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Festac at 45: Idia Tales – Three Takes and a Mask*

by Dominique Malaquais and Cedric Vincent

I. Into the Echo Chamber

Consider Idia:  iy’oba, queen mother to oba Esigie, ruler of the Benin kingdom in the first half of the 1500s. Logo and celebration, advert and call to arms all rolled into one, four decades and two years on, her likeness, patterned on a 16th century ivory pendant looted by colonial troops and held at the British Museum, stands for FESTAC. Tales of Lagos in 1977 – of the lead-up to the festival, the thick of its month-long roll-out, of its aftermath – echo with her presence. Appropriated, re-appropriated, invoked, depicted, replicated, imagined and re-imagined over and over again by a web of actors stretching from Nigeria to the United Kingdom, the US and beyond, her image is akin to a leitmotiv. It is everywhere, repeating.

Consider Dakar. 1966. FESTAC was a distant possibility. And yet there was Idia, deployed by the Nigerian government, much as she would be eleven years later, as a symbol of its investment in pan-African endeavors. Setting: the First World Festival of Negro Arts (FESMAN), hosted, in ’66, by Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Senegal. Over the course of nearly a month, from April 1to 24 of that year, tens of national delegations, hundreds of artists and thousands of spectators from across the African and Atlantic worlds converged on Dakar in a hybrid celebration of Negritude and pan-African ideals. Nigeria was the festival’s official guest of honor. In this context, a vast contingent of artists (painters and sculptors, performers, musicians and writers) flew in from Lagos. On printed material produced at the time of the festival by the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information, the pendant in the British Museum takes pride of place. It adorns the cover of a 40-page FESMAN special edition of the magazine Nigeria Today titled Our Cultural Heritage.

The Idia-bedecked special issue served two purposes. At the same time as it celebrated the glory of Nigeria’s past, it highlighted colonial thefts of artwork embodying this past. In this latter regard, it spoke to – and may well have been meant as a direct indictment of – one of FESMAN’s pivotal events, a wide-ranging exhibition titled Art nègre:  sources, évolution, expansion that Senghor himself had overseen and housed in a purpose-built museum. This show, which traveled to Paris’s Grand Palais following its Dakar run, highlighted important works of classical African art. Pieces hailing from the Benin kingdom featured prominently. Of the Idia pendant, however, there was no sign. The cover of the magazine called stark attention to this absence and, in the process, to the fact that many of Africa’s finest works of historical art, because they had been looted, were not available for viewing on the continent.

This had been a key issue in the run-up to the festival. Numerous works included in Art nègre hailed from Western art institutions. In order to make this possible, Senghor had dispatched emissaries to Europe and North America. Even as the latter were calling on curators from New York to Paris, London and Berlin, voices were being raised on the continent, demanding the return of Africa’s looted art. This was so even among Senghor’s allies. In January 1965, Beninois poet and journalist Paulin Joachim, an adept of the Senegalese president’s Negritude philosophy, penned a scathing editorial on the subject. Titled “Rendez-nous l’art nègre” (“Give Us Back Negro Art”), it appeared in Bingo, a Dakar-based magazine widely read across Francophone West Africa. Such demands sparked panic in Western haute culture circles, prompting Senghor himself to personally vouch for the safe return of objects lent from abroad. This is attested to by a letter dated 6 August 1965, addressed by Senegal’s ambassador in France, Médoune Fall, to the exhibit’s head curators, Beninois ethnographer Alexandre Adandé and French museographer Georges-Henri Rivière:

Having been informed of hesitations on the part of certain museums and collectors regarding the loan of works for the Dakar and Paris iterations of the Art nègre exhibition, [the] President … has entrusted me with extending to you his most formal assurances. Absolutely no claims will be tolerated on the occasion of the World Festival of Negro Arts, an event we are determined will stand as a beacon of international cooperation and interracial understanding, in the service of human friendship and the prestige of “Negritude.”

All loan requests, moreover, were accompanied by a printed statement to this same effect.

