Benin Art and the Restitution Question

By: Jimoh Ganiyu Jimga
Department of Creative Arts
University of Lagos

'History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography.'
John Henrik Clarke (1915 - 1998)


The Berlin conference of 1884-85 played major role in underdevelopment of African Society (Rodney, 1972); the period African continent, regardless of cultural ties was divided and shared among the colonial west into mosaic continent of 53 countries. The outcome of the conference formed the basis for bringing the African people under colonial rule against their wish resulting into a great bloodshed which qualifies in all ramifications as a crime against humanity.

One of Britain's brutish expedition of enforcing her rule on unwilling subjects took place in Benin in 1897 which turned the city regarded as one highly civilized even before the contact with the Portuguese to a city of blood. exhibition and colloquium by artist-scholar Peju Layiwola
came exactly One Hundred and Thirteen Years after this punitive incursion and massive looting of Benin cultural artefacts. The exhibition titled 'Benin Art and The Restitution Question' took place at the Main Auditorium of the University of Lagos, Nigeria on the 8th of April 2010 around 2:00pm, was a novel approach to further remind the 'thieves' of the need to return stolen artefacts in their collection following part efforts mostly by the Benin royal family and the Edo State Government.

The colloquium hosted the big wigs in the legal and Art arena in Nigeria and abroad who deliberated upon the steps to be taken in repatriating our cultural objects and curbing looting of antiquities. Exhibition of recent works by the artist which include terra-cotta replicas of cultural artefacts stolen in 1897 concluded the sessions of rigorous debate on the topical issue.

Brief Background on 1897 event.

1897 is a remarkable period in the history of Benin. It is a year of the British punitive expedition; the British soldiers marched on the city as reprisal for the ambush of members of a 'questionable' peace party to the Oba of Benin (Plakensteiner, 2007).
By 1895 the British Protectorate government had established its authority, frequently by use of force, over all the major trading centres except the ancient kingdom of Benin which insisted on retaining sovereignty and trading independence. The King had been forced to sign a treaty in 1892. This established the free trade opportunity for the British but limited the sovereignty of the Oba, who was regarded as god by his people.

The British want full control of Benin and planned a cunning way of making the use of force inevitable. Benin was besieged in 1897: a reprisal attack after a British mission led by Consul Philip was ambushed consequent upon his refusal to postpone his visit to Benin.

The British soldiers reinforced and conquered Benin forces. The palace of the king was set ablaze, sacred cultural objects were looted from the Oba's chamber and the Oba was deposed to Calabar. Since this sad event, Benin's cultural artefacts are found largely in foreign museums in Britain, Austria, Germany, France and the US. (Layiwola, 2010). Art and The Restitution Question

This write report is the proceedings of the colloquium tagged: 'Benin Art and Restitution Question' which took place on the 8th of April 2010 at the Main Auditorium, University of Lagos. The exhibition and colloquium which was heralded with a 231-page publication and catalogue with 154 colour illustrations on the topical issues of repatriation of looted artefacts attracted the 'big wigs' in the Legal, Politcal and Art scene from all over Nigeria and abroad.

The address by the DG. of CBAAC, Prof. Babawale was brilliant and educating. Taking the audience briefly through the background that led to calling for restitution in his paper, he elucidates CBAAC's effort through the years at restitution. The relevance of Benin was pointed out in confirming the effervescence of contemporary art and artists. Asserting that it was a much needed colloquium that not only address topical issues in art and culture but also delves into the realms of politics, diplomacy and advocacy, he agrees with Prof. Popoola in his paper that this advocacy could not have come at a time better than now and implores artists, scholars, cultural activists and other stakeholders to emulate Dr. Peju Layiwola in the clamor for the restitution of our stolen heritage.

The publication with essays, pictures of the artworks being exhibited and essays by scholars drawn across disciplines
on the topical issue of art and restitution question, which was presented by Prof. Dele Layiwola of the University of Ibadan ,
was reviewed by the curator of the exhibition Sola Olorunfunmi.

