How Benin monarch, govt rekindled campaign on stolen artefactsAS the European and American tour exhibitions of looted cultural objects of Benin origin ended in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. few weeks ago, the participation of Nigeria in the one-year and four months tour has continued to generate mixed reactions.
By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published on Tuesday, October 28, 2008)
By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published on Tuesday, October 28, 2008)
Oba Ovonranmwen of Benin, shortly before exile in 1897. PHOTO: c/o Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, U.S.
The tour exhibition berthed at the institute where it was on for over two months.
Just like a certain section of the western press sympathetic to the Jewish cause attempted, but failed, in 2002, to change what was globally accepted as occupied territory to an unpopular idea 'disputed territory', Cuno's book has re-opened a concept to be known as 'universal heritage' in place of looted cultural objects.
When the exhibition, Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria opened at the Institute last July, the Benin monarch sent a powerful delegation to be part of activities marking the concluding part of the tour. Earlier, in 2007, when the event took off in Vienna, Austria, similar delegation was sent by the monarch to be part of the event.
After Austria, came Paris, France in October 2007 through January 2008 and Berlin, Germany, February 2008 to June 2008, where the federal government delegation was led by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode.
Out of the over three hundred exhibits of Benin origin involved in the tour, about 35 were said to have been on loan to the organisers from the collection of the Palace of Benin, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and Ebohon Gallery, Benin.
Sources at the closing ceremony in Chicago said the only lecture at the occasion was delivered by Dr. Peju Layiwola of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos (UNILAG) Nigeria, who also contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition. The curator of African Art at the Institute, Kathleen Bickford Berzork explained that Layiwola was selected to give the lecture because "she is a rare scholar and artist whose scholarship is recognized internationally."
On her return from Chicago, Layiwola said her paper titled Edo Art and the Reconstruction of Memory showed in many ways how the Edo artists have reconstructed the British Punitive Expedition, which took place in 1897, through both the visual and the performing arts, among other issues.
Over the years the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Benin monarch, at separate times, had requested for the return of these cultural objects.
|A book/catalogue of Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria|
At the opening of the event in Vienna, the leader of Benin delegation, Edun Agharese Akenzua, while addressing the gathering acknowledged the request of the organisers to have the monarch lend some antiquities, write introductory notes to the catalogue and permit members of the royal family to attend the show. Akenzua, however warned: "But it should be said at once that the royal gesture should not be mistaken for the king's approval or legitimization of the forceful removal of the items from his palace more than 100 years ago. The accent is to keep his demand for the reparation of Benin cultural property on World conscience"
At the Berlin show, Kayode made an appeal. He said: "I wish to appeal to the conscience of all as the 'Berlin Plea Of Return Of Nigeria's Cultural Objects' that while Nigeria prepares itself – perhaps Africa too – for an official request for the return of its stolen artefacts, those hearts that are touched by that reckless act of colonization should on their own return all or part of the objects."
Excerpt from the preface of the catalogue for the exhibition written by the Oba of Benin goes thus: "We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically, with our past."
Similarly, Akenzua's address at the closing of the Chicago event, few weeks ago, stressed the position of the monarch. He said: "It is our hope that the authorities in Chicago will keep this momentum of understanding and magnanimity among the international community to repatriate these looted works. We understand that the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, Chicago, have expressed willingness and readiness to consider requests for the repatriation or restitution of these works.
"We trust that all those who are desirous of correcting the rape on the colonised people of the world will support the king of Benin in the demand to have the cultural property of the people returned as they supported the Italians, Ethiopians, Greece, Egypt, Austria, Namibia etc in their battle to have theirs returned to them."
A letter of request, it was said, has been delivered to the director of the institute, Cuno and the trustees of the museum.
As rightly pointed out by Akenzua at the Chicago event, some countries recently had their antiquities returned. But there is something about the Nigeria's case that appeared to be generating more interests across the world. Perhaps it is the only case in Africa to have attracted the kind of exhibition that was just held in Chicago.
|Dr. Peju Layiwola in Chicago for the lecture|
With the involvement of the federal government and the Benin monarch – though as part of efforts to have the artefacts returned – chances of falling into the traps being set by the unpopular concept of universal heritage cannot be ruled out.
Cuno in his controversial book argues: "Antiquities are the cultural property of all humankind, evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."
According to Cuno, any modern nation state's claim to ownership of ancient cultural objects could be challenged.
The author is not alone in the effort to rewrite history. In fact, he shares similar view with a gathering of the world's biggest museums, known as Bizot Group of which the Art Institute of Chicago is a member.
In 2002, the group consisting of 20 directors of museum across Europe and America took a position that appeared like a warming up towards a redefinition of who owns what. Under the forum known as Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, certain artefacts, they argued, should be seen as universally owned.
They stated: "We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with the current ones.
"Over time, objects so acquired-whether by purchase, gift, or partage-have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today, we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work's original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source."
In his response to Cuno's book and the issue of universal heritage, renowned scholar on African culture, Professor Perkins Foss of Yale University, U.S., during a chat with his guest while on a short visit to Nigeria few weeks ago said, "some of Cuno's position could be argued against." The author, Foss added, has made some points as well.
Foss who said he was at the Vienna show recalled that he told Akenzua that the argument over who owns what would change if Nigeria has the right museums to receive these objects.
On the participation of Nigeria, particularly the Benin monarch, Foss noted that it was a good development. His words: "In Vienna there was serious discussion about ownership. To me the real good thing is that they were there, and also agreed to support the exhibition. They could have said, 'no, we would not come to Vienna', and that would have been regrettable."
While presenting the loaned exhibits of the tour to the media recently, in Lagos, Kayode stressed the nation's resolve to be steadfast in persuasiveness on the issue of restitution and collaboration anywhere in the world, to project the cultural heritage of Nigeria.
And for the Bizot Group, the minister wished they emulate Nigeria when he added that, "ours is not a universal museum that takes and does not give."