Royal battle for Benin heritage
By Evelyn Osagie Published TodayLife Midweek Magazine
It is an art exhibition with a difference - Benin1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question. The display of works by artist/art historian, Dr. Peju Layiwola, currently running at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) has sparked off fresh debates on Benin stolen relics. The ancient town has come to be known for its art and creativity. This artistry, Peju said, has nurtured and inspired her art.
With a first part sounding like an Internet domain name, the artist seeks to recontextualise the upshot of the British invasion. She also tries to make recommendations for the future through Arts.
But why chose such a title for an exhibition? The year, 1897, has come to mean much to the people of Benin. History has it that it was the year the British attacked Benin. Historians now refer to it as the 'British Punitive Expedition'. The British were said to have looted over 3000 artefacts comprising largely bronze, ivory and artworks, among others. And the reigning Benin monarch then, Oba Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar. Till date, families in Benin still speak of their losses, in human and material terms.
But, according to the artist, "Benin1897.com is a satirical reference to the suggestion that a fundamental return may well be the answer to the request for repatriation of stolen cultural artifacts to their countries of origin."
Speaking on the significance of the period and the exhibition, the Omo'N'Oba N'Edo, Oba Erediauwa, said: "The title is significant to us in Benin. The year 1897 means much to me and my people; it was the year the British invaded our land and forcefully removed thousands of our bronze and ivory works from my great grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen's Palace."
According to the Oba of Benin, it is no accident that an exhibition, presenting an artistic impression of Benin's historic rape, is being staged by Peju, scion of Benin royalty (granddaughter of late Oba Akenzua II).
"It is not by accident that Peju chose that as theme for her exhibition. She is my niece and a great great granddaughter of Oba Ovonramwen. Peju's mother, my sister, is herself an accomplished artist. She is the first lady in Benin to receive formal training in Fine Arts and is the first lady bronze-caster. Her influence on Peju coupled with the experience she gathered from the Benin environment, no doubt, gave her versatility in art interpretation and practice," said the Omo'N'Oba.
At the unveiling, guests came face-to-face with the contemporary realities surrounding the relics. A certain cartoon appeared on the wall of UNILAG Main Auditorium Gallery that showed two images – wearing the head of Queen Idia of Benin and another artefact. Both are sitting on a box with an inscription "In captivity since 1897 British Invasion", in chains, weeping, maybe, over the inscription on a signboard behind them that reads: "Africans illegally in Europe must leave. Africans objects illegally in Europe must stay". The exhibits of calabash installations, terracotta replicas of looted bronze originals, accompanied by the book which is a discourse on art –stripping and the vexed issue of restitution – further strengthen the theme. Among the exhibits are 113 heads of Benin, which depicts the period between 1897 and 2010; 17 calabashes without colour representing the years Ovonramwen spent in exile; the question mark.
Early reviews suggest that, "besides its intellectual content, this effort could equally be read as an exercise in filial cultural intervention, not just of a professional obligation but an anxiety to fill an autobiographical void. Through this cultural action for freedom, the past seems to be indicting the present, as one offspring of a brutish encounter is beginning to throw barbs of indictment at past abuse of power. And speaking in a tone quite similar to the Oba of Benin, Peju, in relation to the stolen artefacts, remarked sharply that: "it is ironic that they (the artifacts) which once enjoyed the splendour of the palace are now trapped behind glass wall in foreign lands."
The exhibition was preceded by a colloquium that saw scholars such as Director- General of Centre for Black African Arts and Culture (CBAAC), Prof. Tunde Babawale, Prof Folarin Shyllon, Prof. Demola Popoola. They delivered papers on the theme. Aside scholars, it also attracted artists, art historians, art and cultural enthusiasts, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), National Institute for Museums and Monuments (NIMM), CBAAC, international museums experts, and more from within and outside the country. They included Prof. Akin Oyebode, who chaired the occasion; acclaimed artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya; Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner, Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria, Art collector, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi; Prof Dele Layiwola, Director of African Studies, University of Ibadan and husband of the artist. Armed with the blessing of Oba Erediauwa, the Benin royalty was aptly represented. They included the Enogie of Obazuwa, Prince Edun Akenzua, who was represented by his daughter, Mrs Itohan Murphy Okojie; Prince Omoregbe Erediauwa; Prince Kennedy Eweka, of the University of Benin; Princess Tessy Iyase-Odozi, owner of GreenHouse Art Gallery, among others.
