A tale of greed, looting and megalomania, starring the Benin Bronzes.
By Karen Eeckman
CAST: X, Y and Z (representing a shedload of different characters)
Benin City, 1897
FX: Noisy, multitracks, loads of voices overlapping over a background of looting and fighting.
Y Look at the walls!
Y The walls! They’re four times longer than the Great Wall of China! The largest earthworks created on Earth!
Y And the mathematical layout! Hundreds of interlocked villages in the middle of the African jungle! All the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see!
Z (bored) Yeah, yeah.
Y Look at the design of the city. Symmetry, proportionality, repetition. Perfect predictable patterns. It’s … Wow!
Z Not interested.
Y The court is as big as a European town! Amazing. London’s a place of thievery and murder while Benin’s City is - yes, definitely! - Benin City’s the most beautiful, the best planned city in the world! The Great City of Benin indeed.
Z (mumbling) Africa isn’t supposed to have anything like that! Africa is supposed to be the land of primitives. (Shouting) Burn the city to the ground!
FX: Background of burning blended with the looting from now onwards.
Y What? No!
Z We’re here to punish the Benin massacre!
Y With a massacre?!
Z The British were ambushed and killed! Revenge!
Y The Oba didn’t order the ambush!
Z I don’t care!
Y And we wanted to depose the king.
Z And that’s exactly what we’re going to do now! Yuck! The town reeks of human blood.
Y What? The city’s so clean, the walls are so shiny and smooth, they’re like mirrors -
Z They’re barbarians!
Y So say the looters.
Z With a blood-sacrificial culture!
Y Where? I can’t see any human sacrifice -
Z Kill them all!
X The White Man is bringing war!
Z Benin’s a place of gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death!
Y The death we create?
X The death the White Man creates!
Z We Europeans need to ensure the general progress of civilisation. Blow up the whole place!
Y No! This city is marvellous. We can’t destroy it.
Z These rubbish objects will be sold to provide compensation for the families of the British victims.
Y They’re not rubbish objects. They’re artefacts.
Z Those?! They’re disgusting! Repellent! Primitive! But I have reason to hope that sufficient ivory will be found in the King’s House to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool.
Z The punitive expedition is … well, an excuse to annex the Kingdom.
Z laughs evilly.
Y Why? We’ve conducted business with the Kingdom of Benin for centuries.
Z They’re annoying us. They don’t accept our trade rules. Basically they ask us to pay custom duties. How dare they?
Y It’s just greed!
Z Why on earth did you come to Africa?
Y To see its wonders. To do business.
Z Pfff. It’s like that we conduct business. We destroy everything and then we impose our trade. We are here to grab as much of Africa as possible. Ahhh! Look at the fire. The beauty of destruction, of death.
Y The blaze is growing out of control! It’s engulfing the whole city!
Y We must do something. Do something!
Z I looted enough stuff. The rest can burn.
Y Why? Why?
Z I’m here to demonstrate the Africans produced nothing, knew nothing. They are nothing. Torch everything!
Y Wealthy, industrious, well-governed and richly decorated. And now destroyed by greed! Here once stood the lost city of Benin, the greatest of the world …
FX: Sound blends, mixes, buzzes like a radio being tuned.
British Museum, now
FX: Footsteps in the gallery, crossing the room, stopping in front of cases, hubbub of voices going up and down, sometimes a murmur, sometimes a cacophony.
X Africans have to go all the way to Europe or America to be able to grab a look at their own art.
Z Shall we put in the visa form 'rightful right to admire the Benin Bronzes which were wrongly stolen by the British’?
X Should definitely help with the application.
Beat. It’s so unfair.
Y Come on X, the British Museum is going to loan several Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
X It’s so … so … So fucking colonial!
X Yes. Why on earth are the Western galleries loaning us our own treasures?
(Mimicking) Cos’ you Africans won’t be able to look after them properly.
Y They don’t have a museum!
X We don’t have a museum.
Z But we’re building one!
Y I don’t want to be displayed in a rundown, leaking, insect-infested gallery. I hang in one of the top museums of the world, I don’t want to be downgraded!
X Downgraded? Downgraded?!
Y Well. Er … I want to be properly looked after. They don’t have the expertise!
X Oh yes we don’t have the expertise. Bullshit!
Y The country is unsafe.
Y Terrorists. There are plenty of terrorist attacks in Nigeria. Or is it Kenya? Well, somewhere in -a.
Z Sure, there’s never any terrorist attacks in London.
Y There are thieves everywhere. We artefacts will be looted.
Y Well -
X We belong to Nigeria!
Z (echoing) Nigeria! Nigeria! Nigeria!
Y Well. Well. Er … But the museums bought the artefacts!
X We were looted in the first place!
Y What’s your solution? To empty Western galleries of African art? Once we’re all buried back in Benin City, will we be more visible? We ought to show to the world the great art of the Ancient Kingdom of Benin!
X Shouldn’t it be Benin City which loans the artefacts to Western museums?
Y No way!
X Why not?
Y Cos’ … cos’ … You’re pissing me off. Send her back to Benin City. I want to hang alone on this wall.
Z Er … What … What about me?
Y Go away. All of you. Let me hang here by myself as the one star I am.
FX: Hubbub of discontented voices.
X The star?
Z Do you think you’re the star?
Y I’m the star.
X He thinks he’s the star.
Z He’s no star at all. You’re just one among a thousand brass plaques!
X One among a thousand!
Z Where are they by the way?
Z The other Bronzes. Made of brass.
X In the basement.
X Cos’ there's not enough space to display them.
Z Yet Benin City can’t have those ones back?
X Don’t ask me. Look, some company.
FX: Installation works.
X (playful) Wondering who's going to have a trip to the basement.
Z Hey, the star. Psss! Hey! Y!
Z See: you don’t reply to “Star” but “Y”.
Z And …
X And you can go bury yourself in the basement and rot with all the other looted bronzes! There’s already some dust in your cracks. Or it is mould?
FX: One brass plaque is being taken away.
Y Hey! What's going on? X? What are you doing? Hey! Where are you taking me? X? X?
X See: you’re not the star, you’re being sent to the basement!
Z Star my ass! Pfff!
FX: Another brass plaque is taken down.
X What? No! I wanna hang here!
Z I bet they're changing the whole display.
X No! I want to be looked at, to be photographed, to become a poster, a symbol for Nigeria’s looted art, a symbol -
Y To the basement with the losers, X!
FX: X’s voice fades out as the footsteps and camera clicks rise.
X Wait! Wait! I don’t want to be stored underground. I’m claustrophobic. I’m night phobic. I’m dust phobic. Help! Help!
Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels
Voices from the Vault is a series of plays inspired by objects in London museums, and intended to be performed as a podcast.
Looted! is based on the Benin Bronzes held at the British Museum.