Friday, June 27, 2008

Benin Court and Ritual Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago

The blockbuster show, Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, organized last year by the Museum für Völkerkunde—Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna will make its final stop at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago beginning July 10. This exhibition, the most comprehensive collection of Benin arts ever, including the finest examples of the court and ritual arts from the Kingdom of Benin, is a must-see for anyone interested in the subject. It is my hope that the Chicago version of the exhibition will be as well installed as the inaugural show in Vienna last year. But as with traveling exhibitions--particularly those coming to the US from elsewhere--there will be quite a few substitutions, due to restrictions from lenders who often are leery of possible litigations, shipping costs, or just due to bizarre, outright stupid legalese by the US customs. Already, I understand that the FESTAC mask, the copy of the so-called Queen Idia mask Nigeria had commissioned in the 1970s after they failed to convince Britain to loan the original piece from the British Museum, is not likely to make it to Chicago. In fact I understand that this mask is presently stranded in some shipping warehouse, having been refused entry by the US customs. And the problem? Well, it turns out that because the Queen Idia copy was carved in the 1970s after the ban on elephant ivory imports into the US, which makes the mask a contraband! So, baring any creativity around this law, this magnificent copy will not make it to Chicago, which of course raises an even more pertinent question: so if the copy is ensnagged by the law because of its recent manufacture, why not bring the original from the British Museum? That would be even better for the show! Perhaps the Metropolitan Museum, NY might lend its own less impressive, original, Idia mask, but it won't be the same as either the BM's or even the Nigerian copy.

Barbara Plankensteiner, the curator of the Benin exhibition, promises to write about the fate of the Nigerian Queen Idia mask and its curious trip to the US. Let's await her story for all the details. In the meantime, whatever will be included in the smaller Chicago show from Europe and Nigeria, and from American collections should still be a sumptuous feast for Benin scholars, connoisseurs, and dilettantes. I regret though that nothing will be heard on this side of the Atlantic about the passionate plea made by the Oba of Benin during the opening of the show in Vienna for meaningful, good faith discussion about the possibility of loaning some of the works in European collections to the Palace as a compromise solution to the thorny, complex question of ownership of the bronzes most of which were looted by British soldiers (of fortune!) in 1897 during the so-called Punitive Expedition. In his Vienna speech, the Oba made it clear that though the Palace is the rightful owner of the objects, it recognizes the irreversible(?) history of their removal and incorporation into national, public and private collections in the West, and is not calling for their permanent return to Benin (possibly because there are so many national and international legislations and political imperatives that make such talk all but academic. At least for the moment!). Alas, because of the immense economic and symbolic value attached to these materials as objects d'art, but also because of enduring anxiety of loss people feel when they claim ownership of something that came into their holdings as a result of their ancestors' sordid actions, the Oba's proposal will never reach the ears or assail the political consciences of the Western "owners" of the Benin treasures.