Opinion : An Exhibition on Nigerian arts without Nigerians

By Dr Kwame Opoku | Tue 15 January 2013

1.Seated female statue, Idoma, Nigeria, in Musée du Quai Branly ,Paris, France.2. Soompe, double-figure statue, Chamba peoples, Nigeria, in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, USA. 3.Mother & children, Lower Benue, Nigeria, in Horniman Museum, London, UK.

Kwame Opoku (Dr) explores the moral contradictions surrounding the Nigeria-Arts of the Benue River Valley (Arts de la vallée de la Bénoué Nigeria) exhibition

We have just received an excellent catalogue of the exhibition, Arts de la vallée de la Bénoué Nigeria (Nigeria - Arts of the Benue River Valley) which is taking place at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France from 13 November 2012 to 27 January 2013.

The exhibition no doubt shows some 150 impressive wood, terracotta and metal sculptures demonstrating the diversity of cultures and the creative genius of the peoples of the Benue Valley.

What struck me though, in this Age of Restitution with various discussions about the return of cultural artefacts looted or otherwise illegally exported from Nigeria, is that the artefacts all come from Western institutions and private persons. The artefacts have been lent for the exhibition by institutions and private individuals. Of the 19 institutions, 12 are from the United States of America, 2 from the United Kingdom, 1 from France, 1 from Germany and 2 from Switzerland. The private individual lenders are also from the United States and Europe. There are no lenders from Nigeria..

A look at the contributions to the catalogue shows that there are no Nigerians among them. We looked at the bibliography given in the catalogue and noted that out of the 76 writers mentioned, 6 came from Nigeria. And the remaining are from the United States and Europe except one writer of Congolese origin...The preponderance of Western presence is thus massive in all aspects of organizing and presenting the exhibition.

In her acknowledgement of the help given by several persons, the curator thanked the lenders and those who helped in the United States of America and in Europe by name, expressing the hope that she had not forgotten to mention the name of any person. Some 183 persons and 24 institutions are mentioned. When she comes to acknowledge the help she and the other scholars received from Nigerians since 1960, she declares that they are too many to mention and mentions no Nigerian by name or any Nigerian institution. So much for the sincere acknowledgements in French which will presumably not be read by any of those whose help and assistance she wishes to acknowledge. After mentioning so many names in the Western world, she did not seem to find it odd not to mention Nigerians who had helped the scholars. This seems to be a Western scholarly tradition; one treats Americans and Europeans in the way that most people would expect but when it comes to Africans, there is a very different treatment. I am sure the writer did not intend to offend anyone. But this is what makes such differentiated consideration even more annoying. Africans are accorded different treatment as this appears most natural to some Westerners. Was this difference in treatment accidental or is there a system behind it?

Shrine figure by the Idoma artist, Oba, Idoma, Nigeria, now in Fowler Museum, United States of America

Illegal acquisitions

The general introduction of the catalogue states that both Fowler Museum and Musée du Quai Branly possess vast collections of Nigerian artefacts. But how did all these excellent works of Nigerian art reach the United States and Europe?
The introduction states that there were essentially two waves of collection of the artefacts from the Benue River Valley. The first wave was constituted by Western anthropologists who did field work in the area between 1949 and 1953 mentioning in particular the research of Laura and Paul Bohannan on the Tiv who were followed by other researchers in the 1950s and 1960s. The second wave of collecting was in the 1960s and 1970s when the Biafra War (1967-1970) provoked a large exodus of artefacts via Cameroon for the international market through dealers in Paris and Brussels. Most of those artefacts were acquired by private collectors but later on ended in art galleries in the United States.

