Arts & Entertainments

Africa’s cultural heritage and case for restitution

The imperative of increasing global calls and debates for the restitution and repatriation of looted art to Nigeria, more specifically the renowned Benin bronzes, among other related issues, formed kernel of discourse at the 7th edition of ‘Point of View’ (POV), a monthly series of talks interrogating the evolving role of the visual arts in addressing major issues affecting Africa and the rest of the world.

An initiative of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, organised in collaboration with the Society of Nigerian Artists and supported by Alliance Française /Mike Adenuga Centre Lagos and Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, the 7th Edition of ‘Point of View’, held 25 May, 2021, and themed ‘Africa’s Cultural Heritage and the Case for Restitution’, lent a voice to increasing global calls and debates for the restitution and repatriation of looted art to Nigeria, more specifically the renowned Benin bronzes.

The talks also discussed current efforts in this direction, the role of African museums and Nigeria’s state of preparedness in receiving and preserving them. In addition, the edition focused on colonialism’s destructive impact on Nigerian cultural heritage, diaspora affairs, migration and the reinvention of identity.

There were presentations on ‘Imperialism, Art and the Case for Restitution’ by Prof Peju Layiwola, Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos; and ‘The British Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution’, by Dan Hicks FSA, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology, University of Oxford. ‘The Restitution Debate: Diaspora Affairs, Migration and the Reinvention of Identity’ was the focus of the panel discussion moderated by the Assistant Curator, Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Peter Okotor.

The panel comprises Director/Founder, African Artists Foundation (AAF), Azu Nwagbogu; Director, Institut Français de Recheche en Afrique (Nigeria), University of Ibadan, Dr Vincent Hiribarren; and President, Legacy 1995, Kofo Adeleke.

In an interview with New Telegraph, the President of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) and founder/ executive director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, Mr. Oliver Enwonwu, underscored the need to increase the agitation for the repatriation and restitution of her looted artefacts. “As Africa comes into her own as a continent with her peoples negotiating their identity, it has become more imperative to increase the agitation for the repatriation and restitution of her looted artefacts. In addition, the talks question the state of museums in the continent and their current role in preserving existing artefacts in their collection as well as their state of preparedness in receiving those from Western museums and institutions,” he said.

Highlights of the event include screening of ‘Rawson’s Boat’ by multimedia performance artist and sculptor, Jelili Atiku. The event was supported by the Society of Nigerian Artists, Alliance Française Lagos, Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos, Toff Resources Nigeria Ltd, CIL Acquico Ltd, Jelili Atiku Foundation, Five Cowries Art Education, Jackson, Etti & Edu, Vanguard, Ventures Platform, Business- Day, Connect Nigeria, TSA Contemporary Art Magazine, EKO Trends, Environews Nigeria, The Lagos Weekender, The Sole Adventurer, WildflowerPR and Omenka. Launched on September 17, 2019, ‘Point of View’ (POV) draws from other creative disciplines and such diverse sectors as government, science and technology, to impact policy by raising awareness, advocating for change and inspiring action. It aims to further encourage support and funding for visual artists through public and private sector partnership while ensuring continuing artists’ professional development and empowerment.

The Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF) was established in 2003 in honour of celebrated Nigerian artist, scholar, educator, art administrator and statesman, Professor Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE, NNOM (1917-94). Amongst many other accomplish-ments, Enwonwu was the first Nigerian artist to gain international recognition. Conferred in 1954 with the Member of the distinguished order of the British Empire, he remains the only Black artist to have been commissioned to sculpt Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. In Nigeria, Enwonwu was also the first professor of art and first federal art adviser.

Widely acclaimed as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist and one of the greatest in the world, he is credited with laying the philosophical foundations of contemporary African art by fusing Western techniques and conventions with indigenous traditions and aesthetics — his over 60 years career embracing a broad range of socio-political and economic movements, philosophies and themes including Pan Africanism, Negritude, identity, the body (the gaze), gender equality, spirituality and religion, peace and conflict resolution. According to Oliver, the Foundation aims to sustain and build on his life’s work through a three-pronged approach to: promote, foster, explain, protect and give prestige to, in Nigeria and globally, his artistic, intellectual and political legacy by such acts as the publishing of a catalogue raisonne in volumes, of his total creative output, and the managing, defending and administering of the intangible rights derived from his work and person; maintain a diverse multi-disciplinary public programme of exhibitions, projects, workshops, talks and lectures that explores in a research-minded way, Enwonwu’s oeuvre while increasing the visibility and appreciation of art from the African continent, and brings together professionals across such diverse sectors as the arts, government, science and technology, to advocate for change, proffer solutions and impact policy in addressing major issues affecting Africa and the rest of the world.

“On-going initiatives in this regard are the ‘Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture Series’ and ‘Point of View’ (POV), held in partnership with Alliance Francaise Lagos/ Mike Adenuga Centre. Both foster public understanding of the relevance of the visual arts to socio-economic advancement.

Begun in 2004, the series features national and international leaders, renowned thinkers and key policy makers as speakers. Launched in 2019 as a monthly interdisciplinary talks platform, ‘Point of View’, in addition, encourages artists’ professional development while canvasing for public-private funding for the visual arts.

“As part of its year-round educational programme, BEF’s scholarship scheme benefits second year students of the finest tertiary institutions in Nigeria. The Foundation also supports publications and research exploring the cultural and social context of Enwonwu’s art.

Located along with the Foundation in the artist’s home, which lends to its historical and cultural significance, leading gallery, Omenka, represents an exceptional selection of artists whose work in varying media resonates strongly with the African continent and her related diaspora.” The Foundation aims to promote cross-cultural ties and exchange between established and emerging artists, designers and curators, through international residencies that nurture new forms and ideas, build networks and provide mentoring opportunities and possibilities for collaborative projects.

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