Saturday 18 February 2012

"Damaged" or not... mixed feeling trails return of Ife artefacts from world tour

By Tajudeen Sowole

 After three years of touring notable exhibition circuits in Europe and the U.S., artefacts of Ife origin are back in Lagos in their “original form with no damage,” claim government officials.

 Accompanied by American preservation experts who pledged more collaborative efforts in promoting Nigerian ancient cultural objects, the artefacts were still in boxes in which they arrived at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. 
Obalufon heads shown from the box, on arrival at Lagos museum from the U.S

  However, few of the artworks, which were briefly brought out – during the presentation led by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke – appeared undamaged.

 About 109 works of Ife artefacts, sourced from Nigeria were, in 2009, exhibited in Madrid, Spain, under the title, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria. It was the take-off of a collaborative project jointly organised by Museum of African Art, New York, U.S., Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the British Museum and Fundacion Marcelino Botin of Spain.

  In 2010, the show moved to the British Museum, London, as Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures From West Africa. The last segment of the tour took place at Houston, Richmond and Indianapolis, U.S. between last year and early this year.

 The Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman explained that the presentation of the works to the media on arrival was necessary to dispel insinuation that some of the works were not returned intact.

  Recalling the response received during the exhibition abroad, Usman stated that the shows “generated excellent reviews,” adding that the exhibition “has served as image modifier for our nation while redefining the country in the comity of nations, outside of oil.”
Director-General, NCMM, speaking at the presentation in Lagos.
   Shortly before leading his guests to see the works, Duke disclosed that NCMM would organise an exhibition of the works at the National Museum, Onikan. He also corroborated Usman’s point on the significance of the media presentation, which “is to reassure the people of Nigeria that these exquisite works are back in the country and in good condition.”

  INDEED, the reassurance may not be unconnected with reports in Europe -– during the tour – that one of the works was badly restored by the foreign partners. It should be recalled that midway into the European part of the tour, the works became a subject of debate. Some specialists on African art were worried that Spanish conservators applied the wrong coatings, which were aimed at protecting the works for the two-year adventure.

  One of the experts, Prof. John Picton of School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, U.K., had argued that the conservation process did affect the ancient identity of the works. Picton, a former deputy director of National Museum, Lagos noted that the ancient brass heads of some of the works have been replaced with “a shinny surface.”  

  However, another expert on restoration, David Perfitt who contributed to the debate via an online medium argued that techniques and medium of a restorer differ across countries and cultures.  He noted, for example, that “white emulsion paint from a hasty installation is no less relevant than the equivalent spatter of BTA from Spanish restorers.”

 Responding, a source from the NCMM, though admitted that there was an error by the conservators in Spain, noted that it was not enough to cause any damage or anxiety. He explained that it was like an overdose of coating, which could be easily reversed without any distortion to the work. He clarified that only one work, the Ori Olokun head, was affected.

Amada Thompson of Museum of African Art, New York, U.S (far left), Nigerian officials Usman, Edem Duke, Musa Hawolu,  Ronke Ashaye and Thompson’s colleague in Lagos after the arrival of the Ife objects.

WHAT opens last week Thursday exercise to suspicion is the fact that there was no assessment by the media, of the condition of the works before leaving Nigeria for the world tour. The argument was that if the media were not officially briefed while the works were being moved out for global display, it would be difficult to have independent verification of the original state of these objects, even as they are returned.

 Usman, who was not at the helm of NCMM affairs when the project started in 2007, however, stated that the commission has designed a mechanism that gives “conditional reports of departure and arrival of objects.”    He explained, “When we move objects, there is a condition report and notes are compared from the points of departure to arrival. And to ensure safety, the objects are moved in batches.”

 However, the Culture Minister assured that in the future, such movements of Nigerian artefacts for collaborative exhibitions abroad, would be done more openly by given adequate information to the general public. He also remarked that “Duke was not the minister then.” 
One of the works, Ori-Olokun (Head of the Sea Goddess, 12 to 15 th century) said to have been covered in coating during restoration by the foreign experts in (Europe or the U.S?)
   However, the capacity building-benefit of the collaboration, may, in the future, empower the NCMM to carry out proper restoration and management of the collections without depending on foreign expertise.

  According to Usman, the exhibitions “have afforded us the opportunity not only to share experience, but also acquire new skills and expertise in conserving and presenting cultural heritage.” He added that in all the venues, “curators, conservators, exhibition and education officers of the NCMM were among the teams, and received training in various fields.”

 Amada Thompson, who represents Museum of African Art, New York, noted that the Dynasty and Divinity …  “illuminated Nigeria as one of the world’s greatest art centers of all time.” Such shows, she argued, “is vital in promoting peaceful and prosperous international relations.”

Ife King (copper alloy), 16 th century C.E (Collection of NCMM, Nigeria)

RELATEDLY, as uncertainty still envelops the much talked-about Tourism Development Fund, Duke expressed displeasure about what he described as “misinterpretation” of the disclosure he made recently.

  He noted that there was certain report in some sections of the media that he wanted to use the fund to favour his personal interest. He clarified that “approval of the tourism development fund, for now, is in principle. It is not as if the money is already kept somewhere and waiting for the disbursement of the minister.”

   The fund, which he said, has been subject of debate in the past eight years, was aimed at getting a draft of about N5bn. “So, the approval given by President Jonathan is to source it from the private sector.” He added that the process would have to go through legislation at the National Assembly to give it the backing of the law.

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