At the event, everyone spoke with one voice. One could feel the vibe of anger the issue generated. Without mincing words, they called for the return of the artefacts by the International museums housing them. The question now was, 'What form or shape should this take?
Peju said: "Jonathan King, Keeper of Africa, Oceania and Americas collections at the British Museum suggests that, as an alternative to physical repatriation, the British Museum advocates for other solutions, virtual and visual return as well as long term loans, co-curate museum exhibitions and other forms of cultural interaction.
Babawale said the invasion was a clear case of injustice. He said: "It must be emphatically stated that works of art should be physically returned to the countries from which they originate and where their full significance can be fully harnessed and appreciated."
He spoke on the relevance of the theme, saying, "It is relevant to CBAAC because of our mandate to promote and propagate Black and African ideals and civilisation. The popular Festac logo is a pectoral mask of Queen Idia of Benin. It was one of the thousands stolen and whose cause is being addressed by the colloquium/exhibition. The mask is presently housed in British Museum."
He added that: "This exhibition, a purely artistic and academic feat, will be appreciated beyond the scope of art. Many questions will arise from it. One of which is, 'is it right to steal and deprive people of what is unquestionably theirs?' And 'For how long shall the people remain deprived?' The issue of deprivation can be better understood when we consider that there are more Benin artefacts in the West that can be found in Benin, a situation whereby any Benin person wanting to see or learn about his artistic heritage will have to apply for visas to all these locations, application which are most likely to be refused."
Moves for restitution
Commenting on the issue of restitution, CBAAC D-G said: "The issue reawakens us to once again clamour for the restitution of all these stolen artifacts scattered over the entire West. The Nigerian government made a plea for the return of Queen Idia mask during the FESTAC in 1977, but this was turned down. Nigeria was even prepared to pay a huge sum of money demanded, for insurance, to ensure its safety, but the British did not trust us to be capable of taking good care of the mask, our own mask. CBAAC has also made a representation to the British Museum to negotiate the return of this particular piece, but till this moment the British authorities have turned deaf ears to this plea."
Aside efforts by CBAAC, Peju highlighted moves by Benin royalty towards repatriation of looted works. She said: "Several requests have been made to foreign museums holding Benin works. None of these requests has been answered favourably. For instance, in 2000, Prince Edun Akenzua appeared before the British House of Commons requesting for the repatriation of the works. In 2008, two letters were written by Prince Edun Akenzua, to no avail, to the trustees and the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was only in 1938 that some form of repatriation was made to the Benin monarchy. Part of the regalia of Oba Ovonramwen found in a private collection in the UK was returned to Oba Akenzua II. He was so joyous that he sang and danced on receiving these items. but that's as far as it went."
The audience was divided over the fact that Nigeria might not be able to maintain the works. Other scholars claimed that in most cases visitors are not allowed to see originals of the works as they are locked away in Museums in the West while visitors are only allowed to view their printed images.
To this the curator of the African Arts section of the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Barbara Plankensteiner, said: "Although I can't speak for Museums in America and Europe, I think several issues raised here are not true. For instance, it is not true that European museums hide what they have. You only need to ask to have access."
Plankensteiner added that "I see the issues myself and I think time has come to open a dialogue. And I think the European museums are aware of this and they are working at it. That is why we did the bidding exhibition and we have an on-going co-operation with the Nigerian museums for five years now. I think it is an important first step."
Prince Erediauwa said there is need for African countries to create more awareness on the issue to curb illegal trade in artefacts. "Benin is not the only place. There are other places. Part of our history is missing, if these things were bought from us it is a different issue but they were stolen. We need to keep making a lot of noise. People need to be taught to value their treasures."
The Omo'N'Oba's introductory note to the recent Benin catalogue entitled Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria was also read: "It is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country."
While examining the restitution question on the parts of international museums, Prince Erediauwa called on the Nigerian government to put its house in order. "We need to show signs of self-preparedness. There is need for us, especially, the government to put our home in order."
The exhibition will run till May 30 in Lagos and subsequently travel to Ibadan and Benin.
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