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.
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.
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.