At much the same time, behind closed doors, internal memoranda show, the Nigerian delegation to FESMAN was emitting doubts about allowing objects in its national collections to travel to Paris for the Grand Palais leg of Art nègre. Why, the head of its Antiquities Department wanted to know, should museums on the continent lend works of African art to Europe when the latter already held so many in their collections? Why too should it do so when institutions particularly rich in this regard – the British Museum, most notably – were unwilling to consider reciprocal loan agreements allowing Africans unable to travel outside the continent to become acquainted with their own heritage? The official asking these pointed questions was Kenneth Murray, founder of the National Museum in Lagos. A staunch defender of the notion that Nigeria’s heritage (or, in any event, certain pivotal elements thereof) belonged in Nigeria, as early as the 1940s, Murray had (unsuccessfully) sought to repatriate to its country of origin another Idia pendant, looted at the same time as the British Museum carving – a closely related piece that would eventually make its way to the United States, first into the Nelson Rockefeller collection, then the Museum of Primitive Art and, eventually, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though the pendant itself does not come up in the aforementioned memoranda, the questions raised by Murray in the context of FESMAN had, for years, been the focus of intense debate at ICOM (the International Council of Museums, a non-governmental organization closely linked to UNESCO). This too is addressed in FESMAN internal memos, notably by Art nègre curator Rivière, who served as president of ICOM from 1948 to 1965. These very same issues, as well as those raised in Joachim’s editorial, were addressed yet again at another major, pre-FESTAC gathering on the continent:  the First Pan-African Cultural Festival, held in Algiers in 1969. Speech after speech given during the several-day symposium that introduced the festival circled back to the matter, culminating in a manifesto calling for “all steps necessary to be taken, including by way of international organizations, to retrieve the objects and archives pillaged by colonial forces.” One such initiative was launched a few years later, by none other than Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1973, the Zairian leader gave a widely relayed speech before the United Nations General Assembly, demanding the repatriation of Africa’s heritage and the condemnation of its colonial looters. Two years later, the Nigerian government brought the matter of the British Museum pendant before UNESCO:  on the occasion of FESTAC, it wished to see the carving returned to Lagos. For upon it was modeled the festival’s emblem:  Nigeria’s homing call to all of Africa and the Black world beyond.

As the foregoing suggests, Nigeria’s demand that the pendant make its way back to the continent in honor of and in time for FESTAC built on ample precedent. The British Museum claimed otherwise and, to this position, held hard and fast, willfully ignoring two decades of activism and more in quest of Idia’s return. The queen mother, it insisted, would remain in London.

II. Diplomatic Bomb:  A story in two parts

Dakar Object(ion)s

The choice to pattern the FESTAC emblem on the British Museum Idia pendant reads as an explicit rebuke of ideas undergirding Senghor’s 1966 festival. On the occasion of the Dakar event, Lagos had been officially designated as the site of the second FESMAN. As far as the Senegalese president was concerned, the Nigerian iteration of the festival would take up where his paean had left off:  it too would be a celebration of Negritude. Initially, things looked set for just such a continuation, with a significant Senegalese presence on the FESTAC organizing committee, most notably by Alioune Diop, founder of the renowned Paris-based Présence Africaine publishing house and linchpin of the Dakar venture, in the role of Secretary General. Soon, however, rifts began appearing, with Senegal and Nigeria both vying for ideological control of the committee. As historian Andrew Apter notes, one of the first major disagreements between the two countries centered on the new festival’s emblem. Determined that Senghor’s trademark philosophy be retained as the pivot of the Lagos gathering, the Senegalese contingent fully expected that the logo used to publicize the 1966 event would be adopted by Nigeria. According to its designer, Senegalese artist Ibou Diouf, the graphic was an incarnation of “Negro art” as celebrated by Senghor – that is as a “une source jaillissante qui ne tarit pas: un élément essentiel de la Civilisation de l’Universel qui s’élabore, sous nos yeux, par nous et pour nous, par tous et pour tous.” As such, it stood for aspects of Senghorian philosophy by then actively rejected across the Anglophone-Francophone intellectual spectrum – notably its reliance on European Modernist thought and its claims to universal applicability. The latter, however, was precisely what Diouf had in mind:  the design, he later explained, was a direct reference to writings by Senghor and his close friend French intellectual and statesman André Malraux, well known for his purple eulogies of universalist thought. For several committee members, this was unacceptable. As far as they were concerned, Diouf’s emblem, which they likened to a “totem,” “did not represent Black culture in a proper manner.”   

Intent on doing away with the offending insignia, over vociferous Senegalese opposition, in February 1973 the committee called on members to collect “suggestions regarding a suitable [alternative] motif.” In March, the committee gathered again to consider proposals. Heated exchanges ensued, with no agreement reached and worries raised the matter might tear the group apart. Calling for calm, the East Africa contingent proposed that “the question be shelved until experts from various zones had requested artists to design something acceptable to the majority.” Even that seemed too optimistic. The meeting adjourned with a decision that “the President should consult … with high authorities and report to the Committee as soon as practicable.” The issue of the emblem had become a diplomatic bomb.

