Tuesday 2 August 2016

Brexit: How Hope May Rise For Nigeria's Looted Artefacts

By Tajudeen Sowole
If the two centuries of ownership crisis between United Kingdom and Greece, over controversial Parthenon Marbles, is resolved as a result of Brexit, hopes may appear on the horizon for return of artefacts of Nigerian origin incarcerated in the British Museum, London. Currently, what has been described as "a cross party group" of British MPs has reopened bid to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece as part of effort to keep healthy relationship with Athens after Brexit.
Bronze Head of Queen Idia, Benin Sixteenth century AD, on display at British Museum, London.

 Also known as the Elgin Marbles, the objects, which include parts of sculptures and frieze from 2,500 years old remnant of ancient master pieces became subject of ownership tussle after the British government acquired them 200 years ago. The sculptures were originally removed from Parthenon, an ancient edifice in Athens by the seventh Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who was suspected to have 'stolen' the pieces from Greece during Ottoman Empire rule. But the then British Parliament disagreed that the marble pieces were illegitimately acquired.

And that the British Government, in 1816, used an Act of Parliament to officially take ownership of the controversial sculptures, perhaps, made it irreversible nearly 200 years after, despite Greece's consistent request for the return of the sculptures.

In the last few years, ironically, there have been louder voices, among Britons, for the return and  reunification of the marbles with their other parts in Athens. However, the legality of acquisition and return remained an issue, which the promoters of reunification seemed not to provide an answer.

But after Brexit, those who favoured return are back with argument that Britain needs as many as good relationship with individual EU countries as possible. So, the Parthenon marbles come as trading chips in exchange for Greces's healthy relationship with the U.K.

 Watchers of the unfolding battle for morality and ego have argued that should British MPs okayed the return of the controversial Parthenon marbles, the revered British Museum could just be on its way in losing centuries of pride and value as a 'universal' house of culture; more countries are going to be emboldened to mount pressures on U.K for return of their artefacts that have been on display inside the British Museum for centuries or decades. Among the leading spaces in the world, housing the most diverse artefacts across cultures - ancient and modern - is the British Museum. Among the iconic pieces in the British Museum are Idia mask, in pendant and bronze head, from ancient Benin Kingdom origin.

 A parliament member, Mark Williams joined by 11 other MPs had on July 11, 2016 presented a bill on the return of Parthenon Marbles. “This Bill proposes that the Parliament should annul what it did 200 years ago…," Williams stated. He argued that "It’s time we engaged in a gracious act," to right two centuries of wrong.

 In fact, the agitation already has a volunteer group. Andrew George, chair of the British Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, added his voice. “If we are about to negotiate a decent trade deal with our European friends, the last thing we want to do is to show the kind of raspberries and two-fingers that [Nigel] Farage was displaying in the European Parliament the other day,” George told a British newspaper,  Independent. “And there could be no better demonstration of that generosity and graciousness than to do what would be the right thing by the Greeks.”

In 1897, unknown numbers of sculptures and other art pieces of Benin origin - now Edo State in Nigerian nation state - were looted by British security forces during the invasion of the West African town, which got the Oba Ovonramwen (1888-1897) of Benin sacked. Much of the looted sculptures, according to records, were sold at auctions in London, and went into private hands as well as German and Austrian buyers. However, among the most popular of the artefacts are the Idia head bronze and mask pendant, depicting Benin Queen Mother (Iyoba), and currently on display in the British Museum. Another mask pendant - slightly damaged - is also at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S.

 Ahead of FESTAC in 1977, Nigeria made unsuccessful bid to get the Idia head from British Museum. If MP Williams and his co-agitators succeed in getting the U.K to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, could Nigeria take the opportunity and get Idia head and pendant back to the country, over 115 years after they were looted? A United Nations Educational, Scientitic and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) consultant on intellectual property,  Prof Folarin Shyllon, during a chat few days ago, doubted Nigeria's preparadness to take such an advantage should the U.K return the Parthenon Marbles. Shyllon, a former Vice Chairman of one of the sub-committees of UNESCO noted that apart from the request made by Nigeria towards the FESTAC 1977 event, the country has not initiated any other attempt. "The problem is that our ministry of culture has not been doing enough as there was no government-to-government moves with the U.K concerning the return of the artefacts, after the failed-attempt in 1977." Shyllon stressed that apart from the British Museum, there are other holders across Europe and in the U.S, that have works of Nigerian origin of which the country never made formal request. His advice: "The Ministry of Information and Culture should immediately commence a process for formal request of these artefacts," he stated.
Some parts of the Parthenin Marbles in the British Museum, UK.

 Whatever the texture of Nigeria's request will be, a legal option is unlikely to achieve any result. For example,  a non-Governmental group Athenians Association, which took the case over Parthenon Marbles to European Court of Human Rights returned empty handed. The EU courts ruled that the group's case was inadmissable given the fact that the European convention on human right lacks retrospection power; it came into existence in 1953 after the marbles were already removed by Elgin.

 In 2013, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) hosted meeting with the authorities of the  foreign museum in Benin. The aim was to start a non-confrontational process of persuasive means of repatriation.  In attendance were 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.

 Led by the Directir-General, NCMM, Mallam Abdallah Yusuf Usman, the delegates also invluded Rosemary Bodam, Peter Odeh, representative of Ngeria Babatunde Adebiyi and Shyllon; and representatives of the Benin monarch, Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua (Enogie of Obazuwa) and Chief Stanley Obamwonyi (Esere of Benin). 

Among other artefacts of Nigerian origin illegitimately acquired across the world include Nok Terracotta in Louvre, Paris, France, and several other Benin bronzes and ivories said to have been looted during the 1897 invasion of the old Benin Kingdom by the British soldiers, but currently housed in Vienna, Austria, U.S and German museums.

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