Returned Benin artefacts rekindle memory of humiliation Britain subjected Oba Ovonramwen to –Prof Layiwola

Returned Benin artefacts rekindle memory of humiliation Britain subjected Oba Ovonramwen to –Prof Layiwola

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Artist and scholar, Prof. Peju Layiwola, of the University of Lagos, discusses the significance of the recent return of stolen Benin artefacts with OLUWAFEMI MORGAN

What are your thoughts on the current wave of restitution or reparations by the West of the long stolen Benin artefacts or artworks?

Well, I will start by saying this is what we have been hoping for, for a long time, starting from 1975 when his royal majesty, Oba Akenzua, the second, requested the objects that were stolen during the British expedition. Happening now, it is a bit late in the day but we are happy, it is okay that it is happening because it was such a struggle to get to this point where people are realising that they cannot continue to keep looted works of other people, that no matter how long these works of art lay in foreign museums, there is no way they can lay claims to them, since they were looted. For the descendants of those who looted or acquired the works illegally, they are also culpable and cannot keep stolen works.

So, it is a welcome idea but it is also caught up in the wave of the Black Lives Matter and the entire world seeking justice, peace and repair, which is really welcome. It has also become a fad, everyone wants to return the works whether it is genuine or not, but I think that people have been stampeded into wanting to do the right things even if they don’t want to do it, so foreign museums are willing to clear that ugly history, and they are looking to return those works to where they actually belong

Would you know about the struggles that culminated in the restitution we are now witnessing and did you play any role?

In terms of the efforts that have gone on over the years, it has always been members of the Benin royal family asking for the works to be returned. I know of the Enogie of Obazua who had been at the forefront of requesting for these objects to be returned; writing letters to museums and also presenting a petition at the British Parliament in 2000. He started this long before the request in 1976 by the Nigerian state. It has always been the members of the royal family and, of course, understandably so because these works were taken directly from the palace of the king.

We had some government parastatals, the head of Centre for Black and African Arts, Prof. Tunde Babawale, who also made a request for the return of these objects, writing to the director of the British Museum. Most of these letters were ignored or not responded to.

My own contribution had been that I, first of all, studied at the University of Benin, and we were told that we should go into our culture, various cultures and pick out what we thought was really inspiring, and fall on the traditional art as a basis for our artistic production. And so I had also referenced Benin iconography, Benin motifs in my work, and also there had been very worthy retentions in my compositions. I did not directly reference the Benin expedition but I tried to look at what had been done by Edo artistes.

It was only when I was invited by a French anthropologist in 2005 to do a survey in Benin City that I got more serious about engaging with the Benin story. Soon after that, I had my surveys with the guild of bronze casting to see what the absence of the 1897 works meant to the people of Benin and what it meant to them as descendants of those who produced the works. I presented these findings in Zurich and Paris.

I was invited from then onwards to take part in the Benin Kings and Rituals Exhibition in 2007 and that travelled to three other European countries, including the Art Institute of Chicago, where I gave the lecture that brought the two-year exhibition grant to a close. It was after that I decided to have an exhibition; it was almost like a response to the previous exhibition, to bring to the forefront the issues about copyrights, about ownership of Benin objects and about identity.

So, I decided to have an exhibition in 2010, which was the first exhibition in Nigeria to deal directly with the story of the expedition. It was the very first in Nigeria, and going on from there, I began to do other projects that focused very heavily on Benin. So my works also helped to bring the discussion to the front burner.

When I came back from Vienna and there was nothing that was being said about this blockbuster exhibition that held in Vienna, moved to Berlin, moved to Paris and closed in Chicago, I thought about bringing back this discussion to assert that we can’t continue to act like it’s business as usual. In 2014, I also thought I should invite other artists to take part in my intervention so we decided to do a project that celebrated the life of Oba Ovonramwen, that was the centenary year of his passing, but that was also the centenary year of the amalgamation, when the Nigerian state was celebrating the merging of the Northern and Southern protectorates. We thought as artists that it was ridiculous to be celebrating that kind of amalgamation that did not bring into cognisance the importance of the people who later became Nigerians. So we, as artists, decided that we should celebrate one of our icons who fought against British imperialism – in fact, the very thing that was being celebrated by the Nigerian state. So we went to Benin, to Igun Street, where the (bronze) casters reside, we had our interventions in that space. For me, it has always been a wonderful thought to have my works exhibited in Benin. I took my installations which I had shown in 2010 at the Benin Exhibition. It was a form of catharsis for me. So I envisioned that I would have that work shown in the palace of the guild of casters, and so we had the works shown on rustic walls of the palace and in a space where people could actually interact. Ever since, we have had shows in South Africa, in an exhibition titled “Return”, which was also looking at Benin history and the general loss of treasures from Africa. In Ghana, where we have had several exhibitions, with the story of West carting away their golden stools and golden treasures, and also in South Africa, the story of Sarah Barthman, and the return of her body.  When you are looking at Africa and the clamour for the return of treasures, bodies and bones, like in the case of Namibia, it is the same story of the stealing of Africa’s treasures and its human capacity. So my work has dwelt heavily on restitution or the return of these objects to their places of origin.

