A Cambridge University college has bowed to pressure from its students and removed a bronze cockerel from its main hall after protests that the looted sculpture celebrated a racist and colonial past.
Jesus College said that it would consider repatriating the cockerel, known as the “Okukor”, to Nigeria, reported UK-based Times newspaper wednesday. Students had demanded in a vote that the bronze work be taken down and returned to the Benin royal palace in Nigeria. The college said wednesday that the rightful location of the “Benin bronze” was a complex matter requiring further discussion. The move could revive the campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century colonialist, from Oriel College, Oxford University. It could also embolden campaigners trying to repatriate other cultural artefacts, including the Elgin Marbles, which Greece wants to be returned from the British Museum. The cockerel was bequeathed to Jesus College in 1930 by an army captain, George William Neville, whose son had attended the college. It has symbolic importance because the college coat of arms features three black cockerels with red combs and wattles.
Last month the college students’ union approved a motion supporting the repatriation of the “okukor”. The debate became so heated that at one point, a student snapped: “The opinion of two white men is not valid.” The debate was opened by Amatey Doku, a Ghanaian student, who said that the “okukor” was stolen on a punitive expedition in reprisal for the killing of British traders, in which the Kingdom of Benin was destroyed and 3,000 pieces of art were stolen. He proposed that the college commissions a new work and hold a repatriation ceremony at which it would be returned. A Benin bronze appreciation committee has already made contact with the Nigerian government which, the meeting was told, supports the proposal to repatriate the cockerel. Another student, Ore Ogunbiyi, who seconded the motion, told the meeting: “We spoke to a bronze repatriation expert who said that grown men cried after the return of pieces in 2014.” Yesterday, in a statement issued through Cambridge University, the college said: “Jesus College acknowledges the contribution made by students in raising the important but complex question of the rightful location of its Benin bronze, in response to which it has permanently removed the “Okukor” from its hall. The college commits to work actively with the wider university and to commit resources to new initiatives with Nigerian heritage and museum authorities to discuss and determine the best future for the Okukor, including the question of repatriation.”
The college’s original emblem was the five wounds of Jesus, but in the 16th century, that had become a symbol of rebellions protesting at the suppression of monasteries. It is believed to have been replaced in 1575 by a shield with the personal coat of arms of John Alcock, the Bishop of Ely and its founder, featuring black cockerels and ten crowns. The decision comes after a campaign to remove a statue of Rhodes from the frontage of Oriel College, Oxford. Oriel initially offered a lengthy consultation over its future and applied for permission to remove a separate plaque in his honour but reversed its decision after widespread criticism that its actions amounted to rewriting history. Students have also campaigned to have a monument to Queen Victoria removed from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Other than okukor, several other Benin artefacts cast in bronze or ivory were carted away from the ancient kingdom by Portuguese and British colonialists. Today, they litter museums in Britain, France and America and are believed to be priceless. One notable work of art is the FESTAC Mask that depicts the esoteric beauty of Queen Idia of Benin at the height of her reign in the 19th century. The original masterpiece made of ivory has remained in Britain since it was looted in 1897 during the Benin massacre. A replica of the mask was used as the symbol of the 2nd Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) that was hosted by Nigeria in 1977, when people of African descent from all over the world showcased their rich cultural heritage.
The homes in FESTAC Town in Lagos were built to accommodate participants during the two-week festival that featured artists from the whole of Africa, America, the Caribbean and other parts of the world with people of the black race. Efforts to get the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, to comment on the possible repatriation of Okukor proved abortive. Calls and texts to his phone were unanswered wednesday. However, the Edo State Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr. Kassim Afegbua, advised those who carted away Benin artefacts to return them. He said: “When one of the descendants of the colonialist, Dr. Adrain Mark-Walker visited Benin City in 2014, they returned one of the stolen artefacts and reacting to the gesture, the governor, Adams Oshiomhole, said that was a good first step and urged others who are in possession of the other stolen items of the Edo ancestry to follow suit.”