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Benin Art: Collecting Concerns

Sep 15 2021 – Ongoing

Seattle Art Museum

Fourth Floor Galleries

The four sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin displayed in this small installation were originally collected in an act of extreme colonial violence. In 1897, the British mounted a “punitive expedition” that massacred Benin people, destroyed the royal palace, and confiscated art honoring an unbroken line of kings that began in 1440. Today, Oba Ewuare 11 is the 40th Oba of the Kingdom. Presiding in a new palace, he oversees religious observances and royal leadership with a court of officials. Artistic guilds have revived, and a sacred landscape has been reestablished. Missing, however, are thousands of artworks that remain in museums and private collections around the world.

SAM received these artworks as gifts in 1958 and 1981. Three were given by an heiress from an automobile manufacturing family in Ohio. She bought the Queen Idia mask in 1961 as part of her effort to showcase African art for Americans, ignorant of the desecration and harm that her collecting continued.

Today, concern about this collecting history is leading to international negotiations with the Kingdom about the fate of these artworks. The museum has registered them with the Digital Benin Project, an archive of Benin holdings. Oba Ewuare 11 has stated that museums should continue to display this art as “cultural ambassadors” for the kingdom until a new home is built for the artworks that may be returned.

Image: Belt mask of Iyoba (Mother of the Oba) Idia, ca. 1517-1550, Nigerian, ivory, 4 3/4 x 9 3/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.493.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

Learn more about Equity at SAM