In his address Sola Olorunfunmi explores the prototype of modern civilization that were exhibited in Timbuktu which he compares to that of pre-1897 Benin, however Timbuktu today is shadow of her past glory due to physical assault and looting of priceless artefacts of knowledge brought about by colonialism, this he likens with Benin invasion of 1897. To him restitution is an urgent issue to link the void created by these cultural artefacts of 'knowledge'. He warns that '…with just a little more carelessness, tragedy can be re-enacted' and enjoins the audience to 'join hands as a people and nation to ensure that this tragedy does not reoccur'. He however commends the artist-scholar, Peju Layiwola, in paving novel ways of deconstructing the art and repatriation question.

Dr. Peju Layiwola in her introductory speech set the tone of the colloquium by looking into the context of the invasion of 1897 and its reconstruction into the contemporary discourse: She posits that overwhelming economic interest is the main factor that not only led to the invasion of Benin in 1897 but also sustains the desire of foreign museums to retain Benin artefacts, hence the concept behind her ingenious use of dot com which means dot commercial as the extension of the domain name 'Benin 1897'. Elucidating on the reason for the exhibition, she posits that exhibition presents an artist's impression of cultural rape of Benin. This exhibition, she explains is an attempt to utilize art as a means of recalling art. Highlighting the significance of the call for restitution she laments the mockery in having to travel to Europe and America to study ones ancestral objects, this explains why scholarly works on Benin has been largely carried out by foreign scholars, she asked rhetorically 'what kind of history books will our children read in the future? . For Peju Layiwola, the Western Museums' excuses repatriation, like Nigeria not having conducive Museum for these artworks is baseless. This conforms to Kwame Opoku's recent comment that the Ife artworks that were loaned to the British museum for exhibition came from Nigeria Museums and these artworks dated to be 12th and 14th century circa are in good condition. Western Museums came up with ridiculous solutions to the lingering restitution questions which include digital repatriation and the concept of universal museum, but as Kwame Opoku stated: 'can someone tell me how we can dance with digitally repatriated mask?', Layiwola (2010) too observes that the west lack proper understanding of our religious affinity with these objects and prefer to put behind glass walls 'those who once enjoy the splendour of the palace'. However she evinces some strong measures that can be taken in repatriating our cultural heritage, these include formal request by the Nigerian state for Benin artefacts, taking inventory of stolen works, educating public on the value of cultural property and enlightenment on the event of 1897. Other measures she proposes are proper awareness for the public in taking pride in our heritage and not confusing cultural issues with religion, also she insists, the study of History must be brought back to the primary/secondary school curriculum for the younger generations to have a full grasp of their history.

Paper presentation session which was chaired by Prof. Akin Oyebode of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, featured two paper presentations from renown Scholars in cultural and intellectual property laws, Prof. Folarin Shyllon and Prof. Demola Popoola . Though both papers explore legal issues in repatriation of African cultural artefacts the former takes comparative approach through country survey in establishing his opinion about Nigerian's 'weak' efforts at repatriation. His choice of countries for comparative analysis was based on data about archaeological riches among African countries which ranked Egypt to be first followed by Nigeria and perhaps Egypt . Egypt's success at repatriation, according to Shyllon, is attributed to Zahi Hawas' radical approach in enforcing Law117 which created and declared state ownership of antiquities. These include not cooperating with western museums that fail to return looted artefacts of Egypt. This contradicts Nigeria's policy. He also elucidates Mali's innovative step in 1993 of entering a bilateral agreement with the United States to ban the importation into the US of broadly inclusive classes of Malian antiquities. Achieving a remarkable success in Shyllon's view calls for emulation of these African countries. He agrees with Peju Layiwola on the need for the Nigerian Government to take proper inventory of cultural properties both outside and inside Nigeria. Proposing brilliant idea of 'relocation' he suggests that the British Museum should have a branch in Nigeria, where these artefacts could be studied and understood in the milieu that gave birth to them.

