Book review – The Art of Benin Repatriation and the Repatriation of Benin Art

Peju Layiwola. Art and the Restitution Question.Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria  Wy Art Editions, 2010.  Illustrations.244 pp.  $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-978-902-703-3.

Reviewed by Joseph Nevadomsky
The Art of Benin Repatriation and the Repatriation of  Benin Art
There are several features of this book that deserve review andcomment. First is the title, intriguing and open to interpretation.The “.com” suggests commercial applications in terms of sharing themarket on Benin brass castings. “Restitution,” too, suggests someform of financial liability rather than the more constrainingrepatriation. (Transfer of money and deeds is easier than movement ofproperty.) Leasing cultural identity or creating new identities ofownership and transfer are viable options as the “.com.” Maybecultural property is a loan agreement into which banks shouldventure, like sub-primes and refinancing. Everything is negotiable inmarket economies. When money talks, heritage walks.
Second, Peju Layiwola’s book is about her art, the production of it,the exhibition that displayed some of it, and the accompanyingsymposium that opened the exhibition. Layiwola, noted forinstallation art, offers an exploration of Benin art, heritage, andrepatriation as she interprets this in mixed media: clay, calabashes,and layered copper among them. The art is meant for us to reflect onthe Benin kingdom, on its downfall and removal of palace objects, andespecially on the political agenda of restitution. This is aided bythe essays of various commentators.
Layiwola is the daughter of Elizabeth Olowu, an accomplished artistand a half-sister of the present Oba (king) of Benin, Oba Erediauwa.Princess Olowu is noted for her cement civic statuary. Daughter Pejuis a studio-trained installation artist and university teacher. Thismagnificently produced book celebrates daughter Peju’s artconstructions, with essays about her and by her, and photographs ofher work and workshop, as well as photos of family, friends, andconference associates. It contains essays from the opening symposiumin Lagos (from where the exhibition traveled to Ibadan, Abuja, andBenin City).
Keenly observed accounts of her creativity permeate thistext–narratives that warmly capture a place and time with emotionalasides and that demonstrate how Layiwola’s lifelong affection forBenin has imprinted her imagination. One example of Layiwola’s workas shown here consists of gourds painted with images, each labeledwith the name of a different Benin king. They are suspended in a waythat reminds one of a roped lattice or patio divider. The onethousand terracottas mostly replicate late (ca. nineteenth century)Oba brass commemorative heads, although they are less detailed.Intended as protest art, they are not as symbolically potent orascorbic as, say, Barbara Donahue’s _Amber Waves of Grain_, anexhibit of thirty thousand ceramic nose cones that representedAmerica’s nuclear arsenal in 1986.
Several essays are a paean to her art, and suitably adulatory. Aforeword by her uncle, the_ _king of Benin, places her skills infamily surrounds; a preface by Tunde Babawale (director of the Centerfor Black and African Arts and Civilization in Lagos) highlights thecontemporary relevance of her art for education; and a note by MimiWolford (d irector of the Mbari Institute for Contemporary AfricanArt in Washington DC) describes how she and Layiwola became closefriends. There are, too, an anonymous “A Profile” about Layiwola, andan introduction by the artist that illuminates her socialization,schooling, and artistic training.
Also by Layiwola, “Resurrecting the Disappeared: ARecontextualization of 1897″_ _is a memory lane recounting of how herfamily background intersects with her art. There may be a comparisonhere to Amir Nour’s 1969 _Grazing at Shendi_, 202 stainless steelsemi-circular arches evocative of childhood memories of goats grazingin the Sudan.
Two other essays also use Layiwola’s background to explore her art.”Material Culture, Maternal Culture, Peju Layiwola’s Art and ItsObligations” by Mabel Evwierhoma (professor of theater arts at theUniversity of Abuja) takes off from the artist’s childhood as anemanation to dwell on feminism and women’s art. Inniversity ofWisconsin) takes us through the exhibition, seeing it as ametamonument that in its iconography depicts a multitude of subjectsthat synecdochically stand for Benin monarchs and subjects bothbefore and after the Punitive Expedition of 1897. For High, ameta-monument is a postmodern construction that requires ambulatoryviewing and critical reflection to comprehend how an art installationglorifies the past and connects it to the nostalgia of the present.
Interlarded among these encomia are serious examinations ofrepatriation by proponents, and this is the third feature of thebook. The essays take the path of political rectitude in declaringBenin objects in Western museums as “looted,” “stolen,” “arroganttheft,” “aggressive art imperialism,” and “pillaged culturalheritage.” The essays are variously incisive, vitriolic, andexplosive, but never petty. Beyond that, while Western museumdefenders of their loot see their domain as a “curatoreum,” which,like a crypt or mausoleum, preserves the dead, the authors here seethe Western domain as a “curatorium,” which destroys culturalidentity as a crematorium destroys the dead. Trying to fathom how toresolve such oppositions is a mug’s game.
