Saturday 5 October 2013

With Benin Kingdom Gallery, US museum legitimises possession of controversial artefacts

His Royal Highness Professor Gregory I. Akenzua of Benin Kingdom and Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund during the opening. 

By Tajudeen Sowole
INCONSISTENCY in policies, which keeps limiting the continent, seems to have aided the legitimacy claim of Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, US over the controversial Benin cultural objects.

Last year, the museum had received donation of 28 pieces of art in bronzes and six ivories from an American, Mr. Robert Owen Lehman. The donor, significantly, is the heir to the vast collection of a famous banker, Phillip Lehman (1891-1969), who was one of the early collectors of Benin art. 

The collection has been traced to the looting that took place when the British invaded old Benin Kingdom in 1897, which eventually led to the sending of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (1888 -1914) to exile in Calabar. An estimated 4, 000 cultural objects from the Benin palace were looted by the British military.

For MFA, which is one of many museums in the US and Europe holding some of the Benin artefacts, it’s a priority to legitimise the invaluable collection.

In getting legitimacy, the endorsement of Benin natives was essential, particularly in managing public sentiment and perception, so suggests the museum’s attitude after receiving the donations last year.

A newspaper review on the controversial donations, published by The Guardian last year with heading Ahead of 2013 show of looted Benin artefacts, museum plots legitimacy, had exposed MFA’s tactics to blur the restitution question hanging over the acquisition of the artefacts.

Two weeks ago, MFA’s plan was finally carried out as some natives of Benin joined the museum in what was tagged, Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture.

It was the opening of Benin Kingdom Gallery, a dedication to the cultural objects of the people. The event, MFA said, was in collaboration with a Boston-based group, Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organisations.  

Photographs from the event, which showed a high level representative, also indicate an apparent contrast to the demand of the Benin monarch for the restitution of the controversial artefacts.

The delegates included Ambassador Walter Carrington, Chief Nicholas O. Obaseki of Benin Kingdom, His Royal Highness Professor Gregory I, Akenzua of Benin Kingdom, Chief Esosa Eghobamien, The Obobaifo of Benin Kingdom, Dr. Arese Carrington, and Director of MFA, Boston Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund.

The controversial artefacts on display inside the Benin Kingdom Gallery
However, the monarch, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa’s spokesperson, Prince Edun Akenzua’s disclosure that the former did not send any delegation, suggested lack of coherence and inconsistency on the side of the Benin royal house. “The Oba did not send any representative to the Boston museum event,”Akenzua stated few days after the Benin Kingdom Gallery was opened.

But in MFA’s response to the post-event report, published in The Guardian of Sunday, September 29, 2013, Akenzua’s claim that Oba did not send a delegation was countered.

MFA’s Associate Director of Public Relations, Karen Frascona, sent a copy of the letter credited to the Oba of Benin, but signed by Secretary to the Oba, O. Oronsaye-Guobadia. The letter dated September 5, 2013 and addressed to the director of the museum acknowledged the receipt of a letter from MFA dated August 13, 2013 and expressed “regret that the Omo N Oba will not be able to attend the opening ceremony of the museum’s Benin Kingdom Gallery personally.”

The letter further states in part: ‘I am to further add that the Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organizations has been mandated to participate and represent the Omo N Oba at the event.”

While the letter has clarified the identity or background of the Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organisations, and explained the presence of highly placed individuals such as the Carringtons and the chiefs, it appears to have weighed heavily against Akenzua’s claims that the Oba did not send a delegation. 

Dance Member of Uyiedo Cultural Dance Troupe. And members of Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organizations during the opening of the Benin Kingdom Gallery in Boston, U.S.

An observer, who chose to be anonymous, said it’s worrisome that the Benin traditional ruling class could not take a common stand on the issue. “The caliber of people at the event and the supposedly denial of the Oba’s knowledge of the delegation’s presence is untidy, worrisome.”   

Describing the presence of Benin community at the gallery’s opening as an ‘endorsement’ of MFA’s possession of the cultural objects, he suspects that it could also strengthen the museum’s claim of ‘legitimacy’.

Ahead of the opening, MFA had indicated that the event was being organised in collaboration with Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organisations.

That information was not in doubt, as pictures of the event released by MFA suggest that the group dominated the festival-like celebration.

And when Akenzua described the controversial representation of the Oba as ‘spurious’, he was probably questioning the identity of the coalition, a group that has suddenly appeared on the culture scene just in the last few weeks.

Frascona, via email sent few days ago, explained that MFA began meeting with the group “in early June, inviting them to assist in planning a celebration of the gallery opening at the Museum.”

She also disclosed how Dr. Arese Carrington facilitated the permission of the Oba by visiting the “palace in late August and hand-delivered the letter and message from the MFA.”

