Benin1897.com provokes you to step into a triple-layer of discursive event: as seen through the exhibition of the artist, Peju Layiwola, a colloquium and publication by nine scholars drawn from across the globe on the vexed issue of art-stripping and the restitution question in relation to Benin. Benin1897.com refers to the British 'Punitive' Expedition and also presents an artist's impression of this cultural rape of Benin. It seeks to recontextualise the event of the invasion, during which the nascent British imperialists sacked an ancient government and its monarch, Ovonramwen (ruled c.1888-1897), and looted its, largely bronze and ivory, art works over a schism that seems more orchestrated than real. Till date, families from the old kingdom still speak of their losses, in human and material terms, yet our world speaks tongue-in-cheek.
Over the years, Peju Layiwola has been experimenting with forms and media ranging from terracotta, copper, bronze and gold, among others. 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. The pathos of the OmoN'Oba's foreword in the catalogue is unmistakable: "The year 1897 means much to me and my people; it was the year the British invaded our land and forcefully removed thousands of our bronze and ivory works from my great grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen's Palace."
Such rendering also runs through Peju Layiwola, herself a scion of the Benin kingdom; A granddaughter of Oba Akenzua II (1933-1979) and a daughter of the sculptress, Princess Elizabeth Olowu. Early sneak reviews suggest that, 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. Speaking in a tone quite similar to HRM, Peju in relation to the stolen artefacts, remarks sharply that: "They who once enjoyed the splendour of the palace are now trapped behind glass wall in foreign lands."
The exhibition opened with vibrant discussions on the issue of restitution and the repatriation of cultural property to Nigeria. Speakers were Professor Folarin Shyllon, Former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan and Professor Ademola Popoola, Dean, Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. The chair of the colloquium was Professor Akin Oyebode, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos.
The accompanying publication features essays by
- Kwame Opoku, Commentator on Cultural Affairs
- Folarin Shyllon, Former Dean of Law, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
- Professor Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
- Professor Freida High, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA
- Mimi Wolford, Director, Mbari Institute for Contemporary African Art, Washington DC, USA
- Professor Mabel Evwierhoma, University of Abuja, Nigeria
- Benson Eluma, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
- Akinwale Onipede, University of Lagos, Nigeria
- Dr Victor Osaro Edo, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
- Dr Peju Layiwola, University of Lagos, Nigeria
- Dr Sola Olorunyomi, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, Co-Editor and Curator
- This project is supported by The Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), the University of Lagos and the University of Ibadan.