Fate of our stolen artworks

PHOTO: Nerve Africa

Though I had some pressing issues that were yet to be resolved, my spirit was high as I drove that October afternoon. This was probably due to the music from the car cassette player and the Jap car that seems to bring out its best on every long stretch. I was on one smooth stretch and it was purring contently as I was humming along lustily to the song from the cassette player. This was in October 1983. I had been posted from Port Harcourt to the far north – Mubi, to be precise. Before departing to what I then regarded as a God forsaken place, I decided to see my maternal grandma at Ozoro in Bendel (now Delta) State. I was driving there that day with the car that was under one year old. But my high spirits were dampened a few minutes after I got home that day.

As was my habit, I decided to greet the extended family members in my late grandfather’s palace before going to see my granny. On getting to the front of the brick mansion in which my grandfather, His Royal Highness, Orokpokpo Egware II, the Ovie (King) of Ozoro lived as well as used as court, something caught my eye. “It can’t be!” I told myself as I moved closer to the object. It was used to cover the opening of a hens’ coop right in front of the ancient house that once hosted Chief Obafemi Awolowo and other dignitaries in Western Region politics in the 1950s. The chicken shack right in front of the house was infuriating enough but if its ‘door’ was what I feared, then that’s over the top as far as I was concerned…“Is that not Happy…. and what are you staring at there…. are you not coming to greet me as you have greeted others?” It was my Uncle who was now living in my grandpa’s mansion asking in a somewhat rebuking tone. (My birth name is happy New Year or Happy for short.) My fears were not unfounded! “Uncle, I am taking this ‘Thing’ covering the entrance of your hen’s house…” I said after greeting him as an elder. He protested vehemently but yielded after I promised to give him money with which to buy a sheet of old zinc that he could use to cover the entrance of his impudent coop. The ‘Thing’ being referred to here is a golden tray of about four feet in diameter with three strange figures emblazoned on it. The hair of the bigger central figure are like ostrich feathers while flowers, leaves and some strange designs were also emblazoned in-between the three persons. As kids in the fifties, we used to marvel at the artwork on the tray which was one of the items that decorated my grandpa sitting room cum court in those days when kings were kings. Out of traditional respect for elders, I couldn’t rebuke my Uncle who had turned the tray into a trash. Though it was now blackened and the artworks almost indiscernible, I knew what to do to bring it to life again.

Before my grandfather’s death in January 1961, he used to stage a festival every year for all the deities in the palace. It was during this festival that his own and inherited silver, elephant tusks, royal swords including historic objects from the shrines such as bronze figurines, manilas, and a piece of canon gun were displayed after being cleansed or polished. I knew that the liquid of the tiny orange which we call lime was used in polishing the golden tray and on returning to Port Harcourt, I did just that and it glowed as if it was fresh from the foundry. (Google “To Girls Be The Glory” to view the tray.) From my estimation, ninety nine per cent of Nigerians don’t value works of art just like this my Uncle and that’s why I don’t support the persistent calls from some high quarters for the return of artworks stolen from Africa by Europeans. The calls which reached a crescendo in 1977 over the United Kingdom government refusal to release a Benin mask in their museum, was recently re-ignited by Mr. Emmanuel Macron, the French president.

During a visit to Mali last year (2017), Macron had hinted that his country intends to return artworks dubiously acquired by French museums and individuals to their owners in Africa. He was reported to have since set up a committee to document all such artworks estimated to be over 70,000. Mr. Macron is not the only notable to make the call recently. During Prince Charles’ visit to Nigeria this year (2018), the Benin Monarch, Ewaure II, was also reported to have told him that his country should return the artworks looted from his ancestor’s palace in 1897 by British soldiers.

These calls morally correct as they are, have nottaken into cognizance the reality on the ground. If one may ask, what are we going to do with these artworks when they are eventually returned? Ican’t speak forother African countries so I will dwell only on Nigeria.

Nearly all the one hundred and eighty million people in Nigeria are either Christians or Muslims and many adherents of both religions have reservations about artworks. For instance, many Pentecostals believe Nigeria problems began after 1977 when all the jujus of Africa were brought to the country in the name of Festac. (African Festival of Arts and Culture hosted by Nigeria in 1977) By juju, they mean all the artifacts especially the logo and the cultural displays. Even up till today, some Christian denominations still burn shrines with all their carved or molded images when their owners convert to Christianity. Most of the artworks to be returned from abroad were in fact taken from shrines that no longer exist today because those that should have inherited them have become Christians who now regard such art treasures as satanic.

The perception of artworks by Muslims is even worse than that of Christians. All Muslims see artworks especially statues as idolatry and that’s why they are not displayed in their homes, offices and in roundabouts. The fundamentalists among them see the destruction of such works as a passport to heaven. With Boko Haram still lurking in one corner, it would be foolishness to return highly prized artworks to northern Nigeria.

The threat religious fanatics pose apart; building museums for returned works of art as the governments will probably do is not the best way to optimize what we could get from these art treasures. The cost of building a new museum or expanding the existing ones as well astraining personnel to run them will constitute a drain on the lean finances of the state. Like every government venture, the money from tourists will not be well accounted for to offset the running cost of the museums.

Lastly, the claim that the artworks when returned will connect the young ones with their past is far from the truth. What disconnect us all, not only the youths from our past is the foreign religions we have embraced stupidly for nearly a century now. With our present religious mindset, we are likely to lose rather than gain if the stolen artworks were returned.

Methinks striking a deal whereby royalty would be paid regularly in cash or in kind by the foreigners keeping these art treasures to the owners (like the Oba’s Palace) makes economic sense. Our ancestors may be the creators but the truth is that whites value works of art a thousand and one times more than we do. Gold, it is said, is sold to those who know the value.
Maduku wrote from Delta State.

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