In short order – surprisingly, given what seemed to be a complete impasse – the committee announced that it had come to a decision: the British Museum’s Idia pendant (identified in a memorandum as “the royal ivory of Benin”) would serve as FESTAC’s emblem. What happened to alter the situation has yet to be established. Possibly the Senegalese contingent was convinced to abandon its demands. Plausibly it was placated by the choice of an emblem drawn from an artistic tradition – that of the Benin kingdom – which Negritude philosophy celebrated, alongside the arts of ancient Ife, as an incarnation of Africa’s greatness. Most likely, Senegal’s objections were summarily brushed aside, foreshadowing deeper rifts to come between Dakar and Lagos – rifts that would culminate, in July 1976, with Alioune Diop being ejected from the committee by the Nigerian government.  

While, apparently, a final decision as to the emblem had been made by 1973, how precisely the latter would be rendered – what form FESTAC’s logo would take and, thus, how exactly the event would be branded – took some time to establish. This is suggested by the production and dissemination, ahead of the festival, of competing (or in any event radically different) publicity materials. A case in point is a promotional badge made in 1975. Several successive dates were announced for the festival – 1970, 1974, 1975 and, ultimately 1977 – the various adjournments a result of civil war, two coups d’état, stratospheric graft and assorted logistical delays. Two dates were considered for 1975:  January-February and November-December. For the latter, badges were manufactured. On these a logo appears that is thoroughly unlike the one that would eventually be chosen. Over a map of Africa colored white, a schematically drawn mask is superimposed alongside a Nigerian flag. Although the resemblance is at very best approximate, it seems likely that the mask is meant to depict the Idia pendant. Possibly, the design seen here was an artist rendering submitted by one of the zones. In any event, by 1977 there was no longer any evidence of this version of the logo and, even as it was being circulated in 1975, so too were pamphlets featuring the logo that, to this day, symbolizes FESTAC: a medallion at whose center sits an immediately recognizable image of the British Museum pendant, framed by an oval of stylized typeface spelling out the name of the festival. 

Most often, as was the case with the motif on the short-lived 1975 badge, logos in the 1970s were rendered graphically. For the pendant medallion, the FESTAC committee proceeded differently:  instead of commissioning a drawing or diagram, it chose to reproduce a photograph. Tracing the itinerary of this photograph – where it originated and how it came to be chosen by the FESTAC committee – brings us back in time and, simultaneously, sets the stage for a second diplomatic row. 

The photograph was the same one exactly as had appeared a decade earlier on the FESMAN issue of Nigeria Today:  a dramatically lit black and white image, with bands of deep shadow extending diagonally across Queen Idia’s forehead. The decision to use this particular image rather than another, less theatrical one, reflects affinities within cultural and intellectual circles in Nigeria during the 1960s and 70s. The source of the image was the cover illustration of a 1960 publication titled Benin Art, with illustrations by a renowned photographer/designer duo, Czech brothers Werner and Bedrich Forman, and text by anthropologist Philip Dark. Benin Art was advertised as the first book to come out on the subject since 1919 – that is, since Die Altertümer von Benin (“The Antiquities of Benin”), by Felix von Luschan, a curator at the Berlin Ethnographic Museum. In all likelihood, the Forman/Dark publication circulated widely in Nigeria among classical art aficionados – a circle that would have included at least two central figures in the FESMAN/FESTAC use of the Idia pendant. Dark wrote the text while in Nigeria, where, from 1958 to 1960, he held the post of Senior Researcher at the West African Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Ibadan, in the institute’s Benin History Scheme. This was right around the time that Kenneth Murray was founding the National Museum in Lagos. It was also right around then that Nigeria Today was promoting to the post of editor-in-chief writer Onuora Nzekwu, the man responsible for putting the Idia pendant on the magazine’s cover in 1966. Without a doubt, Dark, Murray and Nzekwu knew of one another and, most probably, they were personally acquainted. As Deputy Director of the Federal Ministry of Information in Lagos, a post he took on in 1970, Nzekwu, moreover, would certainly have been in contact with members of the FESTAC organizing committee. Still another actor he would have known well, who played key roles in both FESMAN and FESTAC, was Erhabor Emokpae (1934-1984); a celebrated Benin-based artist, Emokpae (of whom more later) saw his work exhibited at both festivals and is said by some to have been the person who recommended the British Museum Idia pendant as FESTAC emblem in the first place.

As all of this suggests, the advent of the British Museum Idia pendant as FESTAC emblem was no serendipity. This, however, was not how the museum saw things. For the London institution, the FESTAC committee’s choice of model for its logo and, in its wake, the Nigerian authorities’ demand that the pendant be returned, were wholly arbitrary. If Idia it had to be, the museum argued, all fine and well, but there were other pendants Nigeria could consider – notably the one on view in New York, at the Museum of Primitive Art.