Giving the background of the group, Franscona stated that it “represents a number of local-area Edo group, and had approximately 250 members of the community attended the event.”

As controversial as the donation of the 32 artefacts is, perhaps, Lehman Jnr should be commended for providing an opportunity for a broader space to spread the appreciation of Benin art and culture.

Standing in the middle of the crisis – while Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) keeps agitating for restitution – is MFA’s establishment of a Benin Kingdom Gallery.

The temporary possession and the creation of a gallery by the Boston museum is not exactly a bad idea, more so, that it’s all about the ‘celebration of Benin art and culture’, a section of art and culture practitioners in Nigeria, had argued.

MFA had disclosed that the collection ranged from sculptural heads of kings and freestanding figures to pendants and high-relief plaques that once adorned the walls of courtyards in the palace. Included in the gift from Mr. Lehman and currently on display in the new gallery, according to Frascona are two loans. There are 30 bronzes and six ivories on display in the gallery.

Speaking on the issue, one of the leading scholars on Benin art and culture, Dr. Peju Layiwola, disagreed. She said the ‘celebration’ strikes a disturbing emotional chord, which opens a wound created by the 1897 invasion of Benin.

She recalled the bloodshed of the Benin Punitive Expedition of the British military and asked: “How does the celebration and fanfare over the opening of the Benin Kingdom Gallery in Boston help to assuage the pains associated with the killings of 1897?” 

His Royal Highness Professor Gregory I. Akenzua of Benin Kingdom (in red), followed by Chief Esosa Eghobamien, The Obobaifo of Benin Kingdom, and Chief Nicholas O. Obaseki, The Aighobahi of Benin Kingdom (both in white) greet the community, in Boston, U.S.

Layiwola, who is of Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos (UNILAG), noted that in spite of “incessant requests made by the Oba of Benin and Prince Edun Akenzua asking for the return of the stolen Benin works, the foreign museums have simply ignored these requests”.

Layiwola stressed that given the history of the Benin collection in the possession of MFA, the opening of the gallery “certainly cannot be a celebration for Nigeria or any Edo person”. 

As complex as the issue of returning artefacts of proven displacement are, a Lagos-based leading collector of fine arts, Prince Yemisi Shylon, traced Nigeria’s inability to achieve the ultimate goal of restitution to lack of passion in the leadership of government. 

Shyllon argued, “we have not been seen as a people who demonstrate any seriousness at protecting our collective patrimony and heritage”.

He cited the example of previous Nigerian government that “signed off artefacts to the French government during the Jacques Chirac-led administration”. He also recalled “a major traditional art piece taken from National Museum, Onikan, Lagos as a gift to the Queen of England during a state visit by one of our ex-head of states”.

Indeed, since the issue of restitution came to fore over two decades ago, little or no efforts seemed to have come from the government.

Hope, however, appeared on the horizon early this year when the NCMM, for the first time, hosted selected foreign museums in Benin. It was a process, which the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Abdallah Yusuf Usman, described as aiming to get vast cultural objects of Nigeria in foreign museums returned to the country. The organisers described the gathering as a follow-up to two earlier meetings on the subject, held in Vienna, Austria in December 2010; as well as Berlin, Germany, October 2011.

Oba Ovomramwen (1888 -1914), on his way to exile in Calabar shortly after he was deposed by the British colonial masters in 1897. 

The forum, which had in attendance directors of selected museums from Europe, produced a document known as Benin Plan of Action. Some of the participants included Dr. Michael Barrett and Dr. Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius representatives of the National Museum of Ethnography of the Museums of World Culture Stockholm, Sweden Dipl. Ethn; Silvia Dolz of Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany; Dr. Peter Junge represented Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany; Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner represented Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria; and Dr. Annette Schmidt of the National Museum of Ethnology of the Netherlands.

While the future looks better with the NCMM s instigated Benin Plans of Action, the vacuum created by the inaction of the past cannot remain unfilled. Such opening, perhaps, in the meantime may just give museums like MFA and other holders of Nigeria’s invaluable cultural objects to keep helping in ‘celebration’ of the people’s arts and culture.

“Under the current ambience, one cannot blame MFA who appear to appreciate the value of these works better,” Shyllon said.

He argued that if the “inheritors of these great works of art are being lackadaisical about preservation; not pursuing policies, strategies and programs to protect, appreciate and promote the works, one is forced at times to wonder whether it is not better to instead leave MFA to help protect the works from neglect, eventual, loss and destruction by us as a people and nation”.

After news on MFA’s possession of the artefacts broke last year, the Oba of Benin responded through a member of the Benin Royal house, Chief Irabor Frank, who stated via email: “The Oba of Benin had said at many forums that the looting of the Benin palace by the British government in 1897 was premeditated. The Oba had made his demand very clear that the stolen Benin artefacts should be returned.”

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