Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Benue Valley "Art" in Western Collections

Kwame Opoku discusses the catalogue of the exhibition, Arts de la valle de la Bnou Nigeria (Nigeria – Arts of the Benue River Valley) which is taking place at the Muse du Quai Branly in Paris, France from 13 November 2012 to 27 January 2013.
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 Muse 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?
Or, put another way, What actually is meant by "preservation" by western collectors, dealers and museums? It seems to correlate here with "taken away" by one group from another unequal group. What actually then, is meant by the term? 
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 Nigerias culture and cultural policy, directs the destiny of its peoples and that of many African peoples.
So this preservation effort is exclusive, divisive. Not inclusive and uniting. Very little intercultural collaboration seems from this to be involved. 
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 porousity 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 the 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. [...] In an interesting contribution on the development of the market for the arts of the River Benue Valley that completes the catalogue, Hlne 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 indication 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. There is no sign 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 for the West. 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 absence of properly regulated market has at least contributed to the preservation and conservation of these artefacts in European and American collections". That rather speaks for itself...

Benue valley

Vignette: What EuroAmerican collectors term "art" is in fact just a fragment of a wider cultural reality.

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