A Lifetime at the Museum


Iyoba Idia

This is the face of Iyoba Idia, the queen mother of one of Benin empire’s most powerful kings Oba Esigie who ruled from 1504-1550. It is said that without her political wisdom, Esigie would never have become king and Benin kingdom would not have gained imperial advantage over a great part of the Niger River.

The spirit of Idia so looms over Nigeria’s contemporary culture that replicas of this mask are still worn at annual rededication festivals.

The original four masks of Idia, however, were looted – along with over 3000 other artefacts – when the British ransacked the Benin empire in 1897, subsequently burning the empire to the ground and deposing its Oba [the usual story, really].

Half a century after Nigeria (including the former Benin empire) won its independence, over 600 of these bronze, copper, terracotta and ivory works are languishing at the British National Museum; an ocean away from the only original context that gives them their true meaning.

It is not for lack of trying that this art is still in the possession of Nigeria’s former colonial masters. Volumes have been written, a lot has been said, much clamoring has been done for the repatriation of not just Nigerian, but other African countries’ artworks and for compensation where the art was damaged or lost.

Britain’s response?

The museum’s collections are vested in its trustees in accordance with legislation enacted in 1753 (!), prohibiting them from permanently disposing of any object… the trustees would regard [as a betrayal of their trust] the piecemeal dismemberment  of the collections which recognize no arbitrary boundaries of time or place.

In an interview between the then curator and New African magazine, he expressed the opinion that people should not look at African objects only in Africa and that the Face of Idia is not about Nigerian identity.

I found this yet another laughable example of Britain’s (refusal? failure?) to understand the African cultural context!

Art and statuary like this are condensed records of a society’s history, its ideals and its philosophies. In particular, the fine mastery with which West Africa’s statues and stools were done reveals a level of technological sophistication which the West has only recently begrudgingly conceded. Robin Walker [never to be an African!] writes in his book When We Ruled:

The artefacts were astonishing. They included fine copper chains, profusely elaborate staff ornaments… they demonstrated geometric exactitude and perfection of form.

The heart swells with pride 🙂

An understanding of why these works were created reveals that they were not meant to be viewed in a museum – icons of leadership (like the Face of Idia), for example, were used to identify and glorify leaders. Statues of nubile women with children were placed in shrines as a communication with the spirit world – beseeching or thanking spirits for the blessing of children.

an Olukun sculpture of an Ife king


How else do the children of Nigeria today understand the beliefs of their ancestors, not just in the spirit world, but in the importance placed on children, in the noble, dignified characteristics they expected of leaders?

Are current institutions like UNESCO doing anything to help African countries in the struggle for the return of their precious art? Not really. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (never to have a brief name!) aims to curb the illegal trafficking of such artefacts – but, conveniently, only those which were taken after 1970. As it stands the Convention cannot deal retrospectively with art looted before 1970.

The British Museum is currently doing a ‘worldwide’ exhibition tour of Ife art. Interestingly, no African museum is included on the tour schedule.


13 responses »

  1. A great post. I hate how the stereotype of African art has essentially “left precision to the Westerners”. Every instance of “African art” is made of squiggles and inattention to scale and lots of “cubism”. Of course, that is part of African art, but not all. You would not know that from looking at the African art that has been preserved, especially as “modern African art”, obsessed as it is with near-abstract near-stick-figure silhouette nudes with baskets on their heads.

    These people, with their obsession with “authentic Africa” are adept at explaining away the bits that don’t fit in with the whole “Dark Contintent(tm)” viewpoint. The insistence on seeing the instances of realism as forever an importation is a case in point. Also, I am not as happy with the insistence on Western-like art being what is considered art. For example, while the sculptures and paintings would be seen as art, nobody sees the Nilotic beads culture as art. Or the bark-cloth of Central Uganda. Or the kraal layout of the Karimojong as architectural art and good defense organisation. Or the baskets of Western Uganda as masterpieces of weaving dexterity. Or the mats. Or the this or the that. If it is going to be seen as art, we start off by asking if the Europeans have done something similar before and well enough to have recognised it as art among themselves, before we can also start considering it art among ourselves. Fuck. (But, given the state of the Uganda Museum, until I start my own museum – hehehe – it may not be safe for the Brits to return our terra cotta figurines, like the Luzira Head. See also.)

    The Brits had clung to the fossilised gentials of the war god (Kibuuka) of these Baganda, until I don’t know when. The only help, I think, came from the fact that genitals are generally not good display material. Especially when fossilised. 😀

    • Excellent point! At any given art exhibition in Uganda, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one of these cubist paintings – aargh!
      It’s true, the brits and americans straight out refused to acknowledge that such precision could come out of Africa. And since they write the books on art, they get to define what is and isn’t ‘authentic African’ and we follow.
      hehehe, Where are these genitals now?

      • The genitals are in Uganda Museum, now.
        In an interesting tu quoque, the Baganda who maintain Kibuuka’s shrine are asking for his genitals back, and pulling the “invader” card on Uganda museum. 😀 “You should give back the things to their rightful owners, even as the Brits gave them back to you.”

  2. Is there like an African activists’ or art lovers’ group actively badgering the Britishers? I’m sure if they lobbied long and loud enough something would be done.

    • I don’t doubt there are some in Britain. I think our strongest platform would be the international committee on museums lobbying through the AU or UNESCO. But again, this is the UN… politics, politics 😦

    • We are the comment crack team. 😀 We prowl the corners of the ‘Net, arriving when least expected. **sound-track**
      I was even about to tell you about the wrong formatting on the text under the second image.

  3. Pingback: A Lifetime at the Museum « The Stories of Things | benin today

  4. a very interesting perspective on this was given by Edgar on facebook. I am copying and pasting his comments here:

    “That is the true mind of the colonialist. Saddens me on one hand but on the other, we have not displayed a good record of preserving those in our hands so perhaps in the interest of preservation they’re better off there than in the hands of Afn Statesmen intent on wiping out the past to advance their won agenda as the new kings of Africa…. ”

    “Am glad that a couple of feathers have been ruttled bse being Afrocentric is not about being positive in the face of logic bse it looks cool on FB. Granted, countries like Kenya’re a very good example of African gov’ts that invest in culture but that crop is rare.

    Last year Kenya invested over 10M USD in their tourism n culture industry, TZ 6M n … See MoreRwanda abt 2M.Ug on the other hand a little over 300,000!!! (rough figures; i dont have the report with me here so am picking these figures from memory so crosscheck with the report for accurate figures)

    In Kenya there are buildings that are privately owned but prohibited by law from changing the exterior because they form an intergral part of Kenya’s Architectural history. U only need to drive through KLa to tell me wha tis happening with ours.

    Mr. Ian n Charly dear, if you have been to West Africa before, u’ve talked the people on the ground n should hav a clear picture of the choas there. Apart from Mali, Gambia, Ghana n Senegal, which other countries have displayed any noteworthy respect for artefacts. Do you know how much cultural history was destroyed in the Biafra for instance, or in the oil control conflicts of the 80s n early 90s!!!!

    Artifacts are very delicate. so forgive me if I am not too eager to hand them over to irresponsibel gov’ts. they need to display the ability to preserve them first n then lay claim when the’re lost, they’re lost for good.just visit yo own musuem n tell me how weel it is kept……”

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