Benin Court Arts: Weighing Economics and Emotional Cost

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By Orobosa Omo-Ojo JP

The closing ceremony of the management retreat organised by the National Commission of Museum and Monuments held in Benin City, Edo State on June 25, 2021, provided a veritable platform for Governor Godwin Obaseki to provide a sneak preview of the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts, EMOWAA.

Several questions, ranging from economics of art, business of art and emotional values of arts as well as the archeology of Benin heritage were answered in parts.

His well prepared paper focused on the retreats theme: “Developing Museum Infrastructure and Resources for the Sustainability of the Culture and Tourism Sector of Nigeria”.

He delivered the paper with PowerPoint presentation and was illuminating enough to earn the support of the select audience that filled the magnificent new ‘Festival Hall’ in Edo Government House.

For the first time, participants, decision makers in Nigeria’s Cultural Heritage institutiins and guests at the retreat discovered that the concept of EMOWAA was created to capitalize and perpetrate the cultural homogeneity of the old Benin kingdom, which spread across the Sub-Saharan as early as 15th century.

According to Governor Obaseki, the museum therefore, “will provide leadership role (both in tangible and research forms) for arts and culture across the West African States.”

As part of the road-trip to the actualization of EMOWAA, Edo State Government in conjunction with the German Federation have concluded works on the enumeration of Benin Court Arts that were looted during the 1897 Benin City punitive invasion by the British. This has been achieved through what Obaseki called – ‘Digital Benin’.

The project was financed by the German government to document majority of works in major museums around the world.

Obviously, this is an outstanding silent achievement that deserves applause from renaissance seeking heritage enthusiasts, custodians, researchers and governments.

For several years, the actual numbers of the looted Benin Court Arts were left in the realm of guesstimate, but the ‘Digital Edo’ project has the capacity to narrow down the margins.

The museum is a collaborative project between several stakeholders, including Edo State Government, the Benin Royal Palace, the National Commission of Museum and Monuments, and some global institutions and museums.

The scope of the project includes axillary facilities such as hotels, heritage history research centre and archeological research center which will be sponsored by the British Government.

There is also provision for the Benin Royal Museum building, which is the brain child of His Majesty, Oba Ewuare II.

Governor Obaseki also used the occasion to plead for a common purpose to ensure that the looted Benin Court Arts are finally returned home.

Anyone that is conversant with the intricacies involved in global heritage art business will appreciate Obaseki’s call for uniform approach to seek and welcome the exiled Benin Court Arts.

These works have become an intricate part of European entertainment and Gross Domestic Product of their economy. They may therefore capitalize on discordance tunes to renege on their agreements.

It may also discourage the private holders of these works from returning the unaccounted numbers in their possession.

The fledgling credentials of Benin as home to cultural tourism have remained in folklore for several years without deliberate effort to develop any tangible tourism asset.

Gradually, all the residual resemblance of tourist attractions and tourism assets have been destroyed or left to idle away.

After several years of abandonment, what was left of the Benin Moat Wall that was once listed as a World Heritage Centre was finally destroyed by the administration of Adams Oshiomhole, between 2008 to 2016.

The Benin Palace Wall that is listed as one of the tourist attractions by Edo State Government has been redesigned and subjected to modernism.

The bronze casting and wood carving traditions, sadly have never received serious attention from governments. The importance of these works only strikes emotions from the royals, cultural enthusiasts and researchers whose only sources are stories written with orality of divinity.

Luckily for Edo people, the present administration led by Godwin Obaseki and the king, Oba Ewuare II, have reinvented the wheels to reenact the lost glory.

They are both hastening the return of Benin Court Arts to their ancestral home. No doubt, the cooperation is capable of placing Edo State on the global heritage tourism calendar, with unprecedented economic growth, including job creation.

The end result of this mutual relationship will eventually fulfill the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO’s charter to put returned artifacts for the entertainment and education of all.

After decades of campaigns for the return of African artifacts that were forcefully taken away, their homecoming is looking like a possibility, therefore, this opportunity must be guarded with all sense of patriotic and selfless purpose.

From the discussions so far, a great number of these works will remain in Europe and America to continue with their acculturation process of impacting on the social and psychological well-being of their host.

Also, the remaining works in exile will form reservoirs for any future museum projects back home or expansion of existing ones.

This may not be the season for politics or uncontrolled emotions. What should be uppermost now to all stakeholders is the safe return of those tangible heritage assets that will forever remind us of the seven days war waged against Benin Kingdom by the British!

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