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Godwin Obaseki: What we are doing to get stolen art back to Benin

Governing Council, Society for Art Collection (L-R): Prof. Fabian Ajogwu (SAN); Adedotun Sulaiman; Ibrahim Dikko; Dr Okey Amueyiagu (Chairman); Ngozi Edozien; Jess Castellote (Director, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art); and Nero Asibeluea

The Edo State governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, has added his voice to the ongoing debate around the world concerning several pieces of Benin art taken away by British officials after the famed expedition to the old Benin Kingdom in 1897.

“For us in government, art is very integral to our existence. I would say that if any society has anything cultural and artistic to sell to the world from West Africa, it is Benin City,” Obaseki said as special guest at a colloquium organized in Lagos by the Society for Art Collection. “Because we see it as a core advantage that we have, we’ve had to sit back and ask ourselves: how do we optimize the opportunities of our past and of the works that some of our forebears have created?”

The governor, who is an art collector, described the stolen art as outstanding. “Some of those works are amazing! When I saw that ivory leopard in the British Museum, I couldn’t believe that my forebears created such excellent pieces hundreds of years ago.”

While agreeing that it was essential that all the art was returned to their points of origin, Obaseki said it was equally necessary to do a comprehensive census of the works kept in museums, galleries and private collections around the world.

“Let us take the conversation from another angle: let’s establish the provenance of these works, let’s establish exactly how many they are, what is where and let’s understand how they arrived in your location, whether in a museum or in private collection,” he said to the room packed with individual and institutional collectors of Nigerian art.  

He also added that while the general clamour was for all the stolen art to be returned to their owners, he believed some should be left abroad, “because they are our ambassadors. But we need to know them, we need to explain to our children and subsequent generations what they mean, because they are a part of us.”

The Edo State government, he added, is currently looking to raise the much needed resources as it collaborates with museums and galleries in Europe to build an iconic, world-class museum in Benin City to house the works when they are eventually returned.

“First, we are working with the Berlin museum on documenting these pieces globally,” Obaseki said. “The next step is to show them to our people. We know not everybody can travel abroad to go view these works. We want to have something that can attract the world to come and see when they come to Nigeria. We are also working with the prolific architect David Adjaye to think through the concept and to link the museum to our various ethnographic works around Benin City, including the moats.”

While appreciating the collectors in the hall for investing in the development of Nigerian art and artists, Obaseki said his government was doing all it could to ensure that Edo State and Benin City continue to be the cultural and artistic capital of Nigeria.

“I’m glad that in all the madness and in all the confusion that visit us every day, quite a lot of us still have the presence of mind to appreciate the arts, to step back and commit some resources to supporting the arts. It makes us complete as members of our society.”

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