The Arts

December 27, 2018

Objects removed under questionable circumstances be returned- Layiwola

Objects removed under questionable circumstances be returned- Layiwola

*Prof. Peju Layiwola

By Japhet Alakam

APART from the award night, one of the events that really shaped the 2018 Life in My City Art Festival, LIMCAF, was the LIMCAF lecture. The lecture which was part of the activities lined up for the yearly festival with the topic: Engaging with Expropriated Objects and History, was delivered by a renowned art scholar and lecturer, Prof. Peju Layiwola of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos.

*Prof. Peju Layiwola

The lecture which was held at Radio Nigeria Auditorium, Enugu was chaired by Prof. Cliff Nwanna,  also had the presence of Dr Obiora, Mr Ken Okere, Prof. Frank Ogiomoh, Chief Kevin Ejiofor, Mr Ayo Adewunmi, Mr Chuka Nnabuife and many art enthusiasts especially the art students from the Institute of Management and Technology, IMT, Enugu.

Speaking on the topic: Engaging with Expropriated Objects and History, the speaker who has given several lectures on Benin-looted objects at different fora thanked the board of LIMCAF for the great opportunity of presenting this year’s lecture, stated that the topic is a topical issue given the attention it has garnered locally and internationally with one country or the other asking that objects which have been removed under questionable circumstances be returned to their country of origin.

Holistic look at the return of looted objects

The speaker who took a holistic look at the all important topic structured her paper into three parts.

In the first part, the speaker provides a brief overview of looting that went on in Africa during the colonial period. Some of them include the looting in Ethiopia 1868 – The Battle of Maqdala where a large number of gold crowns, chalices, manuscripts, jewellery and religious icons were looted from Emperor Tewedros II in Ethiopia.  “Today, these looted works can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,” she added.

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Also in 1874, British soldiers invaded the Asante capital of Kumasi and carted away exquisite gold objects. These looted items comprised exquisite gold artefacts and regalia of the king. One of the expropriated objects was a mask made in pure gold weighing about 1.36kg. These items are now in the Wallace Collection in Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Benin experience which is one of the most documented cases of expropriation in Africa was also examined. In 1897, British soldiers who set out on a so-called peace mission to convince the king to keep the terms of an agreement he had signed earlier, were attacked and the British response later led to the great invasion and looting of artefacts from Benin.  These works were taken to Europe where they were sold to offset the cost of the expedition.  This story is a celebrated one known to many Nigerians and Africans on the continent and the diaspora. Although it happened 121 years ago, it is still being recounted like it happened yesterday because true restitution has not been carried out. Although the story has been retold often, the scale of plundering  becomes the more  devastating when one views these works displayed in foreign museums.

The second part discusses artistic engagements from Nigeria by artists who have shown great commitment to documenting these uncomfortable histories through their practice and in many ways, drawn attention to the loss of cultural patrimony.  Here, again, she situated her artistic trajectory particularly on two projects carried out in 2010 and 2014 in Nigeria, and her most recent exhibition titled Return held in Rhodes University, South Africa.

The third part which in titled Matters Arising is the concluding segment  and it addressed some of the issues raised in the course of the presentation and discussed our attitude as a people, and as a nation to issues of cultural preservation. It also provided worthy examples of some private initiatives that offer a glimmer of hope in  propagating the heritage, culture and art of Nigeria.

Concluding, she pointed out  that it will truly appear that the Nigerian State has no strategic plan for the recovery of Benin Objects. According to her: “In my book, I stated a specific case of a government official who yanked off an antiquity from the National Museum to be presented to the Queen of England and how a one-time head of state/president signed off the Nok Terracotta to the French Government.”

Continuing, she pointed out that another worrisome issue was  responses that have come from Nigeria in regards to the issue. Many were of the view that the works should remain in Europe -why should they return them to Nigeria, can’t you see the state of our museums? If the works are returned, they will be looted again.”

On this, she suggested the following: “First, we must rethink the concept of museums in Nigeria. Why do we need to keep these very foreign structure of displaying objects the way we see them in foreign museums?  Objects were not kept to be viewed behind showcases. They were meant to be activated during festivals and other cultural events. Shrines, sacred spaces and squares were sites of memory that housed the repository of a people’s culture.  “We must think of more creative ways of engaging these objects- through various media such as film, performances, video etc.  There must be a new way of thinking to create greater appeal for younger audiences and people.

“We must change the fetish narrative of African Art- home videos that further demonise African tradition, culture and belief systems, making it more distant to us. She  added that the  National Orientation parastatal and other agencies  should act to correct the fast eroding cultural values and to remove all the hurdles that seem to be destroying the culture.

“Furthermore, lamentation about the comatose public institutions is not the answer.    Thanks to some private individuals who have taken control of their destinies and begun their own initiatives that have done so well to promote Nigerian art and culture. Some of them include the Board of Trustees of LIMCAF for sustaining this vision for several years and giving it a national spread.

Others are Sheroe, Bisi Silva’s Centre for Contemporary Art, SMO Contemporaries, Rele Gallery, Mydrim, Thought Pyramid, Nike Arts Gallery, Omenka Gallery and others who  have brought a lot of international attention to art in Nigeria through  engaging programmes, exhibitions, talks etc. They   have indeed evolved a system which despite all odds, seem to be working. They have transformed the art scenes and made it more vibrant, promoting it at international levels.

Finally, she also commended some individuals and organisations for their efforts towards preserving the culture through the building of museums. They include Lagos State Government, the Chimedie Museum by Obi of Onitsha, Engineer Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts in the Pan-Atlantic University and others.