It has been pretty difficult to repatriate Nigerian artifact stolen by colonialists centuries ago, writes Tony Okuyeme
The importance of artefact as a source of education and an enabler of tourism cannot be over emphasised.
The arts and culture of ancient civilisations tell the story of the evolution of mankind spanning thousands of centuries. They also serve to document for prosperity the rich cultural heritage of the times and various events such as traditional rites, the period of reigns of different dynasties and kings, wars, natural disasters, etc.
Nigeria, indeed, has a rich cultural heritage spanning centuries and from all the diverse ethnic communities that make up the nation. The nation’s traditional art, the works of forefathers bear testimony to skilled craftsmanship and creative ingenuity of the great dynasties that once existed in the country.
The works include the NOK terra-cotta and the related terra-cotta of Sokoto and Katsina; Esie Soap Stone; terra-cotta and bronzes from the North-East of Nigeria, the ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terra-cotta sculptures from Ile-Ife, South-West Nigeria, the very rich in sculptures of diverse materials, such as iron, bronze, wood, ivory, and terra-cotta of Benin among others.
These are heads or whole figurines, mainly effigies, but occasionally representations of animals (in most cases snakes). They are all of variable sizes from almost life size heads to other smaller representations.
African art has a special problem because the continent was colonised at a point in history. It experienced the slave trade that lasted about three to four centuries. It had an encounter with missionaries and explorers, apart from colonialists.
According to Prof. Tunde Babawale, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Lagos, and former Director/Chief Executive of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC), these encounters came with some negative experience which includes the looting of artefact and heritage materials belonging to the continent by those who came to colonise the continent.
He said: “We remember readily, for example in Nigeria, the 1897 Benin massacre, where Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was exiled, the Benin Kingdom was destroyed. And one of the things that the Benin Kingdom had in abundance was heritage materials, artefact, art works. Substantial percentage of them were looted by the invading British soldiers and taken away to Europe and other parts of the world.
They are all still there till today.”
The Benin ivory mask is a miniature sculptural portrait in ivory of the powerful Queen Mother Idia of the 16th century Benin Empire, taking the form of an African traditional mask. The likeness was worn however, not as a mask, but as a pendant by her son, Esigie, who owed his kingship as Oba of Benin to the Queen Mother’s military aid.
Two almost identical masks – one at the British Museum in London and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – feature a serene face of the Queen Mother wearing a beaded headdress, a beaded choker at her neck, scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead, and all framed by the flange of an openwork tiara and collar of symbolic beings, as well as double loops at each side for attachment of the pendant.
There are also examples on the same theme at the Seattle Art Museum and the Linden Museum, and one in a private collection, all taken during the British Benin Expedition of 1897.
The British Museum example in particular has also become a cultural emblem of modern Nigeria since FESTAC 77, a major pan-African cultural festival held in 1977.
The Benin Pendant Mask has become an iconic image of Benin art, and the British Museum version in particular was featured on Nigerian one Naira banknotes in 1973, and was chosen as the official emblem of the pan-Africanist FESTAC 77 cultural festival in 1977, so that this design is often known in modern Nigeria as the FESTAC Mask.
The Nigerian government was unsuccessful in securing a loan of the work from the British Museum, and commissioned Edo artist, Erhabor Emokpae, to recreate the mask as a 20-foot tall bronze centrepiece for the festival (on display at the National Arts Theatre since 1979). He also designed a FESTAC flag with the mask as central charge on an unequally banded black-gold-black vertical tricolour, and being responsible for the event’s extensive graphic design. Another Edo artist, Felix Idubor, was commissioned to carve two replica masks in ivory for the Nigerian National Museum. A 150kg bronze reproduction was also donated to UNESCO in 2005.
The Met’s Queen Mother Pendant mask is considered among the museum’s most celebrated works. African art historian, Ezio Bassani, wrote that the profile of the Met’s mask was “at once delicate and strong” with a “musical rhythm”, and that its use of iron and copper inlay was both “discreet and functional”.