Prof. Popoola's voluminous paper delves more into the historical development of 'looting matters'. Digging into the past he explores the series of Laws enacted over the ages that forbade plundering of antiquities during war. The double standard policy of the west is well understood by Popoola who later opines that these enactments which criminalised all the colonial acts of looting and plundering are subject to enforcement only among the colonizing countries according to international Law being practised then, this accordingly raised the question whether the waging of war and looting of artefacts constitutes a breech of international obligation by the colonial authority (Popoola,2010), he posits that there was no bilateral treaty between the colonizing authority and their 'unwilling' subjects. Going by this, he states, 'the colonizing authority did not breech any obligation'. He however evince strongly that to legitimize such practice is to overlook the natural rights of African victims of such plunder, situating his argument in slave trade context, he posits that the war ran counter to the interest of the international community, community which must be defined to include all the peoples of the world. He argues that this view is consistent with Article 19 of the International Law Commission Draft on state responsibility; this he sates indicts all forms of looting in Africa and deserves reparation (Popoola, 2010:39).This paper like the previous suggests measures to be taken in repatriating cultural artefacts which are Bilateral Agreement, Arbitration and Mediation, Popoola implore bilateral agreement which he believe is yielding positive result. He however suggests that if all the three fail, recourse to litigation at International Court of Justice should be the last resort.

The Colloquium

Arguments on repatriation followed the presentation of papers. Arguments for repatriation came from most of the participants and the chairman of the occasion Prof. Akin Oyebode, who insisted that we should not accept reparation which is a monetary compensation but restitution which will guaranty restoring these artefacts back in their natural habitat. His views was however objected by Prof. Thimothy Asobole who opines that contemporary Nigerians are not suppose to be clamouring for repatriation, he argues that this generation should be more creative in order to rejuvenate the glory left by the Benin civilisation plundered by the British.

Major issues raised at the colloquium are:

  • How close are we to actual repatriation of these artefacts?
  • The issue of how to preserve and secure these artefacts when they are repatriated back to Nigeria.
  • What legal approach can be used in this clamour for repatriation?
  • Issue of safeguarding artefacts currently in Nigerian Museums.
  • Nigerian custom officers' lack of technical know-how in differentiating between antiquities and recent art works.
  • The issue of Universal Museum.

The outcome of the colloquium:

  • The issue of Universal Museum was unanimously rejected.
  • The NCMM was implored to take inventory of Benin artefacts outside Nigeria.
  • The NCMM law on antiquities should be reviewed.
  • The clamour for repatriation is significant in the sustainability of our culture and heritage, therefore it must continue until success is achieved.
The Exhibition

'In art there is liberation. The essential in artistic creativity is victory over the burden of necessity.'

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874 - 1948)

How well can one describe the art exhibition that re-enacts, advocates, deconstructs and provokes curiosity and still poses question in answering all the questions it asks?

The exhibition hall after been declared open by HRH Prince Edun Akenzua, The Enogie of Obazuwa, was filled to the brim with art lovers who not only come to see the provocative works of the artist-scholar Peju Layiwola, but also to be part of history: the history of advocacy through re-enactment. The exhibition that features some recent works of Peju Layiwola centres on the topical issue of art and the repatriation question. Among the artworks on display, innovative Calabash installation titled 'Long Live The King' was a sight to behold. These acrylic-painted 'hanging' Calabashes with Benin art iconography, according to the artists identifies each Oba in the history of Benin. Other framed giant artworks adorned the wall of the gallery leading to the major installation of the exhibition: The installation of terra-cotta ancestral heads numbering about 1000 brought the looting of 1897 back to life. exhibition which will be on till the 30th of May 2010 at the Gallery before its historical journey to Abuja and Edo State featured an highly conceptual installation titled 'What Next? An Installation of moulds of P.O.P,arranged conceptually to form a big white question mark against a dark green canvas of natural grass, positioned outside but clearly seen from the gallery sums up the totality of mindset of the audience- WHAT NEXT?. This pieces 'impregnates' the restitution question and calls for answer…after this intellectual discourse and brilliant advocacy through re-enactment. What next?


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