Why do you think it took so long for the West to finally accept to return these artefacts and works of art?

It was a commercial enterprise; it has always been a commercial thing. The artworks have been commoditised in the West, they have been sold as commodities, at reputable auction houses, the descendants of the people who plundered the Benin treasures were also selling the works in auctions and making a lot of money.

There was a soldier who was in Benin at the time of the invasion, his family members were selling the artworks and making a lot of money. They were also loaning works, making money from publications, postcards; it was just about recycling it and making a lot of revenue from the Benin objects.

From the expedition itself, when the works were looted, the whole idea of selling these works was to regain money spent on the expedition. There is a way your treasures are kept in another man’s home, it is almost like another form of domination and that was a position that the West enjoyed for a very long time. The lack of recognition of the guild, the lack of acknowledgement of the crimes that were committed can be equated the crime of genocide committed in Namibia, even though they don’t want to call it a genocide, it was a genocide that happened there. And the Germans actually carried out a genocide in Namibia.

As a scholar of Benin art, can you give us an idea of the implications of 1897 invasion and the loot of the artworks to the art, the culture, and the psyche of the Benin mind?

Yes, one of the reasons I love this idea of restitution, even though some of the works might not necessary come physically to Nigeria, is that it changes the narrative. I want to see that layer of trauma, of the 1897 taken off from Benin history and culture, so that we can unravel the beauty that Benin exhibits and exudes. As long we continue to talk about 1897, it kind of casts a dark cloud on the culture, and you don’t want that to continue to linger. So I think that it is so important that we change the narrative and get people to see and understand Benin in a different light, to get the younger generation to appreciate what Benin stands for and what Benin can offer.

Did the stealing of these artefacts alter, in any way, some cultural practices in Benin, given that some of these works were being used for ceremonial and cultural purposes before they were carted away in 1897?

In 1897 there was a disruption, in fact, many of the casters deserted the city and went to do farming. So, it disrupted the entire political and social structure of Benin City itself. You know the casters were dedicated subjects of the king. They had taken an oath of allegiance to do whatever the king wanted, to make art for the glorification of the king and the royalty.

So it affected our social structure and Benin was deprived of that continuity. It was Oba Eweka, the second, who started to revitalise the guild and the shrines that had been plundered. And so the craftsmen returned, but this time around, they were not making works specifically for the king alone anymore, they were now making works for a new clientele and that in a sense was a shift from what had been prior to 1897.

The craft would have blossomed even more if it the white man had not come to disrupt it. These are the issues on the ground; once you have this kind of incursion, there is a loss of the culture.

Beyond scholarly interest, you have some blood ties with Benin. How much do you think this repatriation of the looted artefacts mean to the people?

My mother is a Benin princess, my father is Yoruba. Of course, I can always claim that I am from Benin as well, but you know that we are in a very patriarchal society. So, as a member of the royal household from the matrilineal side, I would say that it portends a lot. It is also very satisfying.

If you had been in the palace when the king received the cock and the hen, you could see that he was emotionally moved. It is not about the work itself, as an art form, it tells you the story and the trauma that went along with it. You can’t look at a Benin object without looking at the humiliation that the king, Oba Ovonramwen, went through; the killing that went on, the people that lost their lives; women, children, Benin defenders who were hanged, and families that were deprived of their loved ones. So the art itself was a manifestation of the kind of the cruelty that happened in 1897 and having the works back, in a sense, doesn’t erase the story, but makes it easier to tell that there was a reversal of this position, in recognition of the damage, the injustice and the inhumanity that were meted out to the people of Benin.

Is there a record of the number of artworks or artifacts stolen during the 1897 Benin invasion and can we know how many more of these works are still in the hands of the West?