He wrote that the Metropolitan and British Museum masks were among the most beautiful ivories carved in Benin, and that their artist was both refined and sensitive. Kate Ezra wrote that the mask’s thinness showcased the “sensitivity and solemnity” of early Benin art.
Among these are the ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone and terra-cotta sculptures, as well as glass beads, of Ilé-Ifè, which reached their peak of artistic expression between 1200 and 1400 A.D.
Bronze and terra-cotta art created by this civilisation are significant examples of naturalism in pre-colonial African art and are distinguished by their variations in regalia, facial marking patterns, and body proportions.
A major exhibition entitled Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures of West Africa, displaying works of art found in Ife and the surrounding area, was held in the British Museum from 4 March to 4 July 2010.
The Benin Empire was very rich in sculptures of diverse materials, such as iron, bronze, wood, ivory,and terra cotta. They were used principally to decorate the royal palace, which contained many bronze works. The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand commemorative metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Benin Kingdom in modern-day Nigeria.
The decline of Benin art occurred in the 19th century after the “punitive expedition” by the British on February 18, 1897, to capture Benin City. The palace was burned and looted in February 1897, and the Oba was exiled to old Calabar.
To break the power of the monarchy and to end ritual practices, the British confiscated all of the royal art treasures, giving some to individual officers but taking most to auction in London to pay for the cost of the expedition.
The Ibis bird was just one of 3,000 bronze artefact removed by the British military from the Oba’s Royal Palace in Benin, Nigeria in 1897, the majority of which are in the British Museum to this day with hundreds scattered about various museums in Europe.
Nok art refers to huge human, animal and other figures made out of terracotta pottery, found throughout Nigeria. They represent the earliest sculptural art in West Africa, dated between 500 BC and AD 500; and they co-occur with the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Africa south of the Sahara desert. However, efforts by nations, especially Nigeria, to repatriate their works of arts looted by the colonialists over a century ago, have not yielded any significant result.
Indeed, due to the complex nature of the issues involved such as national and international laws, conventions, politics and diplomacy, campaigns for the repatriation of cultural objects of Nigerian origin, ‘illicitly exported,’ have been ‘long and drawn’. According to Kwame Opoku, “this is because the rich nations of the West holding the cultural patrimony of other countries have been unwilling to see their museums and galleries emptied as a consequence of returning these works of art.
Nigeria especially, being so rich in material culture, is among the hardest hit.” Hundreds of these works adorn various museums and monuments especially in Europe and America, where the host countries are unwilling to release them.
However, a strategy initiated by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) about 10 years ago to recover the looted national cultural objects is no doubt yielding results, as no fewer than 120 objects worth billions of naira were repatriated from five countries.
This initiative essentially has to do with opening communication channels with the countries/institutions holding its objects within the context of UNESCO, ICOM and other bilateral and multinational frameworks. Dialogue, collaboration and cooperation are the main ingredients of this approach.
Some of them were on display at the National Museum, Lagos, in an exhibition aptly titled ‘Return of the Lost Treasure’. In the words of the Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Alhaji Yusuf Abdallah Usman, a few years ago they took measures to evaluate the approach and came up with a new strategy that is more pragmatic, reconciliatory and collaborative in line with the foreign policy pursuit of the government.
“Consequently a Repatriation Unit in the office of the Director General was created to serve as the implementation vehicle of this new strategy. As a first step, a dialogue group involving some European Museums and National Commission for Museums and Monuments was initiated as fallout of an exhibition on Benin works in Austria in 2009.
This group agreed to work together in a collaborative manner to share data among themselves of Benin works in their inventories,” he said. According to him, this collaboration opened doors for fruitful engagements with museums and other public institutions around the world with significant Nigerian art works in their collections which has made it possible for some of the lost works to be returned.
He noted that many individuals and groups have contributed greatly in this new culture of collaboration and partnership in our repatriation efforts which make it difficult to name them all here. Usman called on Museums and other public institutions around the world illegally holding on to Nigerian antiquities to toe the path of honour and hand them over the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, adding that “as proud Africans we are willing to make them available for the education and enjoyment of all”.
