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BENIN IN BERLIN: A SUCCESSFUL RECONCILIATION OF THE AESTHETIC AND THE ETHNOLOGICAL

The exhibition, BENIN, 600 YEARS OF COURTLY ART FROM NIGERIA, Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, 7 February 2008-25 May 2008, has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that there are no unbridgeable obstacles to presenting an exhibition which fulfils the demands of a good ethnological presentation of art works and artefacts and also takes into account modern aesthetic requirements of the public that visits such exhibitions. To this extent, the curator, Dr. Paola Ivanov and her colleagues at the Ethnology Museum, Berlin must be congratulated for their excellent work.

   Right from the steps leading to the entrance of the exhibition hall, the visitor is made aware that the Bini or Edo are not an extinct people but a modern people  some of whom are among the 1300 Nigerians living in Berlin. A few Edo, whose large images are presented before the entrance, remind us that we are dealing with our contemporaries who are in various professions and are presented as building constructors, engineers, fashion designer, and accountant.  They are mostly around 40 years of age, the men dressed in the style favoured by many in Western Europe, trousers, jackets. Two of the ladies are dressed in the traditional West African style with beautiful head-gears and look very elegant.

 

      The organizers of the exhibition seem very determined to avoid the accusation that the issue of restitution was not mentioned at all, as happened in Paris and therefore raise the issue, right before the entrance to the exhibition hall by presenting the answers obtained from the Edo whose images dominate the entrance. If the visitor does not hurry to the hall, he or she could read the responses to the question, inter alia, what role the history and the Benin art works play in their identities. They all seem to favour the return of the Benin bronzes even though some scepticism was expressed about the safety of the objects unless their return was carefully controlled. One expressed the view that the originals might be kept in Berlin and replicas sent to Nigeria! Another view was that the Berlin museum might consider giving part of the income derived from the Benin art works to Benin.

   Two of those interviewed stated that they had a theatre play which was addressed more to the British than to the Germans. The piece was to show how the British conquered the Oba and stole the Benin Bronzes. They did not want the Benin pieces in Berlin to be returned to Benin. I wonder whether the two gentlemen were aware that the Berlin museum, with over 500 pieces of Benin artefacts, had more than the British Museum.

  

   With all due respect to the Museum of Ethnology, asking Edo persons in Berlin about the role of the Benin pieces in their lives and the return of the pieces to Benin is putting the wrong question to the wrong people. The issue of restitution is not whether the Benin people, in Benin or Berlin, want their artefacts back. The question is whether the Germans are finally ready and willing to return the pieces to Benin. It is for those now holding the Benin objects to declare their position and not for those who have been deprived of their historical records to state whether they want them back. That the Benin people want their objects back has been amply stated at various occasions and in various way. The catalogue of the Benin exhibition contains an introductory note by the present Oba, Omo N’Oba Erediawu, in which he expresses the wish of his people to have their artefacts back. Moreover, at an International Symposium held in May 2008  at the Ethnology Museum Vienna, the brother of the Oba, Pro.G.I.Akenzua, Enogie of Evbuobanosa, appealed to all those holding the Benin bronzes to return some of them  to the Benin people. I understand the German are treating all these appeals as addressed only to the Austrian Government and people. What a farce! Incidentally, the Austrians have not yet published the records of the symposium where the issue of restitution was debated.

   The organizers could have asked Germans, instead of Africans, whether the Benin bronzes have now become part of their lives and culture as the infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums (2002) seems to be claiming. Have the Benin queen mothers become Berliners, as their Egyptian sister, Nefertiti is alleged to have become and if not, what are the reasons for the different treatment?  How come that the Nigerians who came to Berlin in 1897 have not become Berliners but the Egyptian queen who was abducted to Berlin in 1913 is regarded as German? Are there some special immigration rules at work here that offer different conditions to African queens depending on whether they are from Nigeria or Egypt? Or are other factors such as race, colour, culture, religion, etc at work that can explain the different fates? And why is the Egyptian Queen in the Altes Musuem whilst the Nigerian Queens in the Ethnological Museum? Is the first more civilized than the others? Has the distinction made by Luschan and others between peoples of nature (Naturvölker) and peoples of culture (Kulturvölker) been at work here? Will the museum authorities ensure that when the museums in Berlin are reunited on the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) this distinction is abandoned and all cultures from Africa are put at one place or next to each other and not dispersed at various places or will they follow the foolish racist ideas of Hegel and company that Egypt is not really part of Africa, and separate Egypt and Sudan, from other States of the African continent? Africa seems to be the only continent which some foreigners, sitting outside it, decide what belongs to the continent and what does not. Imagine some Africans or Asians determining what belongs to Europe and what does not. How will the Europeans feel, if Africans decided that for some reasons, Scandinavia was not really part of Europe?

 

    Once we reach the exhibition hall we are presented with a magnificent display of the bronze works in well-lit glass cases with  contrasting  backgrounds of orange, red, blue and green which serve very well to concentrate attention on the works themselves. The impression is one of liveliness rather that clinical sterility which the all white display in Paris sometimes risked creating. The large halls also contributed to creating a feeling of openness and spaciousness which allowed us to move very freely from one object to the other.

