Saturday 12 November 2011


In Chicago, stolen Benin artefacts go on display
By Tajudeen Sowole

(First published in 2008)
AS the waiting game continues in the effort to retrieve stolen African cultural objects, a distraction may have crept in under the guise of promoting the artefacts and in collaboration with the keepers.
   The latest development in this regard is the exhibition of nearly quarter of a million works of Benin origin made in brass, ivory and coral, scheduled to open at the Art Institute of Chicago, U.S on July 10, and ends on September 21, 2008. 

One of the works on display during the Chicago show

  The exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is a tour-show which took off at the famous Ehhnologisches Museum, (Museum of Ethnology) Berlin, Germany on February 7 till May 25, 2008.
The event, being funded by a U.S-based NGO, Sara Lee Foundation, according to the organisers, is a "groundbreaking exhibition of 220 works in brass, ivory and coral and serves as the sole U.S venue" for the tour show.
   Surprisingly, supports for the two exhibitions came from the royal house of Benin as well as the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), Abuja. The Art Institute of Chicago stated: "Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is an exhibition of the Wien-Kunsthistorisches Museum, in cooperation with the NCMM, Nigeria; the Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Muse du Quai Branly, Paris."
  When the show opened in Berlin, five months ago, the organisers stated in the brochure: "There can be no doubt that the audience granted in 2006 by the reigning king of Benin,
Omo N'Oba Erediauwa CFR, was a highpoint in the preparations for the exhibition because it then became possible to receive objects on loan from the royal house for the first time in
an exhibition outside Nigeria. In addition, we received generous support from and enjoyable cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and its General
Director, Dr. O.J. Eboreime, who describes the Benin exhibition in his foreword as probably one of the most outstanding cultural events of the decade to take place outside Nigeria in this field."
   Meanwhile, back home, during the ministerial press briefing by the Honourable Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, on Thursday, June 26, 2008, at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, taking inventory  of these cultural objects was to be one of the government's next projects.
   Under the theme, Leveraging Economic Growth Through Tourism, Culture and Value Re-Orientation, the minister, while reeling out several "achievements" of various agencies of the ministry disclosed that a committee will be set up to take inventory of the nation's artefacts within and outside the country.
While Nigeria is currently attempting to take inventory of its carted  artefacts, countries around the world, even in Africa, are already achieving restitution. In April 2005, part of a 1,700-year old 200-tonne column looted by Italy nearly 70 years ago was returned to its original location in Ethiopia. Italian troops had seized the obelisk in 1937 and took it to Rome where it has remained despite a 1947 UN agreement to return it to Ethiopia.
  However, it did not take long for the adage: 'what you sow is what you reap' to take effect. Towards the end of last year, Italy was rewarded by law of natural justice as a 4th-Century B.C. marble statue, Griffins Attacking A Fallen Doe illegally exported to the U.S was returned to the European country by Los Angeles based J. Paul Getty Museum. 
Catalogue of the Chicago exhibition
   Contemporary works of Italian origin in various locations in the U.S. such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Princeton University's Art Museum were also returned with the fourth century B.C sculpture.
Many of the items, it was disclosed, had been bought by the museums in good faith after they were illegally transported from Italy. But Italy's unrelenting legal battle to retrieve the works seemed to have been successful. 
   Last March, an exhibition, Nostoi: Returned Masterpieces held at the Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome, which started in December 2007 and organized by the Italian government came to a close after it featured the 68 retrieved works.
   In the case of Nigeria, the intention of the government to support an exhibition where its stolen creative outputs would be on display has become subject of debate in the arts community.
Responding to the issue of the role of government in the said Berlin and Chicago exhibitions, the Sitting-in-for Director-General of NCMM, Ochi Achinivu argued that there is nothing wrong in government's support of such events or similar ones. "For the federal government to support any event aimed at promoting the nation's culture anywhere in the world, I think, it is a good idea," he said. While declining to make direct comment on the Chicago and Berlin exhibitions, Achinivu however warned that, "collaboration, support and any other persuasive mean available is better than confrontation in effort to have these objects returned".
  Some of the artefacts illegally left its original location and later acquired by the Ethnologisches Museum, from the British after the punitive expedition on Benin Kingdom as a result of the British invasion in 1897.
  The museum was established on 12 December, 1873, specifically for the collection of cultural materials from the peoples of Africa and Oceania. According to the authority of the museum, "several German museums lent their Benin art works to the exhibition."
Contents of the 40-page catalogue of the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition "highlights 22 of the exhibition's masterworks." Curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, some of the works include 18 century pieces, Iyoba, Head of Queen Mother, Oba Eresoyen's Stool, Plaque of Oba Esiegie on Horseback and Altar Group (Aseberia) with Oba Akenzua I.
   For serious nations that truly desire restitution of their cultural and religious objects from anywhere in the world, UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee For Promoting The Return Of Cultural Property To Its Countries Of Origin Or Its Restitution In Case Of Illicit Appropriation ICPRCP appears to have some guidelines. At its fourteenth session, held in Paris, June 2007, the 22-member committee, currently including five African countries – Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Libya, Niger and Zimbabwe – came up with what it called Draft Rules Of Procedure On Mediation And Conciliation.
  Article 1 of the document, which states that the
committee requests for the return or restitution of cultural property, "as defined under Article 3 of the Statutes," also explains in Article 10 under the heading Conclusion of the Procedure. The document recommends that a mediation or conciliation procedure shall be deemed concluded when a settlement that all parties deem binding has been reached.
   Other options recommended include "when all of the Parties concerned consent in writing to deem the procedure concluded or when all Parties have set a time limit, within which no settlement has been reached." It explains further that the parties shall promptly inform the chairman of the committee, who shall inform the Director-General of UNESCO and the members of the committee at the next session, of any settlement reached or procedure concluded without a settlement. It however added that the chairman of the committee shall dismiss any procedure that has been concluded without a settlement, while the issue remains before the committee.
Fundamentally, UNESCO recommends that: "Before bringing a case to the intergovernmental committee, the requesting state must initiate bilateral negotiations with the state in which the requested object is located. Only when such negotiations have failed or are suspended can the case be brought before the committee."
  However, it is not clear if any of these several opportunities offered by UNESCO has been taken in Nigeria's agitation for restitution of its monumental cultural heritage under hostage abroad. Achinivu, again, requested that he needs time to make any official statement on this and that it is too early for him as a new appointee to make any definite statement on behalf of government.
  Another example of restitution in other parts of the world, in recent times, is a stolen collection of over 90 artefacts dating from more than 8, 000 years ago, which were returned from Germany to Greece, last October. The artefacts, sources said are of the Neolithic-era and stolen by armed burglars from a private collection in Larissa, central Greece, in 1985. The materials were said to have been seized by the German police, later. After legal tussle initiated by the Greek Government, a Munich court ruled in August 2007 that the artefacts be returned to Greece.
  The works, which include stone and pottery; statuettes, tools and tiny vases are said to be as old as between 6500 and 5300 B.C. Sources from the Greek government said the objects have their place of origin in the central Thessaly region of the country where Greece's most important Neolithic settlements have been excavated.

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