In the context of the current nationwide negotiations about the transfer of ownership and restitution to Nigeria, the RJM, which preserves the fourth largest collection of looted Benin artworks in Germany, is intensively engaged with their history. For the first time ever, the RJM presented its entire collection of 96 Benin artworks in 2021 in the special exhibition “RESIST! The Art of Resistance”. This time in I MISS YOU, each of the 96 works are shown in their unique individuality. Not only is their beauty made visible, but the pain, loss and grief associated with them is also remembered. In 1897 during the heydays of colonial wars, when Europe was attempting to conquer the African continent, these 96 Benin works were violently looted along with thousands of others from the palace of the Benin Kingdom by British soldiers. Dethroned, uprooted, removed, and desecrated, since then these important repositories of memory – the material archive of the 500-year-old kingdom – have been scattered around the world in various European and American museums. This is the tragic story of these works, and it is around them that the debates on restitution revolve today.
The RJM’s Benin Artworks are remnants of local and global, forgotten, repressed, and intertwined events. Yet, our knowledge of them is incomplete. I MISS YOU is a project as well in the analog as the digital space, that gradually expands through a wide variety of narratives about missing and remembering objects looted during the colonial era. It is on broken memory and trauma caused by the colonial legacies of devastation and dispossession that passed down through generations. The trauma even affects those born long after Nigeria’s independence from the colonial power Great Britain in 1960, both in Nigeria as well as in the diaspora in Germany and so also here in Cologne.
With I MISS YOU, the RJM opens its doors to collaboration with descendants, experts and institutions in Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora in NRW, to make them themselves a speaking part of this debate about their cultural heritage preserved in Cologne until now.
I MISS YOU offers people the space to meet and engage with this long and multifaceted history of Benin court artworks, which includes much more than restitution alone. Here, the buried memories of loss can be reactivated. I MISS YOU is an attempt to transform absence into presence. I MISS YOU is a platform for mourning, for an ongoing and never-ending process of healing colonial rifts in our society. What would it mean for museums to become active agents in the “global repair” of colonial traumas passed on transgenerationally?