We read with great interest a report on the coming exhibition of Ife art in
Swedish National Museums for World Culture, on 6 September, 2013 for eight months. (1)
As readers will be well aware, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria is a travelling exhibition that started in Spain and has been to the United Kingdom and the United States of America. We have stated elsewhere our views on this particular exhibition and on the concept of travelling exhibition. (2)
What interested us most in the report was the statement attributed to High Chief Edem Duke, Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation. He announced that Nigeria has been elected to the Subsidiary Committee of the Meeting of State Parties to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. 1970. (3)
Furthermore, that a member of the Nigerian delegation, Professor Folarin Shyllon, will act as vice-Chairman of the new Subsidiary Committee:
“Duke charged the NCMM to use Nigeria’s election into the body as an opportunity to help elevate our culture and art to the zenith and to identify and repatriate our cultural properties that have left the shores of this country through illegal means, as this act threatens our socio-cultural developmental initiative”. (4)
The functions of the new Subsidiary Committee will be:
• To review the national reports submitted to the General Conference by the States Parties to the Convention;
• To share good practices, prepare and submit to the Meeting of States Parties recommendations and guidelines that can help in implementing the Convention;
• To identify difficult situations resulting from the implementation of the Convention, including topics regarding the protection and return of cultural property;
• To establish and maintain coordination with the “Return and Restitution Committee” in connection with capacity-building measures to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property;
• To inform the Meeting of States Parties of the activities that have been implemented.” www.unesco.org/new/...committee/first-session-of-
Will Nigeria and the other African States make use of the new body when they have not bothered to utilize existing ones? Membership in new bodies will not change much if the required will and determination are absent.
Sofar, African States have not made great use of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee (Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation). The Committee was set up in 1978 at the 20th Session
of the UNESCO General Conference largely at the instigation of African States including Nigeria. The committee provides a framework for negotiating the return of cultural objects stolen during the colonial days as well as those looted in post-colonial times. Tanzania presented a case for the return of a ritual Makonde mask stolen from the National Museum and later found in the territory of the Swiss Confederation at the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva. The Swiss authorities contacted the owner of the museum and the matter was resolved amicably between the parties. http://portal.unesco.org/culture
One should however not overestimate the authority and influence of the Committee that has no power to compel the parties and only offers its good offices to the parties, depending on their wills. Thus the contention between Great Britain and Greece concerning the Parthenon Marbles has been before the Committee for decades without any solution in sight.
Nigeria has been a member of the Intergovernmental Committee during the sessions of the following years: 1980.1981.1983.1985, 1987 1989 and 1993. (5) That Nigeria has been a member of this committee for several years in the past should not come as a surprise since most people in Africa regard this country as a leading State in cultural matters; many African States and their peoples look up to Nigeria for a leadership in this area which is, sad to state, often half-hearted if not entirely lacking. Recovering Nigeria's Terracotta
Prof. Shyllon, an expert on UNESCO and Culture Property Law, has himself in an article pointed out how curious it was that despite its membership in the Intergovernmental Committee, Nigeria had not raised the issue of the restitution of the Benin bronzes: Prof. Shyllon has written: “It is a matter of surprise indeed that to date Nigeria which at various times served on the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (she was in fact a foundation member of the Committee) has never sought the good offices of the Committee on the matter. Requests for return or restitution must be submitted not less than six months prior to the session of the Committee at which they are to be examined. The Committee meets every two years, although it may meet in extraordinary session. As indicated earlier, the Committee has drawn up a standard form with guidelines to facilitate the requests for return and restitution. During the third session of the Intergovernmental Committee held in Istanbul, Turkey, 9-12 May 1983, it was reported that "the representative of Nigeria also mentioned the results of various bilateral negotiations launched by her country (as well as outright purchase of objects so as to obtain their return to Nigeria) and indicated the hopes it placed in the work of the Committee." Evidently, nothing has come of the bilateral negotiations. I would have thought that Nigeria should then have proceeded to file a formal request, at least, in respect of the Benin Bronzes. If not then, at least something ought to have been done since 2002 when the Nigerian Parliament through the House of Representatives demanded the return of the Benin Bronzes. On 23 January 2002, the lower house of parliament in a motion sponsored by 57 legislators and passed unanimously called on the President to request the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes. The motion also asked the NCMM to provide a list of all Nigerian artefacts at the British Museum - and list their value.” (6)
Again in 2010 Shyllon urged Nigeria to make use of the services of the UNESCO Committee. A television report entitled,” FG urged to negotiate return of stolen artefacts” reported as follows:
“Nigeria should commence bilateral negotiations with the governments of the United Kingdom and Federal republic of Germany for the return of Benin bronzes and if negotiation fails Nigeria must seek the good office of intergovernmental committee by submitting requests for the return of the bronzes.” (7)
