Friday 7 September 2012

Wedlock of ancient and contemporary art in Bronze

When ancient art of African origins go on display with that of the Medieval and Renaissance masters next week, bringing 5, 000 years of art history together across several civilizations from three continents, the value in collaborative exhibitions with holders of disputed artefacts would have been made.

Simply titled Bronze, and scheduled to open at Royal Academy of Arts, London, U.K., on September 15, works from Nigeria, according to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), are expected to attract global attention at the exhibition, which runs till December 9, 2012.  

With Prof. David Ekserdjian and Cecilia Treves as curators, 150 works from continents of Asia, Africa and Europe would be on display. Nigeria and Egypt represent Africa. 

But stressing the importance of Bronze as an extension of Nigeria’s diplomatic approach in getting the country’s disputed artefacts in foreign museums returned, the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, during a Lagos preview last week, disclosed that eight priceless works, including Ife, Benin and Igbo Ukwu bronzes would be taken out for the three months’show. The essence of the show, he noted, is to promote Nigerian art and allow others to share in its appreciation. 
In recent times, critical issues have been raised over the value and essence of several joint exhibitions of NCMM with holders of Nigeria’s stolen artefacts. 
Recently, alleged lack of transparency in moving works outside the country for exhibitions was identified as enough reason to task the museum authority on issues of accountability over the national collections. For example, in the past, the one year European and U.S. tour for the collaborative exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, was not to public knowledge back home until the show opened at the famous Ethnologisches Museum, (Museum of Ethnology) Berlin, Germany in 2008.   

Similarly, a collection of bronzes and terracotta were out on tour of U.K. and U.S. for almost a year under the theme, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Arts in Ancient Nigeria. The project  was alleged unannounced at home before it launched in London.

A FEW months ago, the attention of the NCMM was drawn to the untidy way in which such artefacts were taken out for shows abroad without formal preview and necessary  inventory or independent verification of such works.
  Perhaps in response to such criticism of its past practice, the NCMM had the RA-bound bronzes on display in Lagos for a preview.
  In what appears like an attempt to correct the mistake of the past, Usman, at the preview, assured that starting from the Bronze exhibition, no objects from the commission would be moved out of the country without making such travelling project known to the public.
  He also guaranteed the security and safety of the objects, saying, “We assure the public that every piece going out has been approved, recorded and appraised.”
  On the danger of moving some of the fragile works regularly on tour, particularly those of the Ife pieces, which just came back from similar expedition that lasted over a year, Usman disclosed that fitness tests were carried out on the RA collection. In fact, “one of the objects failed the test, hence it won’t go despite the insistence of the organisers on this particular piece,” he explained.

Obalufon Mask, Ife, Nigeria (12th – 15th Century).
The organisers, Royal Academy of Arts (RA) notes on its website that “no such cross-cultural exhibition on this scale has ever been attempted;” thus the gathering is expected to be a promotion boost for Nigerian ancient art, in museums at home and abroad.
THE antiquities for the London-bound exhibition seen at the media preview are as old as between 9th and 17th centuries. These include Ife Crowned Head, Obalufon Mask and Figure of a Male Tada (12th – 15th Century); Figure of a Bowman, Jebba, (16th to 17th); Vessel Shell, Igbo Ukwu (9th – 10th); Head of A Queen Mother, Benin (16th) Pair of Aquamaniles in form of a Leopard, Benin, 16th; Plaque: Warrior and Attendants, Benin, 17th. 
  Usman enthused that “the organisers intend to make the bronzes from Nigeria one of the major highpoints of the exhibition,” despite the inclusion of other iconic works from different parts of the world.  
  On the curating aspect of the gathering, the RA on its website, says each of the sections is arranged thematically to focus on areas such as the Human Figure, Animals, Groups, Objects, Reliefs, Gods, Heads and Busts.
  With display covering periods such as ancient Greek, Roman, Etruscan the Medieval, Renaissance, the show would not be missing in the radar of art lovers around the world.
  Representing the Renaissance are works of Ghiberti, Donatello, Cellini, De Vries Rodin, Boccioni, Picasso, Jasper Johns, Henry Moore, Beuys and Bourgeois.
  The Royal Academy of Art (RA) noted on its website how bronze “has been employed as an artistic medium for over five millennia,” disclosing that, “a section of the exhibition will be devoted to the complex processes involved in making bronze, enabling visitors to explore how models are made, cast and finished by a variety of different techniques.”

ON Nigeria’s efforts at repatriating her disputed cultural objects stuck in foreign museums, Usman insisted that the country’s policy of dialogue with holders of the works remains. He, however, assured, “If dialogue fails, we have other options.” 

  While restitution continues to be a strong and emotional issue, it does appear that Nigeria is still not working hard enough at lifting the standard of preservation of its collections. One of the crucial areas in this regard is lack of a conservation laboratory in the country to manage the collections. And while the proposed lab for the National Museum, Onikan (with the support of Ford Foundation), seems stuck at dream and conception stage, --though the DG claimed it was in progress -- another lab, would be built in Ogbomoso, Oyo State, Usman said.
  Still on collaborative exhibitions, NCMM boss reiterated that Nigeria would keep sharing, but cautioned the holders in the West that “sharing is on our own terms.”
  One of such terms, perhaps would be the benefits from the Bronze show, which include capacity building. Two officials of the NCMM who are accompanying the objects, he stated, “will undergo internship programmes during the period of the exhibition.” 

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