Some of these essays are primed to “history” as fraud, andrestitution as legit payback. Sola Olorunyomi (who teachesperformance and media art at the University of Ibadan) offers “Hmmm… 1897? Or an Introduction,” hitting the reader with a discursiverebuttal of a colonial master text: what he calls the “mortifyinglingo of colonial speak,” a reference to the bug-bear “civilizingmission”–and argues that the events of Benin’s past set the textualagenda (p. xx). The reinterpretation of the 1897 British PunitiveExpedition now includes plays (e.g., Ola Rotimi’s _Ovonramwen_[produced in 1971, published in 1974])_ _and the 2009 rap musicaltrack _1897_ by Osaigbovo Agbonze (alias Monday Midnite). In “Art,Anonymity, Anger and Re-appropriation,” Benson Eluma (freelancewriter) comments on the artificial distinction between “looted” Beninart and “contemporaneous” Benin art, or between “authentic” value and”repro” ersatz.
“Negotiations for the Return of Nok Sculptures from France toNigeria: An Unrighteous Conclusion” by Folarin Shyllon (dean, Facultyof Law, University of Ibadan), an expert on cultural property, goesbeyond his knowledge about Nok terracottas to offer details about theBenin Idia ivory hip mask requested for loan by Nigeria from Britainfor the celebrated 1977 FESTAC (the Second Festival of Black andAfrican Arts and Culture). Britain refused, and an excellent replica,equally iconic, carved by a young man from the Benin Arts Councilreplaced it as the logo for the festival. Dipping into subalternstudies, Sylvester Ogbechie (associate professor of art history atUniversity of California, Santa Barbara) in “The Sword of ObaOvonramwen: 1897 and Narratives of Domination and Resistance”_ _tellsus the effects that the collapse of the Benin kingdom had on thepolitical economy of outlier groups, such as the Western Igbo,expressed in the telling phrase by one of the Ogbechie family: “Uwakpu ekpu” (the world turned upside down).
“Of Desecrated History, Memories and Values in Peju Layiwola’s RecentWorks,” by Akin Onipede (Department of Creative Arts at theUniversity of Lagos), is a travail that laments the violation of apeople’s cultural heritage and shows how Layiwola’s art excites theconscience to expose Western chicanery. Kwame Opoku is a polemiciston cultural affairs willing to take on the likes of anti-repatriationadvocates, such as James Cuno (director of the Art Institute ofChicago). Opoku is noted for positing sharp and lucid rebuttals. In”One Counter-Agenda from Africa: Would Western Museums Return LootedObjects if Nigeria and Other African States Were Ruled by Angels?” hetakes up the hoary issue of secure and suitable locations forrepatriated objects; this leads quickly to observations onobscurantist African leaders, indigenous looters, and localnonchalance. He takes head on a practical consequence ofrepatriation: what to do with returned loot and where to chamber it?
There is a lot of petrol in these contributions, a fair share ofangst and anger, retorts, and shifts in linguistic discourse from thelanguage of the managers of art to the language of putative owners.The arguments for the repatriation of Benin objects are remarkablyintelligent rather than histrionic. What remains wobbly and largelyoff stage is the fact that Nigeria’s museums are so unkempt andmismanaged as to not deserve that restitution.
Layiwola’s creations are meant to make a statement and the symposiumpapers published here are meant to highlight that. But there is adisconnect between her art and the repatriation issue. The gourds andclay busts do not have _that_ symbolic or monumental impact. What dothey evoke? Are they compelling? Layiwola’s pieces _can_ be seen asplayful or as profound, whimsical rather than channeling one’sthoughts to repatriation, and a celebration and remembrance ofdynastic continuity; nostalgia for a kingdom past its glory but stillintact in some ways. The gourds, each painted with the name of a kingare a fun garden partition, like large chimes swaying in a rainforest breeze. Other installations are incredibly thoughtful:_Chequered History III _(2009),_ _of polyester, glass, and acrylic,expresses the fragmentation of Africa as a consequence of the BerlinConference of 1884 and of colonialism. _Theatre of War_ (2009),__terracotta and copper, documents a timeline of the PunitiveExpedition and participants. Compare her installations to the Beninplaques that once graced the wall of the left staircase andconfronted visitors upon entering the British Museum, not necessarilya display of imperialism though the aggregation of plaques can besurmised that way, but arguably a glorious display of the historicart of a West African forest kingdom. Maybe Layiwola’s installationsharbor the same ambiguity and discursive complexity.
Of real value is the color catalogue that occupies the second half ofthe book. In addition to workshop photographs, the major installationpieces are described from inception and meaning to production andarrangement. Of particular importance is Layiwola’s insistence onutilizing her art as teaching aids for school children and communitygroups to bring about a level of cultural awareness of historicalpatrimony. She melds art practice and social activism without outrageor stridency.This is really where her art succeeds. While it may notgarner the international attention or allure of Christo’s _The Gates_(2005) or _Running Fence _(1976),_ _her art serves as an anthem and abeacon. Like the _AIDS Memorial Quilt Project _laid out on theWashington Mall in 1987 that commemorates and calls attention tothose who died of AIDS, Layiwola’s art exerts an educational force inits own dominion.
Citation: Joseph Nevadomsky. Review of Layiwola, Peju, Art and the Restitution Question_. H-AfrArts, H-NetReviews. October, 2010.URL:
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