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08.11.2008 Feature Article

Does Collaboration Between Nigerian And European /american Museums Bring Us Closer To Restitution Of Nigeria's Stolen/looted Arts?

Side-blown horn, Benin, Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna.
NOV 8, 2008 FEATURE ARTICLE
Side-blown horn, Benin, Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna.

How many such ivory horns did the British steal in 1897?

As readers may know, many Africans are very suspicious of collaboration with museums and institutions that have shown by their history and practice that they do not care much for the interest and feelings of Nigerians and Africans generally. In the article below by Tajudeen Sowole, a Nigerian art critic raises several issues concerning the cooperation between Nigerian museums and institutions with European/American museums. In particular, he wonders whether the collaboration between the Nigerian institutions and American/European museums in the recent exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from Nigeria has brought us closer to the restitution of the Benin artifacts or whether these objects will remain in Europe under the pretext that they are part of the universal heritage of mankind.

Many of us are very much against the concept of universal heritage if it is limited only to the looted/stolen African and other non-European art. If the concept extends also to the masterpieces of Picasso, Turner, Rembrandt, Matisse etc and other European works then it is fine. Most of the time Europeans develop such concepts to cover the evil deeds of their predecessors and, unfortunately, some African brothers and sisters accept them without much reflection. It is like the so-called world music. Has anybody suggested that German or English music is world music? No. Are they not part of this world? Yes. They wish to keep their independent personalities or characteristics and throw the rest into an undefined pool. Why can African music not remain African music with its specific characteristics? Or are they afraid that one might, after careful examination come to the conclusion that the contribution of African music is tremendous and that much modern music would be unthinkable without the African traditions from Africa, Latin America and the African Diaspora in Europe and the United States of America? The desire to throw African contributions into an undefined pool reflects basically a desire not to recognize our contributions. What the Europeans are telling us Africans is basically this: my breakfast belongs to me but your breakfast belongs to the whole world. I keep mine but I will do everything to get my share of your breakfast!

It is not clear what Nigerians gained in their collaboration in the recent Benin exhibition. We may never know the full story and extent of this collaboration since it appears that the policy of those involved is not to make full disclosure of their arrangements. So far, there has been no official publication report on the exhibition or the events related thereto.

When I first heard that Nigerians would be collaborating in the enterprise, I was skeptical and thought it was an advertiser's ploy to achieve maximum publicity for the event. As we know, this exhibition which started in Vienna, went to Paris, Berlin and ended in Chicago did not go to Nigeria or any where on our Continent. Do the people of Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa not have a need or desire to see what constitutes one of the greatest artistic achievements on our Continent? Do the people of Benin not deserve to see some of their best works that were looted by the British in 1897 and since then have been available only to those lucky to be in Europe and America? Why should one deny to the average African part of African art which is easily available to any American or European? There is surely something wrong in this situation.

If the reader has access to the catalogue of the exhibition (Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin: Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from Nigeria, 2007, Snoeck, Ghent.) she or he should read the introductory note by the King of Benin, Omo N'Oba Erediauwa asking for the return of some of the Benin artifacts: “As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.” Almost immediately after the Oba's note, there is a preface by the directors of the collaborating institutions (without the Nigerians) where this demand is rudely, although indirectly, rejected by the museum directors who suggest we forget the past and look to the future: “History, whether tragic or glorious, lies forever behind us. We stand on its shoulders and direct our gaze to what lies ahead”. We should note the Oba's modest request for “some of the Benin artifacts” bearing in mind that some of the participants in the exhibition and signatories of this infamous preface have a large number of these objects- Ethnology Museum, Berlin 580 and Ethnology Museum, Vienna 167. The Oba was clearly not given the royal treatment. Would the signatories have responded otherwise if the Oba had been a European monarch?

European and American museums seem to have a singular conception of co-operation. Whilst they are keen to secure objects from Nigeria for various exhibitions, they do not find it necessary, for instance, to reveal to Nigerians how many Nigerian cultural objects they have in their museums. As far as I know, none of these museums has provided the Nigerians with exact information about the number of Benin objects they are now holding. The Nigerian Minister for Culture, Prince A.Kayode has requested such an inventory during the opening of the exhibition in Berlin, February 2008. Is it really asking for too much, in our days, to ask for a list with photos and short descriptions of the Benin objects each museum possesses? Should this not be taken for granted in co-operation between African and European/Western museums?

