Museum Security Network

Revisiting the 1897 destruction of Benin

Revisiting the 1897 destruction of Benin
By Akintayo Abodunrin
April 3, 2010 07:22PM
The looting of African artefacts and the ceaseless calls for their
repatriation will take centre stage when ‘Benin1897.com: Art and the
Restitution Question’, a solo travelling exhibition by artist, Peju
Layiwola, opens.
The exhibition, being organised to mark Nigeria’s 50th anniversary,
will open on April 8 at the Main Auditorium Gallery, University of
Lagos, and run till May 30. The Enogie of Obazuwa, Edun Akenzua, will
declare the exhibition open.
‘Benin1897.com’ is a touring exhibition, and will berth at the Museum
of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, from August
19 to September 19. The Edo State government will subsequently host
the exhibition at a yet-to-be announced venue.
Kill and loot
In February 1897, a ‘punitive expedition’ was sent to Benin to capture
the king and destroy his kingdom in retaliation for the killing of a
British Counsel and his party on their way to investigate reports of
ritual human sacrifice in the city. But the punitive expedition not
only went beyond its brief – capturing and destroying the city – it
also engaged in large scale looting of artefacts. Among other war
‘booties’, about 900 Benin bronze works were taken from the city to
“defray the cost of the war.” Many of these are held at the British
Museum in London, and have been the subject of long standing
contention between Britain and Nigeria.
Most of the works were bought by German museums where they remain till
the present time, while about 50 found their way to Britain. The works
featured in an exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the sack of
Benin at the British Museum in 1997. Though there have been numerous
and consistent calls for the repatriation of bronze works and other
artefacts, the European countries that are in possession of these art
pieces have refused to let go of them.
Filling a void
‘Benin1897.com’, featuring a colloquium and publication by nine
scholars on art-stripping and restitution, is Layiwola’s impression of
the destruction of the city. Layiwola, a lecturer in the Department of
Creative Arts, University of Lagos, is a granddaughter of Oba Akenzua
II (king of Benin, 1933 to 1979) and daughter of Elizabeth Olowu, the
first sculptress in Benin.
Curator of the exhibition, Sola Olorunyomi said, “The current
exhibition could as well be described as her most ambitious; at once
affective and deeply contemplative, it arrives with a 244-page
publication and catalogue with 154 colour illustrations.
“Besides its intellectual content, this effort could equally be read
as an exercise in filial cultural intervention, something not just of
a professional obligation but an anxiety to fill an autobiographical
void. Through this cultural action for freedom, the past seems to be
indicting the present, as one offspring of a brutish encounter is
beginning to throw barbs of indictment at past abuse of power.”
Folarin Shyllon and Ademola Popoola, both professors of Law, will
speak on restitution and the repatriation of cultural property to
Nigeria at the colloquium that will open the exhibition. Akin Oyebode,
another professor of Law, will chair the session.
The Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), the
Edo State government, Universities of Ibadan and Lagos, and the
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, are supporters of the
exhibition.
Scholars, including Folarin Shyllon, Slyvester Ogbechie, Freida High,
Kwame Opoku, and Benson Eluma, have essays in the accompanying
publication to the exhibition. Others are Mimi Wolford, Mabel
Evwierhoma, Akin Onipede, Victor Edo, the artist herself, and Sola
Olorunyomi.

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