Sun, 16 Jan 2011 Feature Article

Excellence And Erudition: Ekpo Eyo's Masterpieces Of Nigerian Art

Salt cellar, looted in the 1897 Punitive Expedition, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.Salt cellar, looted in the 1897 Punitive Expedition, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

For many of us, the name Ekpo Eyo has come to stand for excellence and erudition. The first Director-General of the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments, has produced several articles and books of the highest quality on Nigerian art, and his recent book, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, (2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja) is no exception. It is a masterpiece in its own right.

After an introduction to Nigerian art that gives the historical background of the arts and archaeological art, the introduction deals with accounts of discoveries and examines issues in the preservation and conserving of Nigerian cultural heritage. I enjoyed thoroughly Eyo's discussion on what art is and the early Western views of African art as well as the topic of primitivism, tribality and universalism:

“What is a work of art and how does one know when seeing one? There are certain concepts in the world that are difficult to define and art is certainly one of them. This is clear from the study of the global history of art because what may be regarded as art in one society may not be so regarded in another. Moreover, a particular definition of art may not be universally accepted even within the same community or scholarly field or local art scene.” (p.13) What distinguishes a work of art from a merely functional object is “The special attention to character and the lavishing of imagination on individual artworks, rather than mass produced items, was what became known as aesthetics - which was ill defined - but nonetheless was seized upon by connoisseurs of Western art as the criterion for good art.”(p.13).

Veranda post, equestrian figure, carved by Areogun of Osi-Ilorin National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria. Veranda post, equestrian figure, carved by Areogun of Osi-Ilorin National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria.

Aesthetics then distinguishes artworks from other utilitarian objects. The failure to understand this fact explains why it took so long, until 20th century for many in the West to accept African art as art. Even today, in the 21st century, there is still a need to persuade many that African art addresses aesthetic concerns. Ekpo points out that following Darwin's theory of evolution, human societies were classified into three stages: the age of savagery, the age of barbarism, and the age of civilization. The Europeans who made this classification, put ancient Greeks and Romans into the age of civilization but all non-Western people were thrown to the bottom of the scale: “It is ironic that ancient Egypt was considered a precursor to Western civilization and, therefore not really “African” despite the simple fact that it actually developed in Africa”.(p.15).

Eyo recalls that the word “civilization” is of relatively recent usage and that Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), originator of the famous Dictionary of the English Language declined in 1772 to include “civilization” in this work. The word came into general use by the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of nationalism in Europe and North America. From then on the world was divided by the Europeans into the “civilized” and the “savage.” Those from the West were civilized and those from the rest of the world were savages. Eyo states that: “It became the duty of anthropologists, travellers, explorers and missionaries to spread these ideas wherever they went, and to redeem the God forsaken people they encountered.” (p.16)

Figure of a seated male. One of the looted Nok terracotta bought by the French, now in the Muse du Quai Branly, Paris, France, with Nigerian post factum consent. Figure of a seated male. One of the looted Nok terracotta bought by the French, now in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France, with Nigerian post factum consent.

The dichotomy between “civilized” and “savage” was as may be expected, applied in the field of art. Europeans classified all-non Western art as “primitive” because in their view true art could only be made by Western peoples. Explorers who came to Africa took home African works out of curiosity to show to their people that they had been to the land of the primitive people. The missionaries gathered African objects to deprive Africans of what they considered to be the focus of their worship and show Europeans that these were idols. Colonial administrators took artefacts as proof of the backwardness of people whom they had to bring civilization. The anthropologists considered African objects as ethnographic objects of primitive people. None of the above-mentioned groups of European regarded the African objects as works of art. One anthropologist cited by Eyo, Leonhard Adam, stated that “Actually they are not so much works of art as failed attempts to produce on.”(p. 16) The European prejudice about African art was so engrained that as late as 1959, the famous art historian Ernst Gombrich asked an American professor “Is there African art?” When told that there exists African art, Gombrich objected : To be sure there are those who speak of “ primitive art although I do not find it proper to use the term “art” where one is referring to simple shapes used for the building up of different representation. (p.17)” Gombrich, who had seen the exhibition Treasures of Ancient Nigeria Legacy of 2,000 Years,co-curated by Ekpo Eyo, had been “Overwhelmed” by Ife and Benin bronzes. But when asked whether these works qualified as works of art, said “yes” but then asked his interlocutor, “Do you really believe that the Ife and Benin pieces were the work of Africans?” (p.18)

William Fagg who had visited Nigeria several times did not like the term “primitive” and replaced it by the term “tribal”. He identified specific art works with specific tribes and declared that what is not tribal is not African. As may be expected, Ekpo Eyo, objects equally to the term “tribal “ as misleading since it denies statehood to well organized states such as those of the Asante, the Yoruba, the Edo, the Kongo and the Kuba and suggest that there had been no cultural exchanges among African societies and influences from one society to the other. It also creates the impression that there is a specific style for a specific people. Eyo discusses Nok culture and expresses regret that “they have been looted over time to supply the international market. Properly excavated, such pieces might have shed valuable light on Nok culture.” (p.23) The author is very polite and does not mention that some of the looted Nok pieces ended up in Paris, Musée de quai Branly as his catalogue of works clearly show.

