SINCE the beginning of the year the National Museum, Lagos has been in the centre of intense efforts to reposition it to play its pivotal role of showcasing Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage to the world. Such recent efforts saw the director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, US, Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole visiting Nigeria in a partnership being forged by the Ford Foundation. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, she talks about the timeliness of the partnership between the two institutions and the Owo art exhibition being planned to commemorate Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary in the US and Nigeria.
What is the purpose of your visit to Lagos?
I came to Nigeria go spend time with a colleague of mine Dr. Christin Creamer. We came to help to move along what we think is a historic collaboration. Some might use the word ‘partnership’, that’s appropriate; some might say a cooperative effort, that too is appropriate. I’m even tempted to say it’s a blessed notion involving the National Commission on Museum and Monuments and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Ford Foundation. These are the three parts; while it would have been okay to have e-mails or periodical telephone conversation, nothing could move this project along like our coming face to face to work this out.
What does this involve? First and ever so importantly, a partnership, collaborative effort never goes in one direction alone. We will respectfully offer what we know, what can do, what we know about how to present an exhibition; what we know about how to conserve traditional works; what we know about educational outreach. But in no way do we see this as our helping the museums of Nigeria. We see it as our presenting what we know but being eager to receive what the museums of Nigeria know.
And so, the partnership, while we can sort of leap along, I guess, the two museums systems, we have a third partner that makes this very special and doable. That partner is the Ford Foundation.
An exhibition of Nigerian art is being planned for the US next year to mark Nigeria at 50. What is the level of involvement of the Smithsonian Museum?
Well, I can say to you as the director of the National Museum of African Art that we have made a decision that we wish to present not only to the American public but to all our international visitors the importance that’s expressed through art, the importance of the independent movement in Africa.
But we are going to spotlight, we’re also going to lift up in particular the fiftieth anniversary of the Independence of Nigeria. We have wonderful plans. For example, we’re are going to present a retrospective of art of the art of one your country’s most famous contemporary artists; he’s Yinka Shonibare. We also are now planning with Prof. Ekpo Eyo to present what we call the ‘Jewel Box’; we’re thinking of a small but exquisite exhibition of Owo art.
Not the art of Ife; not the art of Benin although we all know the time line. But this will focus on Owo. I have to tell you I just left the home of Prof. Ekpo Eyo. Can you imagine what that was like to sit there with world’s scholar in general and Nigerian art but specifically on the art of Owo? Now we are exceedingly pleased that the first lady of Nigeria will be one of our honourary chairs. So too will be Dr. Camil Olivia Cosby, who is the wife of Bill Cosby. So, it was a grand celebration. Again the independent movement in Africa will be focused on Nigeria.
Has the Smithsonian Museum of African Art had any contact with museum system in Nigeria before now?
Let me explain something. There are 19 different museums under the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. 19 museums, nine research centres and a national zoo. And so, the Smithsonian is the largest complex of museums in the world. Among the 19 is the museum that I’m honoured to serve as a director, and that is the Museum of African Art. While the Smithsonian has been since the 1800s, the Museum of African Art, we have only existed under the Smithsonian for only 30 years. Which means over the cause of those 30 years, you know we have contact with Nigeria; you do not African art unless you do Nigeria.
And, in the cause of those 30 years, we have had exhibitions that focus on Nigeria art. Let me explain though; what is different about now is that the Ford Foundation is helping us to create what I’m going to call a Model Partnership. A model partnership in the sense that we want, for example to take this Owo exhibition. And from the beginning of the exhibition and after we will be a partnership exploring, how do you choose works for the exhibition. We will be in partnership in talking about how do we conserve pieces; do we need to conservation on art pieces. We’ll be in partnership in research and in launching of the exhibition. Importantly, this exhibition must not only open in Washington, it must come back to Nigeria.
Will this be partnership and exhibition be confined only to Owo art or will it be extended to other parts of Nigeria?
I think it’s a mistake to talk about this period of art is better than that period of art. It’s a tendency that we have to always want to put things in a hierarchy. What is important to me is that the art of Owo is not well-known as Nok; it’s certainly not as known as the Ife and it comes nowhere near known as Benin art.
But if you were to understand the extraordinary timeline in Nigerian history and in the expressions of Nigerian art, you cannot leave out Owo.
There’s this perception about African art, that it does not enjoy the status of mainstream art in world art discourse like European or American art. Is there a way African can be made to rise beyond the margin of historical narratives?
That’s an outstanding question; I love the question. You know, we cannot separate, in my view, African culture, from African history, and from the current social, economic and political realities on this continent. And, I’m going to say to you quite candidly and quite boldly; it’s not Africa’s fault that she is marginalised. She has been put there, first in historical terms by the process of colonialisation. She has been put there by those who say they control notions of quality, whether it’s Europeans or people in the United States. This is not the doings of Africa. But I do think, to correct the marginalisation, Africa must be a full partner in doing so.
Our museum is dedicated to challenging that notion. That if you want the best of art, you must go to the root. I have been in Nigeria for two days. I have seen art that I think it’s silly to talk like that. It’s a different art in the sense that it comes out of a different reality. And so, it’s a process now to correct so many misconceptions. I need to tell you how many people in my country still have this outrageous notion about what Africa as a continent is like and about what its visual and other art are.
What is your view about the repatriation of African, particularly Nigerian art, especially the one in the British Museum?
I most comfortable talking about the museum where I’m director. There’s a certain currency associated with UNESCO having to do with repatriation. We follow those currencies to the letter. I’m speaking in particular; recently a gift that came to the museum, a gift of great value. But we could not absolutely prove that that piece has not been stolen. And so, we sent it back to Liberia. I can give my word that in the National Museum of African Art we do not have stolen objects.
Now, what is my position beyond my own museum? It is that the government and the National Commission on Museums and Monuments of Nigeria must engage in conversations with governments and museums all over the world about these Nigerian treasures.
Relationships come and go. How long will the one between the Smithsonian and Nigerian museums persist, and what benefit will it bring Nigerian museums?
Individuals are important; we know that. People make things happen but when we institutionalise a partnership that is chiseled between the two systems, the Smithsonian and museums commission, then the better.
You have a great adire outfit on you, how do you feel wearing a Nigerian dress?
Today I worked throughout the museum, and I cannot help but be impressed and inspired. When I look at the collection of the art of Nigeria, I was literally overwhelmed not only by the quantity and the quality. The moment when I, a former educator, a former college president, was literally moved was when I met with the education department. Their enthusiasm, their sense of mission, their dedication to using whatever resources that they have in the best way possible.
So we had a wonderful exchange, and I thought that’s it. When we were ready to go, I was presented with this gift. All I can tell you is that I was like a child at Christmas, who can’t wait. You got a wonderful new gift, you’ve got to wear it! So, immediately after receiving it, asked a simple question. Who will tie my gele? Six women educators came forward. That’s why I’m wearing this. I hope it is received well by Nigerian people. I feel good in it.