Saturday 5 May 2012

Kingdom of Ife reopens debate on restitution of artefacts

By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published in March 2010)

 WHILE little progress has been made to get looted artefacts of African origin from museums across Europe and U.S. returned to their places of origin, there is a new relationship termed “collaboration” between Nigeria and some of the keepers.    

Latest of these efforts is the ongoing exhibition of artefacts from Ife, Osun State titled Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa, at the British Museum, U.K. In collaboration with Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the British Museum, Fundacion Marcelino Botin of Spain and the Museum of African Art, New York opened what they described as the “second phase of an international exhibition” early this month.   The first phase, according to NCCM, was held in Santander and Madrid, Spain in May last year. Over 100 pieces in brass, copper, stone and terracotta from NCMM are on this cross continent show.

Expected to last till June 6, 2010, the event, they said, is also
holding as Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria in four U.S. cities: Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, U.S., September 19, 2010 to January 2, 2011; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, February 25 to May 22, 2011; Indianapolis Museum of Art, July 10 to October 9, 2011; as the first show at the new building of the Museum for African Art, New York from November 11, 2011 to April 8, 2012. The works, according to the NCMM, are on loan from Nigeria, just for the period of the shows.    

The British Museum is known to have one of the most important objects of Nigerian origin – looted during what is known as Benin Kingdom Punitive Expedition of 1897 – such as the Queen Idia Mask. This event, therefore, raises an issue on the significance of this “collaboration”.     From 2007 to 2008, a similar exhibition called Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court, Arts from Nigeria was concluded at the Arts Institute of Chicago, U.S. It was first shown in Vienna, Austria, in 2007, and later held in France and Germany. During the opening at the Chicago show, the Benin monarch sent a delegation; in Berlin, Germany, the federal government delegation was led by the then Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode.   
A Copper-made seated sculpture from Ife Kingdom, late 13th - early 14th Century being mounted at the British Museum for the exhibition.
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, NCMM and Ebohon Gallery, Benin.   

Two years after, it’s the turn of Ife objects to go on a similar tour. What is the significance of this collaboration in the context of request by Nigeria to have these controversial objects returned to the country?    “Very significant,” the Director General of the NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman stated few days ago.    

For the British Museum, this collaboration is important, perhaps to remind people how “Ife flourished as a political, spiritual,
cultural and economic centre in the 12th to 15th centuries AD as well as an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.”    

Over the decades, position of the British Museum and others in the U.S. remains un-shifted from what they called “universal museum.” These works, they claimed, are better preserved in their current abode. Nigeria is not alone in this battle to free cultural objects from captivity; Greece’s reputation of contributing three to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as well as a recent construction of its New Acropolis Museum at the cost of £110m ($182m; 130m euros) did not change the position of the British Museum on Greece’s request to recover the controversial Elgin Marbles. Out of an estimated 160 metres original of these marble sculptures, 75 are known to be in the British Museum while the rest are in Greece and Italy. In fact, two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – remains of temple of
Artemis and maussoleum of Halicarnassus are in the British Museum.   

Although the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation on behalf of NCMM, in January this year, received some artifacts from French Government, in Abuja, this is still a snail step in the marathon journey of restitution. Usman agreed, but insisted that, with collaboration, there is a mutual understanding and common interest between Nigeria and the British Museum as well as other keepers, which could give way for the return of the controversial objects. The show, he noted, is also an image - laundering step “to positively impress on the entire world that Nigeria in no small way has been contributing to the cultural development of the entire world for a very long time.”   Also, Egypt, in the last few months, has recorded remarkable achievement: three thousand year old coffin from U.S. and most recent, about 25, 000 artefacts said to have been returned by Britain’s
University of London were among works received by Egypt. One of the objects is “a stone axe dates back to 200, 000 years,” a source said.    

 From the lauded achievement of Egypt, to the French returns of some works to Nigeria, it is apparent that these objects fall within the post 1970 UNESCO declaration on illicit movement of cultural property. For example, the coffin returned to Egypt was taken away in 1884, but “seized at Miami Airport by U.S. security officers in 2009” from a gallery owner who could not provide provenance of the object. In 1970, member countries adopted UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.     The ultimate restitution, therefore, would come when, for instance British Museum returns Queen Idia Mask and Neues Museum, Berlin let go the Nefertiti Bust.    
One of the works, Ori-Olokun sculpture 13th - 14th Century

However, the agitation for the return of the Nigeria’s artefacts would not stop. At the forum on illicit movement of cultural property where the 400 years old monoliths were received from the representatives of French government, Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs restated that the country would do everything possible to have her works in captivity returned.    

At the Berlin stop over of Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court, Arts from Nigeria, Kayode revisited the restitution issue when he made what he described as an “appeal to the conscience of all as the Berlin plea of return of Nigeria’s cultural objects.” From the text of the minister’s speech made available after the show, he warned that agitation for return of the cultural objects, “should not be seen as another declaration of war but a passionate plea.”     

Monitoring the movements of artefacts at home, particularly, unauthorised excavation and trafficking, are crucial in the issue of restitution. Responding to insinuation that traffickers connive with
staffs of national museums in illegal exportation, Abdallah argued that, “not a single loss has been recorded from the national collections of the NCMM in the last ten years.” Noting that, indeed there are “unauthorized excavations and movement of ancient works of arts at various discreet and private locations within the country,” the NCMM, he explained, finds it “very difficult to ascertain because these objects don’t pass through the commission’s legitimate official channels.” And as those involved illicit excavating appear to be evading several security measures, including NCMM, awareness, he said, is ongoing, particularly at the borders and overseas.  

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