The kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria is the focus of recent debate concerning the restitution of stolen cultural assets from Africa. In 1897 the British army conquered its capital Benin City and plundered thousands of ceremonial items and objects of prestige from the palace. However, Benin is not only known for its colonial past. In fact, it shares a long history with Europe and is renowned for the production of high-quality brass, ivory, terracotta and wooden objects – an industry which continues to thrive today.

The exhibition sheds light on the past, present and future of collections from a colonial context. For the first time, it presents Benin’s artistic legacy from a historical and comparative cultural perspective. To this end, Museum Rietberg has teamed up with partners from Nigeria and its diaspora in Switzerland. This collaborative approach not only involves studying the objects themselves, but also researching their respective provenances and curating the exhibition. The challenge for all participants – both in Switzerland and Nigeria – was deciding how to handle questions regarding colonial injustice and restitution, knowledge archival and identity, and remembrance and healing.

The exhibition features some forty works of art from Benin and its neighbouring art regions, as well as their backstories highlighting the art trade and the reception of the works. The permanent exhibition includes pieces by contemporary artists as well. Historic documents, photographs and multimedia stations provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

The exhibition is part of the Benin Initiative Switzerland financed by the Swiss Federal Office for Culture. In 2024 all eight partner museums will be participating with extensive exhibition programmes and accompanying events.