Face mask with elaborate hairdo, National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria. Face mask with elaborate hairdo, National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria.

Eyo recounts the visit of Frobenius to Ife and the disappearance of the Olokun head when Frobenius arrived in Ife in 1910, thinking he was discovering artefacts from a lost Greek people. He bribed the people at Ife with money and alcohol. When he saw the sculpture, Olokun he was overwhelmed, seeing in the Olokun, “a head of marvellous beauty, wonderfully cast in antique bronze, true to life, encrusted with patina of glorious dark green”. However when he turned around and saw the local people, his European prejudice seems to have overcome his admiration of beauty and declared that he was “moved to melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerates and feeble minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much classic loveliness.” Evidently the notion of some of our Western contemporaries that they have a right and duty to guard and keep African artefacts has a long ancestry.

The British colonial administrators were alarmed by the activities of the German anthropologist and had to go to Ife to prevent the adventurer from taking the Olokun head to Germany. He nevertheless went away with seven sculptures that are now in the Ethnologisches Museum (formerly Völkerkunde Museum) in Berlin and in the Frobenius-Institut in Frankfurt. When Frobenius left Ife, it was later discovered in 1948 that the Olokun he did not take away was a replica of the original. Nobody seems to know where the original is. It would have been interesting to hear from Eyo whether the Nigerian authorities have contacted the two institutions in Germany and what had been the response. When valuable objects disappear, we must make efforts to find them especially at the places we have reason to believe they may be found.

The author mentions that the sculptures taken away by Frobenius did not convince Europeans that Africans could produce works of art equal to those of Europeans. That had to wait until 1938 when a number of bronzes were discovered in Ife.

Figure of a seated male. One of the looted Nok terracotta bought by the French, Now in the Muse du Quai Branly, Paris, France, with Nigerian post factum consent Figure of a seated male. One of the looted Nok terracotta bought by the French, Now in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France, with Nigerian post factum consent


Eyo ends his introduction to Nigerian art with a very useful section on Conserving and Showcasing Nigeria's Heritage. The author expresses Nigeria's appreciation for the contributions made by two colonial officials, Mr. Kenneth Murray, art teacher and Surveyor of Antiquities in 1943 and also to Mr. Bernard Fagg, first Government archaeologist. Both laid solid foundations for the Antiquities Service, now called the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. They also initiated standards for museum buildings and for laws forbidding illegal export of artefacts from Nigeria.

Writing about the establishment of museums at various places in Nigeria, Eyo states: “And in Benin, where some of the famous Benin bronzes left after the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 are exhibited. However most of the items now on display were brought back to the country as a result of open sales and private negotiations after Nigeria's independence in 1960. Sadly, some pieces on display today in the museum are replicas of the original Benin pieces taken away during the Punitive Expedition and sold in England to defray the costs of the expedition. Appeals were made by Nigeria during some UNESCO (United Nations Scientific, Cultural and Educational Organization) conferences for the return of some…only some! of the looted pieces, but these appeals yielded not a single response” (p.32)

We may add that since Nigeria's independence 51 years ago, various Nigerian Governments and Parliaments as well as the Benin Royal Family have requested the return of some of the looted Benin bronzes but with no effect. Indeed, some of addressees of such pleas do not even have the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of the request and go around proclaiming that there has never been a request for the return of these artefacts. Far from thinking about restitution to the rightful owners, it seems many of the present illegal holders are more interested in selling the blood artefacts for profit. A good example is the recent attempt to auction a hip mask of Queen-Mother Idea at Sotheby's. The British Museum has in the past sold Benin bronzes even to the Nigerian Government.

Eyo divides the catalogue of works which constitutes the bulk of the book into Historical Arts and Living Arts.

Historical Arts include Nok terracottas, Baker (Eagan) monoliths, Lower Niger bronzes, Calibre terracotta's, Igbo-Kudu bronzes, If terracotta's and bronzes, Benin bronzes and ivories.

Face mask National Museum , Lagos,Nigeria. Face mask National Museum , Lagos,Nigeria.

Living Arts comprise works from Western Nigeria (Yoruba), Northern Nigeria (Igala, Bass-Nge, Mama, Afo, Mambila, Chamba, MUmuye, Jukin, Tiv, Idoma) Southeastern Nigeria (Cross River Basin-Mbembe, Ejagham, Bokyi), Oron, Ibibio), Southcentral Nigeria - Igbo

Among the historical arts are shown pieces of Nok sculptures including the three famous looted pieces, now in Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, which the French bought knowing they had been looted. This led to difficulties with ICOM (International Council of Museums) since they were on the ICOM Red List of items that should never be taken out of Nigeria. http://archives.icom. The matter was finally settled through an arrangement between Nigeria and France that seemed very curious and unsatisfactory from the point of view of cultural preservation.

