Michaela Oberhofer


Provenance research and cooperation between Nigeria and Switzerland

Recent years have seen an increase of critical voices - especially among African intellectuals and activists - calling for an examination of the colonial past and its violent practices. The case of the kingdom of Benin (Nigeria) is often at the center of these debates. In 1897, the British Army conducted a punitive expedition against Benin City, in the course of which the palace was destroyed, King Oba Ovonramwen was exiled and thousands of objects were confiscated. Through the art market, museums and collections worldwide acquired these highly appreciated artworks. Since then there have been repeated demands to return these looted works of art.

But what is the situation in Switzerland? Although Switzerland has never had any colonies, the appropriation of material culture from Africa was also entangled in colonial structures. In Swiss museums, two out of five Benin objects were acquired in colonial times through the art trade. But even in the case of Benin pieces that arrived in Switzerland after 1960, there are indications of illegal acquisition in the course of the punitive expedition. At the same time, the Swiss collections include also Benin artifacts which were produced after 1897 or bought from African traders.

In 2020, Swiss museums have started an initiative to join forces to analyze their Benin holdings and to uncover the particularities as well as the shared history of their collections. At the beginning of the 20th century, the art market was dominated by certain traders and collectors, whose traces can also be found in various Swiss museum collections. At the same time, the aim of the Benin initiative is to elaborate a common approach to work together with Nigeria and its Diaspora in Switzerland. In partnership with the Nigerian side, the focus lies on transparency, dialogue and cooperation. The lecture reports from the ongoing research and collaborative initiative.