The lights seemed superbly organized even though in one or two places we thought there should have been more  light but this seemed to have been more a momentary technical failure. On the whole, the qualities of the various objects were better presented here than in Paris or Vienna.

   We noticed at the entrance of the hall the Portuguese canons and the statement from Dom Manuel I, King of Portugal, to the Oba of Benin in 1514 to the effect that as soon as the people of Benin  convert to Christianity, they would be given weapons, canons and other equipment for war which they could use against their enemies. This seems to symbolize well one of the major role of Europeans in Africa throughout the ages: to supply weapons for wars amongst African peoples and to cause maximum destruction despite all protestations to the contrary and in defiance of United Nations resolutions.

 

   The information offered to the visitor was generally sufficient for making an individual appraisal even though here and there we found statements one might wish to discuss further. The information is given, without  any critical appraisal that the British refused in 1976  to loan Nigeria, the ivory hip mask of Idia which was the mascot of FESTAC ‘77 (Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture , Lagos,15 January – 12 February 1977), on conservatory grounds. We know since then that the British simply did not want to loan to Nigeria its own artefact, for the same reason that the Germans do not now want to lend Nefertiti to Egypt: the fear of non-return. Moreover, the exact legal nature of the so-called “loan” is not very clear. Can the owner of a stolen object “borrow” it from the thief? And what happens if the owner refuses to return it? What will be the legal grounds for the British to sue the Nigerians for the return of the Benin artefact?

   Regarding the premeditated aggression against Benin, the information given in the exhibition indicates that the so-called treaties of protection   were signed under pressure. In fact all such treaties of protection were unequal treaties and had no validity under International Law although the imperialist powers used them as pretext and legitimacy for attacks on African kingdoms such as Benin, Asante (Ghana) and Dahomey (Republic of Benin). Often these documents were written only in the languages of the colonialist powers and were not fully explained to the African States.

   The trial of the Oba Ovonramwen and the execution of the nobles of his court were a travesty of justice in which the British acted as complainant, prosecutor, judge, jury and executor. There was clearly no fair trail (see the very pertinent remarks of the present Oba at the  Centenary Ceremony, African Arts, summer 1997, Vol.XXX, No.3, pp.30-33). When we read and hear about such cases we should ask ourselves who gave the British the authority and legitimacy to try the king of a sovereign and independent nation whose only offence seems to have been to his attempts to defend his country and kingdom. We realize of course, that most Europeans and Americans, both scholars and non-scholars do not ask such questions when Africans are concerned.

   The notes at the exhibition state that “in the course of the conquest of Benin city, a fire broke out under mysterious circumstances and destroyed large parts of the city”. This is a surprising statement in view of the fact that we know from the cases of Asante (Ghana) in 1874, Magdala (Ethiopia) in 1868 and others that it was the standard practice of British Punitive Expeditions to loot such royal houses and set fire to whatever remained. Moreover, in the specific case of Benin, Ekpo Eyo has clearly demonstrated in his criticism of William Fagg that the fire to the palace of the Oba in 1897 was deliberately started (Ekpo Eyo, “BENIN: The sack that was” http://www.dawodu.net/eyo.htm.) So what impressions is the curator trying to create here?

   The museum offered detailed useful information on the exhibition on 12 photocopied pages, free of charge. I must confess that I would have appreciated a beautiful brochure of better quality as was   provided in Paris at a reasonable price (carnet d’exposition). Surely, in an exhibition of this nature where there is emphasis on the excellent craftsmanship of the Benin artists a brochure of better quality production would  have contributed to a better appreciation than the normal photocopy pages. The emblematic portrait of Oba Ewuakpe on the cover of the provided document clearly does not bring out well the skill and the craftsmanship of the Benin artists.  This is all the more a pity since the excellent exhibition catalogue, edited by Barbara Plankensteiner, is some 500 pages long and not many exhibition goers would ever want to hold this in their hands or even read it. Their only documented souvenir of this exhibition would have been the brochure.

 

  The exhibition will not go to Nigeria and thus the people of Benin will not be able to see an exhibition of their culture which others in Europe and America will see. This is highly regrettable since many of the pieces in the exhibition have not been seen by the Edo people since they were stolen from them by the British in 1897. Where then is the co-operation between Nigeria and the institutions that contributed to the exhibition?

     The issue of the restitution of the Benin bronzes will not go away and will remain on the agenda of the Edo and other African peoples and their governments until an acceptable solution has been found. Those who have successfully organized the exhibition must ask themselves, in their hearts and minds, whether the brutal deprivation of a whole people of their historical records and cultural artefacts is compatible with the rule of law and human rights.

    The exhibition goes on to the Art Institute of Chicago, U.S.A. from 8 July to 21 September 2008. What will be the emphasis of the exhibition at Chicago, taking into account that the exhibition place is not an ethnological museum but an institute of art? Will the exhibition be preceded or accompanied by the kind of provocative statements we have been hearing from there recently that have already irritated the large Nigerian Community in Chicago as well as other Africans?

                                                                           

Kwame Opoku.                                                                               

19 March, 2008.

        

     

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