If the European/American museums are not even ready to tell us the number of the African objects they have, can we rely on them to help us in securing accurate knowledge and information to produce books for our youth in order that they may continue the cultural traditions of their grand fathers since many of their fathers were deprived of such possibilities? Efforts by ICOM (International Council on Museums) and other instances to persuade the rich museums about sharing knowledge have, as far as I can tell, not been very successful. We lost so much under colonial rule that often we do not know where these objects are and consequently knowledge and beliefs associated with these objects are also lost.

The reader might also find it useful to consider the success of Dr.Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities in reclaiming Egypt's looted/stolen artefacts. Even this week, Switzerland returned 1000 objects to Egypt and 4,400 objects (four thousand four hundred) to Italy. Has anything been returned to Nigeria? We have the impression that disrespect for Nigerians and Africans generally, except Egyptians, has gone on for so long that it is almost becoming a binding tradition for most European and American museums. The recent declaration by the Chicago museums on their willingness to consider requests for restitution has been mainly due to the very intense criticisms they have been subjected to and even that has not resulted in any concrete measure. A request has been sent from Benin in early September 2008 but so far there has been no response from the Chicago museums.

It beats imagination how many Africans refuse to take notice of the long history of our relations with Europe, since the 15th Century and do not draw some obvious conclusions. This encourages the continuation of a tradition of disrespect and contempt that is seen in many acts and gestures by Europeans and Americans. Will the recent change in American leadership bring any change since the new President is an American with African roots? Obama's National Arts Policy Committee includes personalities with knowledge and experience in the arts (www.BarackObama.com). They appreciate the importance of the arts in nourishing and encouraging creativity in a society. They surely understand the need of the African countries to encourage creativity in the education of citizens. Our art icons are sorely needed. They will understand that the change that is required in American policies includes American positions in the international arts trade and relations. American museums must also embrace the American ideals of equality, liberty, self-determination and self-definition. They will recognize that these freedoms must apply to Africans as well if they are to realize their full potentials. Hi-jacking the artistic icons of African societies are surely not calculated to further the artistic development on the continent of Obama's father.

Kwame Opoku, 8 November, 2008

The Guardian, Tuesday, October 28, 2008.
How Benin monarch, govt rekindled campaign on stolen artefacts

By Tajudeen Sowole

AS the European and American tour of exhibitions of stolen cultural objects of Benin origin came to a close in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. few weeks ago, the participation of Nigeria in the one-year and four months tour has continued to generate mixed reaction in the visual art circle.

Also, the exhibition, indirectly, led to the birth of the most controversial book on displaced cultural objects in recent times, Who Owns Antiquities? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage, written by the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Cuno. The tour exhibition berthed at the institute where it was on for over two months.

Just like a certain section of the Western press sympathetic to the Jewish cause attempted, but failed in 2002, to change what was globally accepted as occupied territory to an unpopular idea 'disputed territory', Cuno's book has re-opened a concept known as 'universal heritage' instead of looted cultural objects.

When the exhibition, Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria opened at the Institute last July, the Benin monarch sent a powerful delegation to be part of activities marking the concluding part of the tour. Earlier, in 2007, when the event took off in Vienna, Austria, similar delegation was sent by the monarch to be part of the exhibition.

After Austria, came Paris, France in October 2007 through January 2008; and Berlin, Germany, February 2008 to June 2008, where the federal government delegation was led by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode.

Out of the over three hundred exhibits of Benin origin involved in the tour, about 35 were said to have been on loan to the organisers from the collective pool of the Palace of Benin, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, NCMM and Ebohon Gallery, Benin.

Sources at the closing ceremony in Chicago said the only lecture at the occasion was delivered by Dr. Peju Layiwola of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Nigeria, who also contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition. The curator of African Art at the Institute, Kathleen Bickford Berzork explained that Layiwola was selected to give the lecture because "she is a rare scholar and artist whose scholarship is recognized internationally."

