June 22, 2009

Spotlight on stolen Benin artefacts

Posted at 1:13 pm in Similar cases

Artefacts lost from Benin in 1897 continue to be a source of controversy today. They were removed from the country during a massacre to suppress a local uprising, yet now they sit in museums around the world who refuse to fuly acknowledgej the original ownership of these pieces.

The Guardian, Nigeria

Friday, June 19, 2009
Peju Layiwola’s 1897.com: Refreshing spotlight on stolen Benin artifacts
By Mufu Onifade

THE university don/artist, Dr. (Mrs.) Peju Layiwola is angry. The pent up anger has built up for years. But she is now ready to pour out the venom. And the cause she is championing appears genuine. Every artistically enlightened Nigerian – nay African – should be agitated by the continued western pillage of artifacts from Africa. Peju is angry and the only medium of expression at her disposal is art. This, at least, is an undercurrent that runs through some of her recent works already earmarked for a solo effort entitled 1897.com. The show focuses on European imperialism in Africa, with particular reference to Benin at the turn of the 19th century. Apart from the books of history, Ola Rotimi captures the pitiable stories of helpless Benin in the hands of ruthless British soldiers in a tragic epic, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. Although, many Benin indigenes did not agree with Rotimi’s version of the story, which flies on the wings of dramaturgy rather than historical accuracy, Ahmed Yerima was commissioned in 1997 to re-write a more appealing version, which he titled Oba Ovonramwen. At least, the two plays agree on the spate of tragedy and injustice unleashed on Benin.

The exhibition is slated for Museum of the Institute of African Studies, (University of Ibadan) in October and will later surface in Lagos in November. In 2003, a successful experiment at the Goethe Institut, Lagos, featured the works of Peju and her mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu. They are both known for their achievement in the art of bronze casting. The 2003 joint show titled Of Bronzes and Prints: A Mother/Daughter Perspective was an exhibition of finesse and excellence in artistic production spearheaded by female artists who successfully ignored being assessed based on their gender, but quality output. The show was a launching pad for Peju who has since displayed her dexterity in other sculptural media. However, intellectual component of 1897.com will be articulated at an accompanying conference deliberately planned to address the issue of restitution. The Centre will support the twin-event for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC).

But what informs this strong articulation of thoughts and feelings? Peju is of the opinion that 1897.com “will project art as a means of recalling history in a way that is fresh and creative”. A Yoruba by origin and a granddaughter of Oba Akenzua II of Benin (1933-1978), she also insists that time is indeed ripe for “questioning a number of issues and to re-contextualise the discourse”.

Is Peju’s biological link responsible for the conceptualisation of the project? She responds in the affirmative, emphasising the truth of her birth and upbringing in Benin. “Being Yoruba and Benin at the same time reinforce the historical link between the two cultures. In terms of the theme of the project, one cannot but be concerned as a Nigerian about the historical injustices of the past and the continued cultural rape by western powers on Africa. 1897 is a historical marker for Benin and Nigeria as a whole”.

She further replays a record of history revealing the manner in which the British had tactically “brought Benin under its suzerainty as a protectorate in a treaty of protection signed by the Oba in 1892”. This was meant to ensure “free trade to the British and to restrict the sovereignty of the Oba”. According to history, which Peju does not fail to recount, British monopoly over trade had been continually threatened by the Oba. “An emissary set out to see the King of Benin to persuade him to keep to the terms of the agreement. This visit was intended to be a ‘peaceful one’ comprising nine Britons, two hundred and fifty African carriers, carrying boxes containing weapons! The Oba had explicitly sent messages that he was not able to receive any visitors at the time. All this fell on deaf ears. The party marched on to Benin and was ambushed by the king’s men. The British attacked Benin, set the palace ablaze, and desecrated the shrines while thousands of art objects were plundered. The Oba was then exiled to Calabar and senior chiefs hung. The loot was later auctioned in England. Benin art works have been attracting huge prices in the international market. The profits of which are all lost on Nigeria “, Peju concludes.

The title of the exhibition derives from the Internet domain name, .com that means commercial. The British expedition or what is popularly known as Benin Massacre of 1897 is hereby re-presented on the premise of commerce, an economic interest that instigated the sack of Benin. Similar economic interests have continued to feed the interest of foreign museums where Benin art objects are viewed with virtually no cultural connection to the West. The exhibition will therefore present similar art objects of Benin origin. In terms of style, the works combine traditional modes with the contemporary as a fermentation of continuity of a rich heritage. 1897.com is also the title of one of the several installations in a visual representation of the photographic records of the pillage showing the British soldiers sitting in the midst of their loot. Peju says, “These pictures, in British records are a constant reminder of the shameful acquisition and have become images that come to mind in the 21st century”.

Peju’s monumental installation comprises about 1,000 terracotta heads and plaques. It will also reawaken a debate on colonial imperialism of 1884-85, “the period of the Berlin conference when Africa was divided on a map between European colonies”. Her choice of terracotta is for its durable nature and for the fact that it is readily available. Terracotta also as a reference to the enduring traditions of Nigeria in clay beginning with the Nok tradition of 500 BC and recalls the recent debate on terracotta on the red alert list of ICOM now showing at the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva which has received widespread condemnation about the legality of its acquisitions of African terra cotta.

The clamour for the return of Benin works is like the battle of sexes, which Ola Rotimi in his play, Man Talk Woman Talk, says, “did not start in one day and will not end in one day”. In the 1940s, the Federal Government had to buy back some of the Benin pieces to build up the collection of the newly founded National Museum in Benin. In 1977, the Nigerian government asked the British Museum for the pectoral mask depicting Queen Idia, found in the bed chamber of the king, and chosen as the mascot for the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture to be loaned for the event. This request was turned down on the excuse that it was too fragile to travel. A replica was adopted instead. Subsequently, in 2000, Prince Edun Akenzua appeared before the British House of Commons requesting for repatriation of the works. In 2008, in anticipation of the Benin works coming to the exhibition in Chicago, a protest by the Nigerian community was staged. The Oba of Benin, writing in the exhibition catalogue urged the government of Austria “to show humanness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country”.

Very recently, Prince Edun Akenzua wrote directly to the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Up till now, no response has come from the institution. Professor Babawale, the director of CBAAC declared recently that a letter written to the director of the British Museum did not receive the kind of attention sought after. Yet the works continue to adorn foreign museums. Some of these correspondences will form part of the extensive exhibition brochure and essays contributed for Peju’s exhibition, which will be curated by Sola Olorunyomi. Peju Layiwola combines studio practice with research and community service. Her teaching career began in 1991 at the University of Benin. She later joined and rose to the headship of the Visual Arts unit of the University of Lagos and is presently on sabbatical leave with the Theatre Arts Department, University of Ibadan. She has conducted several art workshops and exhibitions in Europe and America.

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