Will Nigeria finally raise the issue of restitution of the Benin bronzes before the Intergovernmental Committee? There are good reasons to believe that Nigeria is not very likely to raise the issue of the restitution of the Benin bronzes at the Committee. Why has this not been done until now? Membership in the committee is not a condition for bringing a matter to the Committee. What new factor that will embolden Nigerian representatives to raise the issue of the Benin bronzes? Various Nigerian governments and parliaments have taken decisions to recover the artefacts abroad but there have not been many serious concrete steps in that direction. (8)
If Nigeria raises the restitution of the Benin bronzes at the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee, it would mean that the recent miserable Benin Plan of Action is not the final word on the issue. The so-called Benin Plan of Action on Restitution was neither a plan of action nor did it deal with the questions of restitution. That document is clearly sailing under false flag. (9)
On the other hand, it is well possible that the issue may be briefly and vaguely mentioned in the committee with an indication that the parties involved are already in discussions. Should Nigeria raise the issue of the Benin bronzes, it would be interesting to see whether the demand would be presented as addressed to one particular State, e. g. Great Britain or directed at several States e. g, Austria, Britain, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and others. A mistaken strategy, most probably adopted on advice of Western museums during the Benin meeting, was to put Nigeria on one side and the Western museums, from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden on the other. Thus right from the beginning, Nigeria was in a minority position and the resulting miserable document is in itself argument that Nigeria should not discuss the issues of restitution with Western museums as a group. The history of the acquisition by each of the Western States is different and should not be mixed up in any general principles but in negotiation and solutions reflecting their specificities. As it turned out, the main holder of the Benin bronzes and the State primarily responsible for the notorious 1897 Benin invasion, Great Britain, did not attend the meetings in Benin City, advancing travel logistic problems as an excuse for not attending.
Explanations for the half-hearted position of the Nigerian authorities regarding restitution abound. Some may refer to the colonial or neo-colonial mentality of some officials and other circles that are beholden to the British and other Europeans. They seem to exercise a lot of deference when dealing with British and European officials whom some refer to as their friends. But what kind of friends are these who refuse to return your goods their forefathers looted/stole from your home or bought from the looters, knowing they were looted goods? Many of these friends make it clear they do not want Nigerians, Ghanaians and Pakistani and other none-Europeans to visit their countries.. A more likely explanation of Nigeria’s attitude towards restitution may well be found in the statement by a Swedish professor, Wilhelm Östberg, former director Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm.
“There are many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects. Informally, it also appears that the different kinds of collaboration that are currently in progress are important to Nigerian museums. That might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections, but has preferred to engage in dialogue and cooperation. It seems that Nigeria is chary of bringing the matter to a head. How does one otherwise explain that the National Museum of Nigeria was willing to lend its extensive and unique collection of Ife art to the British Museum for a special exhibition in 2010, without demanding reciprocity?”(10)
Prof. Wilhelm Östberg, wrote this after collaboration between Nigerian authorities and Western museums, including his own museum which staged an exhibition on Benin art. It appears the Nigerian authorities have not requested the restitution of Nigerian artefacts in the Swedish museum even though the representative of the Oba made such a request at the opening of the Benin exhibition in Stockholm. (11)
If the Nigerian Minister of Culture had been properly advised, he would not have expressed the wish to see Nigerian art and culture elevated to the zenith. In matters of arts and culture, Nigeria does not need to be elevated anywhere. That great African country has, by all standards, a rich cultural heritage admitted even by those who steal from her. What the country needs is a strong and determined political will to collect most of its looted/stolen artefacts from the Western world and a determination to pursue an independent course in this as well as in other areas no matter what the former colonial power and its allies may think. Subservient attitudes and increased dependence on the former colonial power cannot be considered as necessary hallmarks of an independent sovereign African State.
A well-known Nigerian art collector, Yemisi Shyllon, has roundly condemned the attitude of Nigerian leaders towards the arts and their complacency towards the question of restitution and the British Museum:
“The British Museum in avoiding the consistent and increasing pressure for the return of our looted artworks have of recent past, strategically arranged some assisted, cheap and insulting trips to England for some low and middle level civil servants of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments to carry out some curatorial works for private and public collections in England in exchange for some payment of mere pittance to the Nigerians, when compared to what they would have paid if they had used their own citizens."
Meanwhile, the Nigerian art works in the collection of the British Museum are mostly the looted works carted away from our country by imperialists from 1897 and during our period of colonisation. Our collective intelligence has of recent been insulted by a spokesman of the British Museum, when he was asked about what his country was doing about returning the looted works.
