New Artwork in St. Paul’s Cathedral Reckons With the British Attack on Benin 125 Years Ago

Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor’s ‘Still Standing’ sparks conversation about how to deal with colonial monuments

Artist posting with work of man dressed in orange garb
Artist Victor Ehikhamenor posing with his work, Still Standing, a mixed-media depiction of a Benin ruler. Victor Ehikhamenor

A new work installed in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral reckons with the 1897 sacking of Benin, Gabriella Swerling reported for the Telegraph last month. Created by Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, Still Standing is a mixed-media depiction of a Benin ruler that will be on display in the Anglican cathedral’s crypt through May 14, according to Artnet News.

The installation is part of a collaboration between St. Paul’s and the University of York called “50 Monuments in 50 Voices,” which invites artists, writers, musicians and academics to respond to the cathedral’s existing memorials. Ehikhamenor’s creation has been installed next to a plaque that commemorates admiral Harry Holdsworth Rawson, who was instrumental in the British attack on Benin City and the Second Opium War in China.

In response to the British Empire’s attempts to expand influence in West Africa in the late 19th century, tensions arose the Kingdom of Benin, located in what is now modern Nigeria. The lingering impacts of transatlantic slavery, as well as Britain’s refusal of Benin’s trading conditions led to widespread anger in the region, according to the British Museum.

In 1897, an unknown party, presumed to be led by Benin ruler Oba Ovonramwen, attacked a British trade mission on its way to Benin City, resulting in the deaths of seven British delegates and 230 of the mission’s African porters carrying supplies. In retaliation, British forces began a brutal occupation of the city that led to many casualties and widespread destruction and pillage. They burned the Benin Royal Palace, and looted thousands of valuable objects.

Among the stolen objects were the Benin Bronzes—brass and bronze sculptures created by guilds working for Benin City’s royal court as far back as the 16th century and depicting commemorative heads, animal and human figures, and personal ornaments. Many of the bronzes were used in ancestral altars of past Obas (kings) and Queens, or in rituals, including the accession of a new Oba; others with depictions of the dynastic and social history of Benin decorated the royal palace. The British Museum has more than 900 bronzes in its collection today, while many others ended up in museums and galleries around the world. However, cultural institutions throughout Europe and the United States have recently made efforts to repatriate these looted works back to Nigeria.

Still Standing portrays the Ovonramwen, who after the attack on Benin, was subsequently exiled by British forces. The Art Newspaper’s Kabir Jhala reported that the 12-foot-tall artwork, a melding of references to Edo religions and Christianity, is made from “6,000 rosary beads, rhinestones on lace and a number of bronze statuettes cast by Ehikamenor in Benin City…which resemble hip ornaments worn by royalty of the Benin Kingdom.”

Ehikamenor told the Art Newspaper he was inspired to create the work after a prospective pavilion landlord at the 2017 Venice Biennale objected to his installation featuring hundreds of Edo bronze heads and statuettes.

“[She] read the whole thing as fetish, black magic—she was unwilling to have them placed inside a Christian building,” he said. “She was so ignorant about how my culture uniquely presents things as sacred—why can she canonise a rosary bead and at the same time demonise my statue? I wanted to fuse the two together and see what conversations arise.”

Cathedral chancellor Paula Gooder told the Art Newspaper the installation is meant to provide “a space for conversation around how we should approach monuments in the 21st century,” and not any kind of official statement on the issue of repatriation. Ehikhamenor told the Art Newspaper otherwise.

“Not to believe in full restitution is for me not [to] believe in full justice," he says. "Any country or kingdom or state asking for what has been looted from their ancestral land should be obliged without long story. We must now shift from 'retain and explain' to what I call 'return and explain.'"