According to the authors of the Introduction, Marla C. Berns and Richard Fardon most of the works shown in the catalogue were sold or stolen during and after the Biafran War when art traffickers and dealers profited from the porous of the eastern frontier of Nigeria and the tragic poverty of a country at war. The authors add that in all probability most of the sellers of these objects were not aware that the sale of objects that were the property of their community required export licence. This raises the question whether these sales were legal or not at the various stages of actions that are now some forty years old. The authors quote John Picton as stating that:

“The fact that a work of art, that formerly was in a shrine or temple, is now in a museum, wherever that museum may be may be, does not automatically lead to the supposition that the process of its acquisition was necessarily illegal. Only a thorough research could clarify this question. In the meanwhile, we must agree at least admit that the object can be seen and published, if we do not want to remain in ignorance nourished by prejudice and disinformation”. (P.25)

What an extraordinary defence of illegally exported artefacts. The authors have convincingly explained that most of the artworks left Nigeria during or after the Biafran War and that many of the sellers may not have been aware of the need of export licence. But Picton is suggesting that we must not presume that such works left Nigeria illegally and that only thorough research could we settle the question of legality. With all due respect, it would seem to us that most of these objects, like most Nigerian artefacts abroad, must be presumed to have been illegally exported unless the holders can prove the existence of a relevant export licence. The need for export license for antiquities has been a requirement of Nigerian Law since 1953.

The fact that some sellers may not have been aware of this legal requirement does not make the export legal. Moreover, the Western purchasers, including the museums, were aware of this requirement but did not bother, as some of them still do, to worry about legal requirements. In this regard, I agree with Derek Fincham when he states “My rule of thumb when visiting a museum is, if they don't tell you about the history of an object, there is very good chance it was looted.”

In any case, ignorance of legal requirements is no excuse.

In an interesting contribution on the development of the market for the arts of the River Benue Valley that completes the catalogue, Hélêne Joubert concludes that the absence of properly regulated market has at least contributed to the preservation and conservation of these artefacts that are now to be found in European and American collections. It is this kind of reasoning; much beloved by Westerners, that annoys most non-Westerners. Having stolen a huge amount of our artefacts, Westerners tell us: be happy, the objects now exist in Europe and America that would otherwise have been destroyed. One could thus justify most criminal and nefarious activities of Europeans in their colonies.

What is generally missing in this catalogue is an impression that there is a sincere feeling of unease or guilty conscience among the owners and organizers of the exhibition for the massive illegal transfer of Nigerian artefacts from the River Benue Valley of Nigeria. There is no indication that efforts are being made or will be made to return some of these objects to Nigeria. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments has called for the return of artefacts that left Nigeria illegally. We are not aware that the Commission has approached the organizers of the exhibition or the lenders of objects to arrange for the return of any of the objects.

The exhibition which started in the United States of America , in the Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, (February-July 2011), went to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (September 2011-February 2012), then to Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, May to October 2012) is now in Musée du Quai Branly Paris, France (November - January 27,1213). But this travelling exhibition will not be shown in Nigeria or any other African country. Neither the United States nor France would grant visa to Nigerians who want to see these objects of Nigerian culture. So for whom did the Westerners preserve Nigerian cultural objects? Do Nigerians and other Africans need not learn about Nigerian art? This should worry all those concerned with our cultural development. In cases such as this exhibition, where we are told that little is known about the objects and that many of them were removed from Nigeria, in 1967-1970 or at an earlier date, a large number of Nigerians will not be familiar with these objects. Somebody would have to explain to Nigerians why they cannot see the objects in this exhibition.

This exhibition demonstrates the preponderant influence of the Western world over African art; the West has most of the excellent pieces of African art and has demonstrated that it can organize exhibitions on African art, such as Nigerian art, without the Nigerians and Nigerian scholarly input. These fine objects are African but the rest is Western. Who finally benefits from such exhibitions? No doubt one may find a few of the Nigerian elite who may even express their pride that Nigerian culture is being exhibited in the West but have they thought about the long term effect of such a trend? Have they thought about the negative effect of Western dominance in this as in other areas? Have they considered whether a country that is so dependent on the West to exhibit its culture can truly enjoy the advantages of independence? The West seems to have taken full control over the narrative of Nigerian Art History. Whoever directs Nigeria’s culture and cultural policy, directs the destiny of its peoples and that of many African peoples.

Mask, Cross River, Nigeria, now in private collection in Paris, France.

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Fowler Museum and Musée du Quai Branly possess vast collections of Nigerian artefacts. But how did all these excellent works of Nigerian art reach the United States and Europe?

Dr Kwame Opoku

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