Colonialism and the expansion of empires

A History of the Benin Bronzes by Tony Phillips

An extract from the Trade and Empire exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery

Since the advent of slavery, the African holocaust, the Benin bronzes have symbolised the intrinsic beauty and strength of African art and aesthetics. They also represent the pillage and rape of African people and cultures by European countries – a dehumanising attack for which there has been no reciprocity, compensation or apology.

The bronzes represent a culture rich in knowledge, technology and democracy; now dislocated in Europe they have become ornaments of pleasure, sitting in glass cases in the drawing rooms of English private collectors, or being viewed and interpreted by gallery and museum visitors as examples of primitive art from the 'Dark Continent'.

Tony Phillips has captured the sense of dislocation caused by the legacy of trade and empire in his series of etchings called History of the Benin bronzes, a commentary on the British Punitive Expedition into Benin in 1897 and its aftermath.

Within this exhibition, the bronzes work as a metaphor to represent the displacement and dislocation of Africans in the diaspora who continue to struggle to maintain identity and culture on foreign shores. I am not suggesting the mass repatriation of my people, but I am arguing that locality and aesthetics are cousins who sit better together in their place of origin, and that the authorities must let the Benin bronzes go home.

Kevin Dalton-Johnson, guest curator.