He, however, noted that the pressure for the return of these objects must be intensified as repatriated collections presently in the possession of the Commission is like a drop of water in the ocean compared to the huge number of antiquities outside the country, and that “for this all hands must be on deck”.
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in his address at the opening of the exhibition, noted that as part of an ongoing process, his ministry has been engaging and continues to engage in the process of identifying and repatriating artefact that were stolen from our country.
“I would, however, also be remise to acknowledge the significant contribution of the governments of the United States of America, South Africa, Switzerland and France for their efforts in collaborating with the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in ensuring that these artefact are returned to their rightful home.
I would also like to commend the leadership and officers of the Nigerian Customs Service for their diligence, professionalism and sense of patriotism in ensuring that some of the artefact which are being exhibited today were not smuggled out through the Seme border. “I must thank you the more for respecting the International laws and in particular the respect of the Red-List Agreement of 1997 that has declared the export of these Nigerian cultural properties illegal.
“It is a great concern that this trade is booming in Africa and in particular Nigeria. We shall through a determined effort continue to fight against the illicit trafficking in Cultural Property.” The minister tasked the National Commission for Museums and Monuments to more than double its efforts now in checking this illicit trade in cultural property.
He added: “It is my wish that the NCMM will begin to look at means and opportunities to re-invigorate its export and clearance permit operations and even devise other methods of checking the illicit trafficking in cultural property.
I was reliably told that there was the system of taking the pictures of all the objects leaving the country and the passport numbers of those exporting non-antiquities out of the country. I think the NCMM should go back into all of the systems that can be used to stop, check and stem the illicit trafficking in cultural property of Nigeria.”
Former Director/Chief Executive of CBAAC, Prof. Tunde Babawale, in an interview with New Telegraph, underscores the significance of the repatriation of stolen artefact, saying that when you steal these artefact that bear testimony to our history, you are also stealing a part of our history as a people.
“When you talk in terms of artefact, which constitute part of the natural heritage of a people, you are talking about what constitutes the cultural, natural property of a particular people which confers on them the identity that they carry along with them; it tells their history, their story.
So, when you take seriously the issue of artefact, you are talking about those elements of a people’s history that bear testimony to how they came about, and give identity to those people. That’s why these artefact are important; they not only tell a story, they tell people who you are. So for you to neglect them is to neglect your identity, your history,” he said.
Babawale noted that the experience Africa, and in particular Nigeria, has had about encounters with explorers, encounters with colonial forces have led to the looting of artefact in the country; and “we have been battling with that since the period of independence”. “It was the struggle that we waged to recover and retrieve the stolen artefact which led UNESCO to introduce some conventions, especially the 1970 Convention which talks about the return of stolen artefact and property. “Unfortunately, in spite of the existence of that convention which Nigeria is a signatory, those who put together the convention were so smart that they ensured that the applicability of the provisions of that convention does not have retroactive applicability.
“That is, although the convention frowns about stealing of artefact and empowers country that can make a case to have them return but that convention only covers the period that the convention came into existence. So those artefact that have been stolen as far back as the 19th century were not covered; and that creates a lot of problems for us.
“We have lost count of the number of art works which could have a lot of our history. Don’t forget that much of our history – our ancient history – was not written. We rely on oral tradition and some of what supports the oral tradition and history which were not in written form, are those artefact which have been stolen. So it means that when you steal these artefact that bear testimony to our history, you are also stealing a part of our history as a people.
And when you take them elsewhere, it is even easy for you to appropriate them and make them appear as if they were not made in Africa, given the prejudice that Europeans and others have about Africa, they are likely to even deny us ownership of those artefact, which is denying them their identities that are authentically African.
“These are some of the things we have suffered. And in any case, if we have them, we would have displayed them, make them objects of tourist attraction which could have also helped in attracting tourists into our country and be part of the sustainable development process of our great country, because it could enhance our revenue earning capacity. We could decide to adorn our museums with them like we have today. And a lot of our children and generations that are yet to come could still have benefitted from what we used to have.