When I did my exhibition abroad it was said that they probably were about 3,000 – 4,000. There was this installation that had 1,000 heads. Currently, new information said about 10,000 artworks were removed from the palace, which is huge. It is difficult to tell because apart from the official looting by the soldiers, the soldiers also took objects for themselves, as their own personal loot. In the case of Abraham Walker, who said his grandfather took two
for himself, his grandfather wrote it in a diary that he was packing up his own loot. It is very difficult to say what is available, so we have to rely on the provenance of the museums that have them. They are not beginning to do provenance even though the work has been with them for a long time, and yes, we hope that those who looted and those who are keeping the looted works can tell us how many works are in their kitty

Are there any kinds of compensation for the Edo people and by extension Nigeria for the plunder of their resources or is it a question of false compensation?

If you listen to the representative of the Edo State government on the return of these objects, he said there should be compensation paid from some of the money that has accrued over the years by Western institutions. I think that is a good thing to do because there was a lot of profiteering that went on regarding the Benin objects. It is another ball game entirely and I haven’t  given a thought to it. I think that if this people who say they want to return are genuine they should be thinking about compensation in terms of investing in the structures that continue to sustain the keeping of these Benin treasures, within Benin and within Nigeria

Art Scholars and intellectuals have raised concern about the expertise required for preserving artworks that are being returned to the homeland, do we have the wherewithal to preserve our own art?

I don’t think we want to rehash some of those obnoxious theories and speculations by western scholars who tend to diminish you just to justify their excesses. I think you want to look at it from the point of view that these things were made here to start with, they were preserved for several centuries before they were even looted. If you look at the history of these works, they were kept in a room and they were layered in years of history and documentation.

Those who actually see them as treasures will not want to see them rot or see them to disintegrate in a  way that will diminish us or diminish the whole essence of the arts. They are actually treasures, they are not commodities like they are considered in the West. They have a place in the culture.

When the king received the treasure, the cock and the hen, he took to Ohan Oba,which is the shrine where the treasure would have been in 1987, and he rededicated them to his ancestors. I think every culture has a right to determine how they want to consume their works and how they want to use them. So I don’t want us to think about them in the western sense of the world, we have to think about how to appreciate these works and to consume these works rather than have them in the same kinds of structures that have kept them for several years.

Having been at some of the art institutes and galleries that preserved these artworks how is the Benin Art similar to the present art forms in Benin?

Benin Arts has not stopped, it has continued, a lot of amazing works are being done by descendants of the bronze casters. I feel that the casters should be given a lot of support; I have said that in my exhibition brochure in 2010. They should invest in them because these are people who have kept the traditions of the casting going for several decades. The name Benin  is based on bronze casting and their skill, there has to be a conscious efforts to help them , to support their practice, so that they can produce more. The bronze artists, the wood carvers of Benin are highly talented, and they should be given support from government and private individuals

Do you think that concerns bordering the theft of the artworks after many years of repatriation may be valid?

You know people will says a lot of things, they will always postulate. They whole idea is to discredit us. I don’t think the museums in Nigeria are empty. I still went to the National Museum in Onikan, and I saw a lot of ancient Benin artworks. They are treasures so why would you want to keep your treasures carelessly especially knowing that they have been stolen before. I don’t think that is valid, it is a possibility, but I don’t think that anybody will take likely, having struggled to regain the works after a 125 years, nobody is going to keep it carelessly for some person to take away. I don’t think it is anything to worry about.

These artworks are going to the hands of government and not in the hands of the royalty?

You are aware that the Federal Government has said that the works should be given to the palace, to the king, so it is a collaboration between the palace and the national museum. Yes, the works are received and managed by the Federal Government with the authority of the king. There will be museum programmes. I think this is the beginning of it or the end of it, but there will be other things that will go on. But I think that it is important that these works reside here, the absence of these works have generated a lot of artistic creation, generated poems, drama like Ola Rotimi’s in 1974, Ahmed Yerima in 1997. There is a lot that the return of these works would generate if the absence of the works can generate so much. There will be a lot more coming from the physical appearance and exhibition of these works in its geographical space.

What advice would you give the negotiators for the Benin artefacts?

To make sure that the Benin objects being returned are the exact works that were taken away; that they are genuine pieces. These works that are taken are brought back and the recognition of the position of the king and royalty. The recognition of the ownership of the king and the position of the king who was deprived of these objects is also important, and must be taken into cognisance.

There is no way that these objects can be discussed without the consent and the blessing of the king of Benin, just the same way we can’t be discussing the return of the golden stool, the golden treasures of the Ashanti without giving credence to the Asantehene. So we must also think about how these works will be circulated in places where there would be access to its history, its art, its philosophy. I think those are the issues that should be paramount in the minds of the negotiators of the Benin objects.


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