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A New Museum to House West African Art to be Built in Nigeria

Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s work-in-progress for Future and Form, Provenance, examines the official and emotional histories of an object sacred to Yoruba culture, the Ibeji, or twin sculpture. Powerful stories of origin, family, migration and restitution circulate around such objects. A new museum planned for Benin City in Nigeria will potentially house for Nigerian art objects which have resided in collections around the world, providing a homecoming for both objects and local audiences.

Celebrated British architect Sir David Adjaye has been commissioned to design a new art museum in Nigeria to house repatriated art and artifacts, including, it is hoped, the famed Benin Bronzes.

Adjaye’s practice will design and build the Edo Museum of West African Art, which will be situated in Benin City, western Nigeria. It was here that in 1897 the British Army conducted a raid that resulted in the theft of thousands of artworks which would become known as the Benin Bronzes. The bronzes are amongst the most admired and valued pieces of West African art. Their theft by the British Army has since scattered them all over the world. They are now mostly in museums and private collections in the West.

The new museum in Benin City is planned to house up to 300 artworks – such as the Ibeji sculpture that is the focus of Adebayo’s project for Future and Form – from all over the world. It is anticipated artworks will be given to the museum on loan from permanent collections now housed largely in the United States, Britain and Europe. The planned museum will also serve as an exhibition space for contemporary art from the region.

Adjaye was born in Tanzania of Ghanaian parents and has made his career in Britain. As an architect, Adjaye’s signature style draws upon African design and history. The concept for the three-storey Edo Museum is drawn from palaces of the ancient kingdom of Benin, a focus of regional power and culture founded by the Edo people around 900 AD, and which thrived until the 1600s.

Several items of the Benin Bronzes are now in the collection of the British Museum. The bronzes are plaques decorated with figures, and once hung on the walls and doors of palaces built by the Edo peoples. In an interview with the New York Times, the architect said ‘Restitution has to happen, eventually. The objects need to be returned. In the 21st century, this is no longer a discussion.’

First the site of the planned museum, located on a former palace, must be excavated. Archaeological teams expect to discover artefacts that may one day be housed in the museum itself. The archaeological project will begin in 2021 and Adjaye expects the museum to be completed around five years later, saying that he hopes the museum will spark what he called in the New York Times interview as a ‘renaissance in African culture.’ His vision is for the museum not to function as in a western model, as a magnet for international visitors and a showcase that ‘explains’ the history and culture of the host country and, very often, that of its former colonial possessions. The Edo Museum is rather intended to be community-focussed, a place of cultural and artistic encounter.

Adjaye designed the Museum of African-American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. In 2021 he received the Royal Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).