In reply, he told us to rather concentrate more on the benefits accruing to us from the on-going human-capacity development programme of the British Museum by their assisted training program in England, of civil servants instead of calling for the return of the looted works." (12)
These are serious criticisms and one would hope that the Nigerian authorities would find time to present their own views rather than remain silent in the hope that all these criticisms will soon be forgotten. The issue of restitution will not so easily disappear and has to be faced squarely and honestly.
In particular, one would hope that we shall soon receive some explanations why Nigerian museum officials seem always to be going on training to some Western countries after some 50 years of independence. It is reported in the article Ife Art heads to Sweden that: “On whether there is provision for any NCMM official to accompany the works to Sweden, Usman disclosed that two staff members of the commission will travel with the objects in two batches. They will remain in Sweden on an exchange programme for the duration of the show.”
This sounds very much like the usual training programmes presented as the benefit for Nigeria in lending its national treasures to museums abroad. Will these two officials accompany the precious objects when they leave Sweden after the show there and embark on another exchange programme at the next show in Germany? Perhaps someone will be able to offer the Nigerian public some information on these programmes. We have expressed in many articles the view that national treasures should not be lent in exchange for training programmes which Nigeria should be able to organize or pay for. (13)
Amanda Thompson, Chief Registrar and Director of Exhibitions, Museum for African Art, New York took active part in the press conference concerning the coming exhibition on Ife Art; “Responding to whether the works have been insured, Thompson said they have been insured from the moment they are packed and until they safely return to Nigeria next year.” We will appreciate some explanation on how a non-Nigerian official who is not responsible for her acts to the Nigerian Parliament or public, is invited to deal with matters that potentially could involve Nigeria’s financial liability or the use of public funds. What exactly is her role here? Could one for a moment imagine a Nigerian official explaining such matters to an American or European public?
Regarding the substance of insurance, it would have been appreciated if some details had been provided. How much have the Nigerian national treasures been insured for and by which insurance company? Is the insurance with a Nigerian, Swedish or American company? The public has an interest to know how public resources are used. There have been cases where national cultural treasures have been deliberately underinsured, with serious implications in case of loss of items. One would hope at least that the Nigerian authorities, the officials of the museums in Sweden and Germany have identical lists of items sent. We read in another article by Tajudeen Sowole:” The care and preservation of the works on tour, Thompson assured, is the “responsibility of the Museum for African Art, New York”. Ife art makes Sweden debut in Dynasty and Divinity
How can that be? The care and security of Nigeria’s national treasures are left to the responsibility of a non-Nigerian museum and its non-Nigerian official. Where then is the sense of responsibility and national pride? These two factors seem to have taken leave of absence.
We would like to bring to the attention of those who underestimate the significance of the looted Benin bronzes and their role in Euro-African relationship, the following text from a British academic. Jonathan Harris who writes in his book The New Art History - A critical Introduction :
“The question of the meaning of the “Benin bronzes” or “Elgin Marbles” in London - 1900 or 2000 - is inseparable from the issue of British attitudes towards Africa and the Orient as sites, once for direct military and political colonisation, and now for their post-imperial economic exploitation and indirect manipulation. To return them would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts that were removed ostensibly on the grounds that the local inhabitants were unfit, because of the “degeneration” of their societies, to act as their curators. Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy. Though British society may be relatively “multicultural now, its ruling elite, like that of the US, is still predominantly white, middle-class and male.” (14)
There is plenty of material in this statement for reflection by anyone concerned about repatriation of looted artefacts not only from Britain but from all the former European colonial powers and the USA which shared the ideology of racism and domination of Africans.
Almost everybody in our continent, except perhaps a few Nigerian Officials,
recognizes Nigeria’s pre-eminence in cultural matters and look up to Nigeria to
provide a vigorous and respectable leadership.
It is no accident that the famous hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia has become the most visible and popular image in African art; it has become the symbol of pan-Africanism and the African recovery from colonial oppression and darkness. Unfortunately, with all resources, Nigeria has not been able to recover this continental symbol from the British Museum that is considered by some Nigerians as a friend and helper in need. Will Nigeria have the courage to bring this to the attention of UNESCO bodies or is the involvement of Nigeria with the British institution prevent the open and public accusation of injustice?
We owe it to future generations of Africans to do the utmost to re-establish the dignity and respect for the African peoples that suffered much under Western colonialism. Is Nigeria going to help in the necessary efforts by at least securing its own national treasures?
Kwame Opoku. 15 August, 2013.