benin.”

Edo United urged the MFA's newly appointed curator of African collections “to urgently review the string of miscalculations that led to the offensive and unauthorized ‘opening ceremony’ of the Benin Kingdom Gallery” on September 28, 2013.



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