Sunday 29 July 2018

Proposed loaning of looted-Benin bronzes to Nigeria may dump five-year-old restitution plans

Carved ivory mask-shaped pendant, inlaid with iron and bronze depicting Idia, mother of Oba Esigie who ruled in the sixteenth century. Pic: British Museum.

Exhibitions on loans, of controversial cultural objects, particularly of looted-Benin bronzes, are not new. Some foreign museum holders of Benin artefacts had in the past years, for example, collaborated with Nigerian government and showed such artefacts on tour exhibitions in Europe and the U.S.

However, a new twist has surfaced in the past few weeks. This time, the bronzes have been proposed as temporary and permanent loan exhibitions for Nigerian space, specifically, Benin, Edo State. Whoever authored the idea of loaning looted-Benin bronzes to Nigeria appeared to have added a more contentious, perhaps complex,  approach to the recurring restitution and repatriation issues. For decades, Federal Government and the Benin Royal family have led agitations for return of looted-Benin cultural works of art, some of which include the iconic 'Iyoba' (queen mother) masks, among others.

Apart from lack of information on the modalities of working out the international relations aspects, which include trusts and understanding, the proposed loan exhibition appears to have created a fresh start in restitution efforts, leaving the gains of the past vulnerable to the trash can. Recall that the Nigerian Federal Governmennt had, about five years ago, hosted international conference on restitution with European museum managers and directors in

But the current effort, said to have involved Edo State Government casts questions of relevance on what is known as Benin Plans of Action. The documents emerged in February 2013 when Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) converged leaders of select museums from across Europe for a meeting in Benin. Specifically, the gathering, which focused on Benin bronzes, coincidentally held on February 19, the same date the British colonial army invaded Benin in 1897. 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.

Few weeks ago, reports about a proposed-loaning of Benin bronzes were in the foreign press. While details of those behind the initiative and other informations were still not very clear, it seemed the NCMM, strangely, was unaware of such plans. A request sent to NCMM for its response to the proposed loan exhibition was not answered as at press time. But unofficial source said the NCMM was still unable to trace the origin of the reported proposed loan-exhibition.

The Independent newspaper, U.K has reported that Nigeria might be willing to let Britain return the bronzes 'on just a loan' arrangement. The newspaper, like many others that carried the reports said Mr Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State has revealed that European museum officials have floated the idea of returning the bronzes on loan.
 “Whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are,”  the reports quoted Obaseki. “We would be open to such conversations.”

Given the nation-state structure of Nigeria under which modern Benin exists, as well as the centralised management of the country's cultural objects, it is strange that NCMM seemed left out of the supposedly Edo State dialogue with the foreign museums. Statutorily, the NCMM, according to the law that created the FG agency, as amended in 2004, has the responsibility to secure and manage cultural objects of Nigerian origin.

While an official statement from NCMM was not available as at press time, a director at the government agency who spoke anonymously argued that the 'Benin Plans of Action' document remains the pedestal on which full restitution of the artefacts can be achieved. She said NCMM was not aware of any plans by anybody to loan the bronzes for exhibition in Nigeria.

The bronzes being proposed as loans are among several hundreds of pieces, including ivory pendants lost to the British invasion of Benin Kingdom in 1897. Currently, the artefacts are housed in various museums across Europe and the U.S.

In 2008, NCMM, in collaboration with select museums from U.S and Europe had organised joint exhibitions abroad. Similar exhibitions and collaborations are part of the 'Benin Plans of Action'.

Prof Peju Layiwola of the Creative Arts Department, University of Lagos described the proposed loan exhibitions for Benin as inappropriate. "This is not an acceptable plan by all standards," Layiwola who has done extensive academic works on Benin cultural objects argued.

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

Highlights of the Benin Plan of Action document include  “developing a data bank by the collaborating institutions on Benin art collections in their holdings in form of a digital archive of electronic and hard copies; all collaborating institutions upon request shall have right of producing free of charge photographs of Benin art objects in the collection of collaborating institutions particularly for scholarly purposes; staff of the collaborating institutions shall have access to Benin Collections in their holdings in accordance with the existing procedures of the institutions; the NCMM shall improve the university education of its staff working on the collections and on this basis collaborating institutions will assist in securing support for internship and scholarship for postgraduate studies on the Benin collections.”

Also included in the seven-points Benin Plan of Action are measures to encourage collaborating institutions in assisting “with expertise in the establishment of a conservation laboratory in Nigeria; collaborating institutions shall assist the NCMM in developing its library and archive facilities; NCMM and collaborating museums shall create an enabling environment for an increased exchange of touring/travelling exhibitions for the Benin art objects and other art traditions where the European and Nigerian museum experts will work together in the planning and execution of such exhibitions.” It added: “that these individual steps are part of the dialogue which goal is to lead to the display of the objects in Nigeria.” And more importantly, the Benin Plan of Action will revisit the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its next agenda. Indeed, one of the major impediments in repartriation of controversial cultural objects across the world is the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It's inability to cover all pre-convention disputes has been the cover for illegitimate holders of most stolen artefacts across the world.
However, the Benin Plans of Action, according to NCMM then, was basically to build capacity for Nigerian museums to pave way for smooth restitution in the future.
 Whatever gains the NCMM may have made so far are either too late or not enough, so said a lawyer and prominent art collector, Prince Yemisi Shyllon. "The NCMM, by the 2004 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria is empowered extensively to conserve and preserve  our heritage of antiquities, traditional objects of art, archeological objects , etc etc and prohibits you and I from holding them", Shyllon stated in his response to the restitutition crisis. He noted that "the bronze pieces being referred to here, are covered under that law" despite being looted in retrospection.

And as regards general and adequate management of Nigeria's cultural objects, Shyllon  blamed some of the past Director-Generals of NCMM who he described as too religious in non-African native faiths that "abhor dealing with such objects". He lamented that the leadership of Nigerian museum authority over the decades "see them (museums) as dens of demonic objects and not representations of our creative past and edifices of our contribution to world body of cultures and civilization".
 - Tajudeen Sowole.

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