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Benin1897.com presents an impression of the cultural rape of Benin, says Peju Layiwole

Today at the main Auditorium Gallery of the University of Lagos, a historic traveling exhibition titled, Benin: 1897.com packaged around the historic plundering of the rich treasures of the ancient city of Benin by the British invading forces will be kick started by His Royal Highness, Prince Edun Akenzua, the Enogie of Obazuwa.

The show that exhibits the works of University of Lagos teacher of the Creative Arts Department and curated by University of Ibadan based multi cultural scholar, Dr Sola Olorunyomi is also expected to tour the nation’s capital city, Abuja and Benin, Edo State capital, the very home, where this historic drama of dislocation took place. In this interview, the artist, Peju Layiwole, a versatile multi media artist and art scholar takes time to explain to Arts and Book Review the essence of this historic exhibition. She spoke to McPhilips Nwachukwu. Excerpts:

1897 is a very important historic date in the life of former Kingdom of Benin. As an artist, you have also become very engaged with this historic year. What exactly is the  theme, 1897.com all about?

1897.Com- one of the works by Peju Layiwole

The .com in 1897.com refers to an internet domain name which means commercial. The motivation for the 1897 event was based on an overwhelming economic interest to rob Benin of her treasures. It may interest you to know that  British plan to loot Benin, annex it, and make it a protectorate is revealed in a letter written by the British Foreign Secretary to the Home office in 1896, i.e. before the ambush.

In that letter, the Foreign Secretary requested approval of home government to invade Benin and depose the reigning king.  The letter clearly stated that: “I would add that I have reason to hope that sufficient Ivory would be found in the king’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the king from his stool.”

British records

In other words, the attack on Benin was premeditated and British records of the event also reveal sheer greed.  Even during the attack on Benin, the soldiers took note of natural resources in the region and took samples of unique plants.  They were reported to have lamented the loss of rubber trees burnt during the invasion.

Overwhelming economic interest is the main factor that sustains the desire of foreign museums to retain Benin artefacts. When Europeans view Benin objects in their museums, they have no cultural connections to them. What they appreciate is the artistry and commercial value of these works. From being pieces acquired as war booty with value enough to cover the cost of an expedition, Benin works have over the years appreciated in value such that they now attract incredibly high prices in auction houses.

The commodification of Benin art by the West, contrasts with the image of the works regarded not only as religious and sacred icons but as historical documents. The plaques, like the ancestral heads, as HRH Prince Edun Akenzua describes are like “pages ripped off from our history books” and “records of our soul”.  These diverse and contrasting meaning of Benin works, primarily by the owners of the culture, and then the West, unleash a paradox that is revealing of neo-colonial injustice to the continent of Africa.

The 1897 event represents a well documented history of greed and outright looting of works.  The pictures of British soldiers sitting in the midst of their loot is a constant reminder of the shameful acquisition, and have become images of grand theft that come to mind in the 21st century reading of this event.

Benin1897.com presents an artist’s impression of the cultural rape of Benin. It is an attempt to utilize art as a means of recalling art. It seeks to bring alive this discourse particularly on the continent and at no better time than now, when Nigeria turns 50.  Indeed, some scholars are of the view that at Nigeria’s 50th independence, the British ought to have returned Benin works looted in 1897. Benin 1897.com is also a website which provides information to people on the issue of 1897 and this project.

When did this idea come to you?

As an artist who grew up in Benin, I have always drawn inspiration from Benin  culture. A lot of my works reflect the rich cultural traditions of the people.  However, I was involved in the Broken Memory Project initiated by Bernard Muller in Paris and was invited to both Paris and Switzerland to make presentations on how colonial incursion to Nigeria disrupted the life of the people-hence the title,Broken Memories.

Soon after that, I was invited by the curator of African collection in the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna to make a presentation in Vienna for a forthcoming exhibition titled, Benin Kings and Ritual: Court Art from Nigeria. This traveling exhibition which opened in Vienna moved to Paris, Berlin and Chicago betwenn2007 and 2008.  During that exhibition, I  had the honor of presenting the lecture that brought this epoch making exhibition to a close in Chicago in 2008.

Ever since, these events I began a systematic documentation of 1897 which is a historical marker for Benin.

Even as a student art scholar, were you at any time engaged with the 1897 thread?

Certainly, you couldn’t go through an art school without learning about this historical events.

To what extent has this important date gone to shape your entire artistic practice and scholarly interventions?

Looking at the scope of the project which is not only an art exhibition but also book project and colloquium, Benin1897.com is a triple layered event that seeks to bring alive the discourse particularly as Nigeria commemorates its 50th anniversary.

Cultural rape

It is an event which has given direction to my work and also food for thought for as many people come in contact with information regarding this cultural rape of Benin and Nigeria as a whole.

So, how long did it take to prepare for this exhibition  including the works meant to be showcased? I had begun working about five years ago on some of the works. But last year I took out time to work on this project during a Sabbatical leave from the University of Lagos to the University of Ibadan. The calmness of the University of Ibadan campus provided the right atmosphere for my work. Within the one year leave, I worked extremely hard on the project to complete it.

Since it is an exhibition that is tied to the cultural and historical fate of a people, to what extent are the people of Benin involved in this project: from the royal stool to the State government?

Well I have had tremendous support for this project from the people of Benin and particularly from the Edo Royal family. 1897 represents a watershed in the history of not only the royal family, but the entire people of Benin. Several families lost both properties and lives during the event.  We also know that some of the high chiefs were hanged by the British during the invasion. But as of now, we haven’t had any firm commitment from the Edo State Government on this project, but I believe and hope that when the exhibition moves to Benin, they might be involved.  It would be a shame if the exhibition doesn’t berth in Benin which is the center of  this discourse.

Previous exhibitions

Previous exhibitions which have originated outside but based on Benin have not been shown in the city.  This would be one avenue for the Edo State Government to show their commitment to culture and the history of the people of Benin.

What is the feeling of the Oba in particular about this exhibition?

The Oba wrote the foreword to this project which means he is totally in support of it. It was his heirloom that was stolen from the palace. The popular Festac mask was taken from the bedroom of his great grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen.  So we are talking of a personal loss here.  Any project that seeks to recount this experience and calls for a redress of that event should be a welcome idea for not only his HRM, but also to Nigerians as a whole.

How do you think that this exhibition would help to re- engage the restitution project?

The works on display are directly connected.  The title piece which is 1897.com is a work that comprises of 1000 heads and plaques displayed in the manner that  the British soldiers stockpiled them after the attack.

An estimate 3,000-4,000 works were removed from the palace of the king. And I,000 heads are about a quarter of the works plundered. As people work into the hall to view this monumental installation, they will begin to understand the scale of theft and plundering that went on in Benin. The project aims at providing more information on this encounter .

In that case, that is where we think that you should have involved the National Commission for Museum and Monument or do you think it is not necessary?

Of course it is necessary. We have always invited the NCMM to partner with us. This platform provides an avenue for them to educate the Nigerian populace about their own commitment to the restitution question.


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