On her return from Chicago, Layiwola said her paper titled Edo Art and the Reconstruction of Memory showed in many ways how the Edo artists have reconstructed the British Punitive Expedition, which took place in 1897, through both the visual and the performing arts, among other issues.

Over the years, both the Federal Government of Nigeria, and the Benin monarch, at separate times, had requested for the return of these cultural objects.

At the opening of the event in Vienna, the leader of Benin delegation, Edun Agharese Akenzua, while addressing the gathering acknowledged the request of the organisers to have the monarch lend some antiquities; write introductory notes to the catalogue and permit members of the royal family to attend the show. Akenzua, however warned: "But it should be said at once that the royal gesture should not be mistaken for the king's approval or legitimization of the forceful removal of the items from his palace more than 100 years ago. The accent is to keep his demand for the reparation of these Benin cultural property on World conscience"

At the Berlin show, Kayode made an appeal. He said: "I wish to appeal to the conscience of all as the 'Berlin Plea Of Return Of Nigeria's Cultural Objects' that while Nigeria prepares itself and perhaps Africa prepares an official request for the return of its stolen artifacts, those hearts that are touched by that reckless act of colonization should on their own return all or part of the objects."

Excerpt from the preface of the catalogue for the exhibition written by the Oba of Benin went thus: "We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically, with our past."

Similarly, Akenzua's address at the closing of the Chicago event few weeks ago and made available on return to Nigeria stressed the position of the monarch. He said: "It is our hope that the authorities in Chicago will keep going this momentum of understanding and magnanimity among the international community to repatriate these looted works. We understand that the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, Chicago have expressed willingness and readiness to consider requests for the repatriation or restitution of these works.

"We trust that all those who are desirous of correcting the rape on the colonised people of the world will support the king of Benin in the demand to have the cultural property of the people returned as they supported the Italians, Ethiopians, Greece, Egypt, Austria, Namibia etc in their battle to have theirs returned to them."

A letter of request, it was gathered, has been delivered to the director of the institute, Cuno and the trustees of the museum.

As rightly pointed out by Akenzua at the Chicago event, some countries recently had their antiquities returned. But there is something about the Nigeria's case that appeared to be generating more interests across the world. Perhaps it is the only case in Africa to have attracted the kind of exhibition that was just concluded in Chicago.

With the involvement of the federal government and the Benin monarch, though as part of efforts to have the artifacts returned, chances of falling into the traps being set by the unpopular concept of universal heritage cannot be ruled out.

Cuno in his controversial book argues: "Antiquities are the cultural property of all humankind, evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders."

According to Cuno, any modern nation state's claim to ownership of ancient cultural objects could be challenged.

The author is not alone in the effort to rewrite history. In fact, he shares similar view with a gathering of the world's biggest museums, known as Bizot Group of which the Art Institute of Chicago is a member.

In 2002, the group consisting of 20 directors of museum across Europe and America took a position that appeared like a warming up towards a redefinition of who owns what. Under the forum known as Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, certain artifacts, they argued, should be seen as universally owned. They stated: "We should, however, recognize that objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, reflective of that earlier era. The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones.

"Over time, objects so acquired-whether by purchase, gift, or partage-have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them. Today, we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work's original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source."

In his response to Cuno's book and the issue of universal heritage, renowned scholar on African culture, Professor Perkins Foss of Yale University, U.S., during a chat with his guest while on a short visit to Nigeria few weeks ago said, "some of Cuno's position could be argued against." The author, Foss added, has made some points as well.

Foss who said he was at the Vienna show recalled that he told Akenzua then that the argument over who owns what would change if Nigeria has the right museums to receive these objects.

On the participation of Nigeria, particularly the Benin monarch, Foss noted that it was a good development. His words: "In Vienna there was serious discussion about ownership. To me the real good thing is that they were there, and also agreed to support the exhibition. They could have said, 'no, we would not come to Vienna', and that would have been regrettable."

While presenting the loaned exhibits of the just concluded tour to the media recently, Kayode stressed the nation's resolve to be steadfast in persuasiveness on the issue of restitution and collaboration, anywhere in the world to project the cultural heritage of the nation.

And for the Bizot Group, the minister wished they emulate Nigeria when he added that, "ours is not a universal museum that takes and does not give."

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2008

The author has 253 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwameOpoku

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