Tony Phillips on the History of the Benin Bronzes I-XII

Artist Tony Phillips was born in Liverpool in 1952. His work often takes the form of a series, exploring his subjects with multiple, interlinked images. In 1984 he created a group of prints that considers the history of the 'Benin Bronzes', and their forcible removal from Benin City by the British. Nearly 40 years later, the bronzes are still in Europe – and Phillips' layered narrative, played out over these prints by the reuse of his etching plates – becomes ever more relevant.

The works known as the Benin Bronzes were made over 600 years in the Kingdom of Benin – now in modern-day Nigeria. Although frequently discussed as a group, their production would have depended on many unknown artists, and a highly complex making process. They redefined European-centric views of African art, but their extraction from Benin was defined by British colonialism.

In 1896 the British Consul in Lagos, Nigeria, attempted to enter neighbouring Benin City during a religious festival, hoping to negotiate an end to the ruler's monopoly on the trade in palm oil and other commodities. Although envoys from the Oba (king) had protested at the timing of such a visit by foreigners, the Consul proceeded, and his unarmed party were ambushed and killed.

Retribution came in March 1897 when a punitive raid on Benin City deposed the Oba and sent him into exile. British rule was imposed, and the city ransacked. A wealth of accumulated art – carved ivories, brass plaques and cast bronze sculptures – were seized and sent to Europe, where many made their way to museums in Berlin and London, and to private collections. They are now dispersed all over the world.

The British Press sought to justify this brutality by depicting the Oba and his people as 'savages' who practiced human sacrifice, but in fact, as the magnificent bronzes demonstrate, Benin was a sophisticated and technologically advanced society.

Phillips has written that 'The series is not only a comment on colonial appropriation but also on the immutability of the art object in the face of changed cultural contexts – the work retaining its power and beauty despite being relieved of its original function.'

The History of the Benin Bronzes I-XII

The V&A currently houses two examples of the Benin Bronzes, on the loan from the British Museum, which can be seen in Medieval & Renaissance, Room 63, The Edwin and Susan Davies Gallery