“I always cite the example of the Queen Idia mask which is called the FESTAC mask, which the original is in British museum. That particular artefact was part of the ones stolen from our country,” he said.
On his effort, in his capacity then as DG of CBAAC, to repatriate the artefact, he recalled that in 2007 when they wanted to celebrate 30 years of FESTAC, one of the first steps that he took was to get in touch with the British Museum in London.
Babawale said: “I wrote a petition to the Director of the British Museum asking him to use his good offices to ensure that the Queen Idia mask, which was the symbol of FESTAC, be returned for us to celebrate the 30 years of FESTAC with it. And I wrote a strongly worded letter telling him the origin of how it was stolen and how, morally and politically, Britain needed to return it. Unfortunately, Neil Macgregor’s response was evasive.
He did not come out clearly to say they were going to return it; he merely said, ‘yes Nigeria and Britain, especially the British Museum, enjoy very warm relationship, and he thought that what was important at that point in time was for us to strengthen the relationship.
And that they were trying to help in rehabilitating our museums through the provision of some grants, and they are working with the National Museum, which was neither here nor there. And then we organised a group of Nigerians and encouraged them in London to go to the British Museum and protest, asking that the artefact be returned. Indeed, I think that it was part of the protest that led to Neil Macgregor sending a reply to my petition.
“But after that, we’ve organised quite a number of lectures to talk to about the need for us to advocate for the return of stolen artefact, and for us to ensure that the conventions that UNESCO itself has put together, such as the one I talked about, the 1970 convention which prohibits illicit importation and acquisition of artefact; the 1995 convention which talks about stolen and illegally imported cultural property.
All of these were discussed and we felt that African countries like ours should take advantage of those conventions to formally request for the repatriation of stolen artefact, because before my letter that I sent to the British Museum in 2007, I did not find it on record any formal request from the Nigerian government requesting for the repatriation of that particular mask. At least, no reference was made to that, and I didn’t find it in the books.
“So, I expect that after that, maybe the National Museum would have taking that up, and many more others.
I thank God that now, the Nigerian government through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, is now alive to its responsibility in that regard, working feverishly to ensure that all over Europe those artefact that have been stolen and are there, which are being used by others tom make money for their country, because people pay money to go to the British Museum and even in France, in Strasburg, Frankfurt, Brussels, and even in private collections in houses, people whose parents probably had an experience here, came here for some mission and ended up stealing and purchasing illegally, these artefact, are repatriated.”
On what government needs to do in this regard, he erudite scholar stressed that there is need to “step up our advocacy on the importance these properties to our history and the significance of such artefact in bringing us together as a people. And by so doing, we should also try to draw up an inventory of artefact that have been stolen which we can always refer to very easily, at a snap of the fingers.
There must be an inventory of all stolen items. We must also address the question of our people that compromise our security and the security of those items. There are insiders who collaborate with outsiders to sell these artefact, what are we doing about that? And we must develop the capacity of our museums and cultural agencies to make request to recover these stolen items.
And maybe we should commission more studies and do more research; although I know Prof. Ekpo Eyo and a few others, Adeoba Yemi, the late Director General of the National Museum, Oluyemi Omotosho, all of them have done some work in this area.
“But we can also try to do more research on how we can provide proof of ownership for some of these stolen items, and emphasise the fact that the provisions of these conventions must be modified such that they cannot be restricted to period when the conventions came into force because the real act of direct looting was done and committed before these conventions were put in place.”
He also emphasised the need to congratulate NCMM at least for bringing this to public consciousness, noting that “this is the first time we have the Museum organising an exhibition on artefact that have been stolen and recovered. I think it is a good step in the right direction. It means they are challenged to do more than they have done up till now.
So we must encourage them to step up their action; that is where the media has a big role to play, and the general public too, to tell these agencies to step up action and campaign because it is the intensity of the campaign in the countries that are affected, especially in Africa, is what will spur organisations like UNESCO to do more to assist us in getting those looted artefact back into our country.”
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