One of a pair of leopard figures, now in the Royal Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force sent a pair of leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City. One of a pair of leopard figures, now in the Royal Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force sent a pair of leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City.

In reviewing this excellent work by Ekpo Eyo, we could not help noticing that out of the 255 masterpieces shown in the book, at least 95 are outside Nigeria. That is almost two-fifths of Nigeria's best artistic objects, as estimated by Nigeria's foremost archaeologist and first Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, are not in the country. These Nigerian masterpieces are in USA and in Europe.

Many of the objects are in museums but a large number of these masterpieces are in private collections, some being named and others not. In some cases, the countries where they are located are mentioned but others not. Presumably some owners did not want their names and locations to be revealed, perhaps for security reasons or in order to avoid any questions regarding the provenance of the works. It is well-known that Nigerian artefacts have been subjected to intensive plundering and theft. What are the implications of the above for the students of art in Nigeria and for the Nigerian people as a whole?

Nigerians are deprived of the opportunity to see some of the major artistic works of their predecessors and thus may not have the usual knowledge one could expect from Nigerians about their own art. The development of Nigerian art is equally denied the benefit of an important part of the national heritage. How do art students study and improve their skills? Mostly by looking at what has been produced by previous generations. But in this case a large part of that corpus is simply not there. Ironically, these objects are available to the citizens of USA, France, Switzerland and Germany. How would, the Germans, for example, feel if two-fifths of their artistic masterpieces were in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa? Would German art students be happy to go all the way to Nigeria to see works of Albrecht Dürer?

It should also be recalled that we are living in a period where the Western countries have made it extremely difficult for Africans, especially Nigerians, to enter their territories. Indeed, the Europeans have established a military force, Frontex the main objective of which is to prevent Africans from entering Europe, even if this is not officially admitted. It is difficult to imagine that any Western State would grant visa to any Nigerian who seeks to enter their territory with the main aim of seeing the Nigerian masterpieces. So when will Nigerians be able to see those Nigerian masterpieces that the average Westerner can see without any difficulty in the museums of the West? Those who are busy preaching the value and importance of the so-called “universal museum” may be able to explain the universal nature of museums where the majority of humankind is excluded through visa requirements and other factors?

Ancestor figure, Muse du Quai Branly, Paris, France. Ancestor figure, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France.

Whilst other countries are displaying and boasting of their famous collections of Nigerian art in order to attract tourists to their museums, Nigeria itself cannot even do that with major Nigerian artistic works which are outside the country. Many Westerners praise African arts but keep our cultural artefacts in their museums and refuse to return any. Is our deprivation then the price for those praises?

The Nigerian authorities may wish to explain to their own people why that these masterpieces of Nigerian art are not in Nigeria and what steps have been taken since Independence to recover some of them. Western museums and scholars may also wish to consider whether such a situation is healthy, just. and normal. They cannot pretend not to know about this situation nor can they pretend to be more or less neutral in so far as they appear to be supporting the existing situation. True lovers of art cannot work for the preservation of art and artistic heritage at home but be indifferent to looting, and plunder of the artistic heritage of others.

One leaves the excellent book of Ekpo Eyo with a certain anger and sadness. Anger that the first Director-General of the Nigerian Commission for Museums

had to ask the permission of the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, Musée du Quai Branly and others for permission to use photos of Nigerian masterpieces mostly acquired under dubious or contested circumstances in order to produce this major work. It is also sad that after some 50 years of Independence, Nigeria is still dependent on Western museums, including museums of the former colonial power in order to be able to serve the Nigerian people. But how long will these masterpieces remain in captivity and exile?

If ever there were any doubts about the excellent quality and the extraordinary

diversity of Nigerian art, The Masterpieces should put all doubts to rest. The Nigerian authorities may wish to consider an abridged version of this wonderful book for the use of the Nigerian youth.

Bowl with figures, National Museum for African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA. Bowl with figures, National Museum for African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA. 

Kwame Opoku, 15 January 2011.

Those interested in knowing where these masterpieces are may consult the following list compiled from indications in Masterpieces of Nigerian Art. We mention here only those masterpieces mentioned in the book under review. There are many other excellent pieces of Nigerian art in Western museums which are not mentioned here.

Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, Switzerland.
Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland, USA

British Museum, London, United Kingdom.
Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, USA.
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institutions, Washington, USA.

Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, USA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Museum Rietberg, Zürich, Switzerland.
Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, USA.
Volkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, United Kingdom.

New Orleans Museum of Arts, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.
Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut, New Haven, USA.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, USA.

Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, Idiana, USA.

Figure of mother with child, Robert T. Wall Family.