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Nigeria & the looted artefacts from the Benin Empire

More coverage of the proposed auction of an Queen Idia [1] mask, looted from Benin in 1897. The auction is merely a symptom of a much wider ranging problem though – that museums & collectors pay too little attention to the actual provenance of the artefacts that they are acquiring.

AllAfrica [2]

Nigeria: Between the Country’s Artefacts And Western Iconoclasts
Ovwe Medeme
4 January 2011

Lagos — More controversies have arisen on the legality or otherwise of the refusal of the west to return the artefacts looted from the Benin Empire in 1897. Iconographic nature of the artefacts notwithstanding, foreign museums have continued to flaunt and exhibit the mask and other artefacts without recourse to their origin.

Before now, a lot of people have thought that there was only one Idia mask, the one in the British Museum. A few people realised that there was one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and another at the Seattle Art Museum as well as another in the Linden Museum, Stuttgart. There is currently the news of a fifth mask that was to have been sold later this year.

A few weeks back, the news greeted the art world that Sotheby’s, the auction house in London, will be auctioning a re-discovered masterpiece of Benin art, the ivory pendant of Queen-Mother Idia, on February 17, 2011 and other Benin artefacts from the Edo people. The pendant is expected to fetch between £3.5m to £4.5m and possibly more.

The Idia ivory pendant is one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever produced and its ownership has been subject to controversy. The mask as well as all the many Benin bronzes, was looted by the British in the infamous punitive expedition of 1897 when the British invaded Benin, looted thousands of artefacts, burnt Benin City and sent the Oba Ovonramwen, the then king into exile. Since then, the people of Benin and Nigeria have been asking for the return of at least some of the looted artefacts.

The mask and the five other Benin objects will be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey (in 1913 he changed his name to Galway) who was appointed deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891. He remained in Nigeria until 1902 and participated in the British Government’s “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 against Benin City. The faces of the five known pendant masks have been interpreted widely by scholars of Benin art as that of Idia, the first Queen Mother of Benin.

The mask was to have come to auction together with: a highly important carved tusk made with a group of other similarly carved tusks for the altar of an Oba who lived in the 18th century. The imagery presented depicts emblems of power and strength, which are related to the life of the Oba himself. The iconography is specific, and can be seen repeated across many arts forms in Benin, including the well-documented bronze plaques. The collection also include two richly carved ivory armlets which incorporate many of the panoply of motifs used by the artists of the Igbesanmwan, the Royal Guild of ivory carvers.

Also, the collection includes a very rare bronze sculpture of a type historically identified as tusk stands. The twisted and hollowed form of this stand suggests it served the same function as the more familiar bronze commemorative heads, as a stand for a carved ivory tusk on an altar created to honour a former ruler.

The calls for their return notwithstanding, the museums have remained deaf to the cries of the Benin people and often do not even bother to acknowledge receipt of such requests for restitution. This is despite the calls by global bodies like the UNESCO, several international conferences and ICOM on holders of the Benin bronzes to return some to Nigeria. Nobody seems to pay any attention to the pleas of the world organisations.

It will be recalled that the British Museum has arrogantly refused to return to Nigeria, even for a short period, the ivory hip mask of Queen-Mother Idia which had been chosen as symbol for FESTAC 1977 (Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture) and thus obliged the Africans and Nigerians to produce a new version.

The possession, selling and buying of Benin artefacts raises questions as to their legality and legitimacy, in view of their obviously violent and illegitimate removal from Benin, and the arson, destruction and subsequent looting of kingdom for which compensation has not been paid despite the frequent call for such. Kefas Danjuma is an art historian and lecturer with the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ABU), Zaria. He argues that the entire situation is quite unfortunate but insists that the Nigerian government should try to acquire the stolen artefacts through diplomacy or any other available means. In his views, holding on to the artefacts by the British is not an issue of morality but what is obtainable. He throws in a different perspective to the whole saga when he suggests that presently, the artefacts can be seen as spoils of war.

“A lot of damage has been done by the movement of these artefacts away from their habitat. As it is now the objects in contention do not serve any purpose but are regarded as mere artefacts. Back home, the art objects are a part of the soul of the community they belong to. Their importance carries more weight here,” he stressed.

In the face of the world becoming a global village, the art lecturer noted, other countries where similar occurrences abound have succeeded in making exchanges. Nigeria’s case should not be different.

Contrary opinion has it that although Britain invaded Benin City in 1897, it never formally declared war on the city. That way, whatever may have been the rights of victors in wars never applied to the case of Benin. However, prior to the invasion, since 1815 to be precise, it had been accepted by European States that cultural objects of enemies were to be protected in case of military conflict and left intact. There was no provision for carrying away the cultural objects of the enemy. Where this was done, it was against the established norms.

It was never allowed by the laws governing nations on the African continent that one nation could collect wholesale the cultural objects of another nation, whether in peace or at war. Like Danjuma noted, these cultural objects are so intimately connected with deepest religious beliefs and practices of a particular people and could not simply be transferred to another people.

Only recently, one of the authorities in the Nigerian art scene, Peju Layiwola concluded the Benin1897.com, a colloquium exhibition as well as a publication. The Benin1897.com she says is not just her oeuvre of work but a statement and a voice for Nigeria.

She describes the Benin1897.com as a timely work, which in a prophetic manner draws attention to the historical injustice of imperialism in Benin, Nigeria. “Even though we got independence from the British our priced works of art are still kept in Britain and in other parts of the world. I believe that if the arguments and recommendations provided by eminent scholars on the issue of repatriation of cultural artefacts contained within the book edited by myself and Sola Olorunyomi are taken seriously by government then we would be able to address these issues that would continue to recur.”

A daughter of the Benin Palace herself, she says that very clearly the Benin Royal family has been at the forefront of this request. “HRM, the Oba of Benin and HRH, Prince Edun Akenzua, the Enogie of Obazuwa, had made endless requests for their heirloom. Yet, the whole issue is embroiled in a maze of ridiculous theories emanating from the West in order to perpetually keep our artefacts,” she argues.

In Layiwola’s opinion, the now rested Sotheby sale of the 16th century mask for £4.5million by descendants of Gallwey, a man who prepared way for British attack of Benin justifies the .com as in. commercial, a satirical reference to Western exploitation, commodification and commercalisation of Africa’s cultural patrimony.

The Edo State Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Abdul Oroh, also lent his voice to the call for the return of the looted artefacts. The mask was stolen, he said, and it remains a product of crime. “Any attempt to sell it will mean a perpetration of criminal act. They should be returned because they were taken under false pretence.”

Following the hue and cry from the art authorities, concerned and affected Nigerians and even the online community that greeted the attempted sale, Sotheby’s, December 29, 2010 decided to scrap its February sale of a controversial £4.5m mask.

A number of private individuals contacted the auction house last week to complain about the sale of the 16th-century ivory mask, once thought to have belonged to an ancient Nigerian king.

A spokesperson for the auction house said that the artefacts in contention have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors. Protests against the sale emerged on social networking sites last week.