The Benin Initiative Switzerland (BIS): Cooperation with Nigeria

The Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich, together with seven Swiss ethnographic museums, investigate their holdings of objects from the historical kingdom of Benin in Nigeria. In the project, historian Dr. Enibokun Uzebu-Imarhiagbe, an academic based at the University of Benin in Nigeria, works on oral histories about the objects and examines the mechanisms of the Nigerian art trade and collecting practices in both colonial and post-colonial times. Uzebu-Imarhiagbe’s research in Nigeria complements the provenance research Dr. Alice Hertzog is doing in European archives on the question of how the Benin artworks arrived in Switzerland.

Enibokun Uzebu-Imarhiagbe, Alice Hertzog and Alexis Malefakis in the depot of the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich.
Collaborative research on Benin objects: Enibokun Uzebu-Imarhiagbe, Alice Hertzog and Alexis Malefakis in the depot of the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger/Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich

In September 2021, Enibokun Uzebu-Imarhiagbe travelled to Switzerland for a scientific exchange. Hosted by the participating museums, she met with curators, visited the various museums, archives and depots and examined each of the approximately 100 Benin pieces. Afterwards, Uzebu-Imarhiagbe discussed her findings and research plan with all BIS members in a workshop at the Museum Rietberg. Regarding the joint research with the collections in Basel, Bern, Geneva, Neuchâtel, St. Gallen and Zurich, she stated:

‘This collaboration is opening an avenue to having a different perspective on the Benin Bronzes, bringing in a Nigerian perspective, and merging it with a European perspective – putting everyone on the same page’.

After this first fruitful exchange between Uzebu-Imarhiagbe and the Swiss museums, a delegation from the BIS now envisages returning the visit, and plans to travel to Nigeria to present mid-term project results in early 2022. The BIS will expand this important cooperation with further academic and museum partners in Nigeria.

Alexis Malefakis

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