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Plunder on a Pedestal

At the Art Institute's summer show, Benin royals get a good look at the stuff they want back.



There was plenty of polite pomp surrounding the opening of "Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria" at the Art Institute of Chicago last week. A royal entourage from the Kingdom of Benin—now part of Nigeria, and not to be confused with the independent Republic of Benin—came to town for the show, which originated in Vienna and consists of 220 works, primarily brass sculpture and intricately carved ivory culled from major European and American museums. There was a gala party for more than 600 in the former Gunsaulus Hall, making its debut as an event venue. But at a press preview two days before the opening, Princess Theresa Erediauwa read a short speech on behalf of her father, Erediauwa I, the Oba of Benin. "I have made it a personal goal to build a museum in my country to display this art," the Oba's statement declared, and went on to say that he hopes to see at least some of it returned.

That's a touchy subject, since nearly everything in the exhibit was stolen by the British 111 years ago, when they invaded the city of Benin, burned much of it to the ground, killed its top officials, and sent the reigning Oba into an exile from which he never returned.

What's more, the event was taking place on the home turf of Art Institute director James Cuno, whose new book, Who Owns Antiquity?, champions the claims of museums over nations in the tussle for the world's cultural treasures.

The Oba's cousin, Prince Ademola Iyi-Eweka, also in town for the festivities, says he has "mixed feelings" about the exhibit, which he thinks of partly as a testament to the ordeal of his great-grandfather, the exiled Oba Ovonramwen. The joyous part for Iyi-Eweka, who's lived in Madison for the last 20 years and works for the city school district, is the chance to see so many objects he'd only heard about before. You have to understand, he says, that because Benin had an oral rather than a written tradition, "these artifacts contain the history of my people."

An Edo-speaking city-state with origins going back to the 12th century, Benin was a vibrant force in Africa for hundreds of years. When the Portuguese arrived, in the 15th century, Benin forged a trading alliance with them and prospered by exporting goods including spices, ivory, and fabric—and, in later years, slaves—to Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. Metal casting had been practiced in Benin since the 1200s, but after the Portuguese brought in supplies of copper, Benin's artisans refined their methods and began producing one of the world's most remarkable bodies of work in brass. The Obas, considered divine rulers, actively supported the artists' guilds and commissioned work from them; ritual art and artifacts were used to honor the royals and to communicate with sacred ancestors. Most spectacularly, during the kingdom's golden years in the 16th and 17th centuries the palace walls were said to be covered floor to ceiling with hundreds of finely detailed brass bas-reliefs depicting Benin's history and customs.

In the late 19th century, when the European powers took it upon themselves to divvy up Africa, Britain claimed the Niger area. Benin had the audacity to resist, and in 1897, after an unwelcome delegation of Brits was ambushed on its way there, the British launched what they called the Punitive Expedition. After destroying the city and banishing the Oba, they stripped the palace of its artifacts, shipping thousands of them back to England, where they were sold to cover the expense of the invasion.

"We were writing in art and craft, recording history in bronzes and carving," Iyi-Eweka says. "Because these artifacts were taken, we are now struggling to reconstruct that history." The treasures were widely dispersed. Many wound up in museums, others disappeared into private collections. A great thing about this exhibition, Iyi-Eweka says, is that it's collected the work and put it in the spotlight. "Unless they bring them out, we don't even know what is out there. Now, we'll know some of them. The cat is out of the bag."

Iyi-Eweka says he "worked hard to convince my people in Chicago" to support the exhibition. "Many of their ancestors died in [the British] war." But, he reasons, "If your rooster is stolen, you go to the police and say your neighbor stole your rooster. The police will say 'Can you describe it?' And you say, 'It's a rooster.' Is it black or white? And you say, again, 'It's a rooster.' Are the police going to listen to you?" Now there's a better description of the rooster.

Princess Theresa was followed at the podium by Ochi C. Achinivu, head of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, who said the exhibition stirs "our remembrance that these masterpieces were once our collection, under a single ownership, in one place." Achinivu appealed to "the conscience of institutions and collectors around the world to give thought to what they collect and how they collect it." He also announced that Nigeria is developing a comprehensive database of Benin's missing treasures that will identify and locate each piece.

After a word from Art Institute curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, who's been working on the exhibit since before Cuno's arrival in 2004 (the catalog is 472 pages), everyone adjourned to the galleries where artifacts of the court of Benin waited: fabulous dwarfs, stunning black leopards, coral-beaded royal garb, and bas-relief obas. Iyi-Eweka made his way slowly past one display after another to the most incredible artifact of all: a huge photograph placed near the exit. Taken aboard a British yacht, it shows three soldiers, armed with rifles and swords and standing at attention behind a seated, robed, and clearly outraged man who looks very much like Iyi-Eweka. "That's my great-grandfather," Iyi-Eweka said. "In shackles."

Osaro Uhunmwangho of Evanston's Edo Arts and Cultural Heritage Institute worked with the Art Institute on the exhibit and argues that it will put Benin Kingdom "back on the map" and educate people about the difference between the kingdom and the republic. "This exhibition is not about ownership," Uhunmwangho says. "This exhibition is about seeing the art."

That'll be possible at the Art Institute through September 21. After that, Chicagoans have another option: they can trek over to the Field Museum, which owns 400 pieces of Benin treasure—one of the world's largest collections. About 20 percent of that collection, including huge carved tusks, numerous altar heads, and a bas-relief in which the Oba clasps the hands of his supporters, is on permanent display in the Field's Africa exhibit; the rest is in storage. With the exception of a few new pieces, it's all plunder from the Punitive Expedition.v

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