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Are major African art exhibitions only for the western world?

By By Kwame Opoku
A major exhibition on Ife art, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, opened on June 16, 2009 at the Fundación Marcelino Botin, Santander, Spain and will move from there to the Museum for Africa Art, New York, United States and later to the British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

The exhibition however will not be shown in Nigeria or in any other African country.

•Head, Ife, Nigeria, 14th-early 15th century, and Obalufon Mask, Ife Nigeria, 12th Century, National Commission on Monuments and Museums (NCMM,) Nigeria
•Head, Ife, Nigeria, 14th-early 15th century, and Obalufon Mask, Ife Nigeria, 12th Century, National Commission on Monuments and Museums (NCMM,) Nigeria

The exhibition consists of some 120 excellent bronze, terra-cotta and stone sculptures from 12th Р15th century from Ife (or more correctly, Il̩-Ife), the spiritual capital of the Yoruba in South-western Nigeria and the place where, according to Yoruba mythology, creation took place; the gods, Oduduwa and Obatala descended from heaven to create the earth as directed by the Supreme Deity, Oludumare.

The objects in the exhibition have been loaned by the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) which is working in collaboration with the Fundación Marcelino Botin, the Museum for African Art and the British Museum.

The exhibits include idealized portrait heads, images of lively animals and caricatures of old age and diseases, carved stone animals and seated male figures.

The objects demonstrate the authority and majesty of a royal dynasty as well as the highly sophisticated technology and skills of the Ife artists.

So impressive are some of these objects that Leo Frobenius, one of the first Europeans to see Ife art, in 1910, could not believe they were produced by Africans. Following European prejudices and ignorance, he attributed the sophisticated, naturalistic works of Ife to a lost Greek civilization, Atlantis. He thought the sculpture could not have been made by an African people.

The strong realism of these magnificent Ife sculptures is in sharp contrast to the usual abstract forms of African art, especially sculpture, which contributed largely to the birth of modern art by inspiring artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Modigliani, Klee, Moore and Giacometti to free themselves from the constraining European norms of naturalism and to adopt the freer African style of abstraction.

The pattern of collaboration between Nigerian institutions and the Western institutions will no doubt be familiar to many readers. The Nigerians lend their cultural artefacts to be shown in Europe and America but the show will not go to any Nigerian town nor will it be shown anywhere else in Africa.

Does the Nigerian public not need to learn about Nigerian culture? Are the people in Zaria and Kaduna so familiar with Ife culture that there is no need to show them the achievements of Ife? Do people in Lagos, cosmopolitan city, not need to learn about Yoruba culture?

Unless I am wrongly informed, many of the exhibits are kept in Abuja and Lagos so that even persons born and bred in Ife may not have seen them. Will a young Ife artist who happens to be in Europe be able to visit the exhibition?

Will the European countries suspend their racist immigration policies at least for the period of the exhibition in order to permit Nigerians and other Africans who may want to see some of the finest achievements of Yoruba culture now on show in Spain and later on in Britain?

Or do young African artists, unlike their European and American counterparts, not need to see such exhibitions? Soon all the experts on African art, including Ife art, will be Europeans and Americans who will be paid or generously funded by the rich American foundations to come and teach us African art.

Already, Europeans and Americans are the ones writing learned articles and books about African culture. The wider implications of this for the development of African culture should make every dedicated African pause to think about the future of our cultures.

One recalls the Benin exhibition, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria which followed similar pattern but included some of the Benin artefacts looted in 1897 by the British in their infamous Punitive Expedition. Some of the looted objects are now in Western institutions which collaborated in the Benin exhibition.

Not a single looted object has been returned to Nigeria from any of the countries holding the objects. Institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, with overweening arrogance and self-assurance, do not even deign to acknowledge receipt of formal communications from the Royal Family of Benin.

This is a clear reflection of the scant respect many western institutions have for Africans and their institutions. What about the looted/stolen Ife objects that are found in Western Museums?

The British Museum is not likely to return the head of the Ife King which is the subject of a DVD sold by the venerable museum since it appears to have been bought from the palace of the Oni (king) and eventually ended as a gift from Sir Kenneth Clark to the British Museum.

Will this major exhibition help in returning some of the terra cotta objects which have been illegally exported to Britain, United States and elsewhere in contravention of Nigerian regulations and in flagrant defiance of the ICOM Red List of objects that should  not be exported from their countries of origin?

Let there be no misunderstanding. We are in favour of active cultural exchanges between African States and others, including Western States with which, for good or bad, our fates have been linked both by geography and history.

There is nothing wrong for Nigeria or any other country to show its national treasures abroad and collaborate with others for the dissemination of knowledge and information about African culture.

The correction of deep-seated but unfounded prejudice and ignorance about African culture may be helpful.

However, there should be reciprocity, mutual respect and a balance of interests. Collaboration should not be a one-way communication.

In all these years of collaboration between African museums and European institutions, we are yet to hear of a major exhibition of European culture, beginning in Africa, with objects seldom shown outside the country of origin, going on tour to African States but not other cities in the European country of origin.

Do Africans not need to learn about European culture? Many Nigerians may know the British as colonialists and imperialists but are there no other aspects of British culture that may interest them?

The Spaniards may be known as invaders and exploiters of South America but some aspects of Spanish culture could be exhibited for Africans. For example, the contribution of African peoples to Spanish culture would be educative.

Spain is only ten kilometres from our Continent. What has been the African influence on Spanish music and dance, flamenco for instance? Did the great Spanish painter, Picasso, not imbibe a lot of African ideas, whether in France or Spain? Could the long rule of the Moors in the Ibero-Spanish peninsula not be explored for the benefit of the African public?

There is a need to provide the public more information about the arrangements for such major exhibitions. Whilst it is not difficult to envisage what the Europeans and Americans may gain from such exhibitions, the public may not easily see what Africans gain.

The public cannot judge whether such arrangements are fair and so cannot determine whether they contribute to better cultural understanding.

There are reports about objects which were never returned after exhibitions. How much have Nigeria and other African States lost in such ventures?

One recalls the public reaction to the revelation that arrangements to display Bangla Desh national treasures in France included deliberately under valued cultural objects and consequent lower insurance.

In the absence of adequate public information, one is left to wonder whether the exploitation of African cultural resources follows the same pattern as the exploitation of our mineral and other resources i.e. we supply cheaply to the great advantage of the West which nowadays does not even have to send in an army for whatever it wants as in the olden days.

Somebody has to explain to the African peoples why we must continue to put our cultural resources at the disposition of the West when Western States do not show the least inclination to do the same for us.

They are still not even concerned about returning the cultural artefacts that were looted in the colonial period and directly or indirectly, they continue to support looting of African artefacts.

Requests for restitution are met with dead silence or insulting and baseless arguments. Is this how cultural cooperation should look like?

Hopefully, the Ife exhibition will prompt thinking about the need for Africans to learn not only about their own cultures but also about the cultures of others.


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