London Object(ion)s

There are a variety of ways in which the story of Nigeria’s quest to repatriate the British Museum pendant for FESTAC can be told. One involves a chronological, blow-by-blow account of the back and forth exchanges between various parties to the matter, focusing on claims and counterclaims. Another take, more complicated given the time that has elapsed since April 1974, when the first suggestion that the pendant should be returned was received by the museum, centers on oral accounts. Here, we propose a third way of approaching the story:  a spotlight on a peculiar object produced by the British Museum in response to Nigeria’s call for the pendant’s repatriation.

In the museum’s archives, in a file titled “Idia queen mother ivory mask – restitution, FESTAC, etc.,” is a small sheet of paper of the kind used to write internal office memoranda. At top are printed the words Ethnography Department of the British Museum and, immediately below, in smaller typeface, “To” and “From”. Scribbled next to “To” is the name Malcolm and, after “From,” the name John and a date:  17.10.77. Malcolm is Malcolm McLeod, Keeper, from 1974 to 1990, of the Department of Ethnography of the Museum of Mankind (where the pendant was kept at the time) and John is John Picton, Deputy Keeper (1974-1979). A sentence follows: “The last time Ekpo Eyo [Director of Nigeria’s Federal Department of Antiquities, 1968-1979] was here he had no doubt that to present the replica would be regarded as highly insulting.” The replica in question is the peculiar object with which we are concerned here.

By September 1974, the trustees of the British Museum had made it clear that, under no circumstances, would they acquiesce to the return of the Idia pendant, whether permanently or even in the form of a loan. The reason invoked was threefold:  deaccession was forbidden by the institution’s statutes, making a permanent return impossible; the carving was too fragile to travel to Nigeria, precluding a loan; in any event (as previously noted), there were other collections from which Nigeria could borrow an Idia pendant. The trustees, however, were not the only party involved on the British side of the argument. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well was quite interested in negotiations surrounding the pendant’s return. For the FCO, the matter raised important diplomatic considerations. Of particular concern were potential arms sales by London to Lagos, an ongoing dispute opposing British Petroleum to the Nigerian tax authorities, and the significant weight that Nigeria carried among the so-called Sterling Area countries. The Idia dispute, the FCO feared, ran the risk of negatively impacting each one of these larger geopolitical issues. For a second time, the pendant had become a diplomatic bomb.

If the British Museum trustees were under the impression that their refusal would bring the matter of return to a close, they were mistaken. Pressed by the Nigerian authorities, as late as the Fall of 1976 the FCO was attempting to convince the museum to loan the pendant. By then, Lagos had given up on the idea of a permanent return and – with impressive restraint, under the circumstances – was “appeal[ing] to the understanding of Her Majesty’s Government for co-operation in the success of the Festival” by allowing the Idia carving to travel to Nigeria for the duration of FESTAC “as a practical demonstration of good-will.” The museum, however, was unmoved and, shortly after receiving yet another entreaty from the FCO, put out a press release officially stating its (op)position.  `

It is in this context – a few weeks after the press release was drafted – that the idea Ekpo Eyo found so insulting emerged:  in lieu of the pendant itself, the Nigerian government would be presented with a replica. Originally floated by the board of trustees, the notion was quickly adopted by the FCO. This was not the first time the museum had considered producing a copy of a Benin object. In one of its early attempts to convince the museum to return the Idia pendant, the FCO had mentioned a plan with which it was toying:  a bid to convince the queen of England to repatriate to Nigeria a pair of ivory and brass leopards in her collection, which, at the time, were on permanent loan to the British Museum. Presumably, the underlying argument was that if, to political ends, Buckingham Palace could be talked into restituting the leopards, surely the museum might be convinced to do the same with the pendant. The museum’s response (discussed in internal memoranda) was to envisage an arrangement that would allow it to retain one of the leopards:  “In the view of the Keeper of Ethnography [McLeod], the proper course … would be to make replicas of the two leopards, and to arrange for one original and one replica to be shown in London and Nigeria.” Whether Nigeria would have been open to such a handling of its heritage does not appear to have been considered. Nor, it seems, was the question of Nigeria’s potential response to being presented with a copy of the Idia pendant.

Once it had received the FCO’s go-ahead – “I am grateful to the Trustees for their offer to let the Nigerians have a copy of the Mask,” wrote, without a hint of irony, the FCO’s Under-Secretary to the Chairman of the board – the museum proceeded to address ways of making the replica. Initially, the idea had been to craft a freehand copy. Shortly, however, it emerged that this would be impossible; instead, against the better judgement of McLeod and several board members, all of whom felt the pendant’s surface was too fragile for such treatment, it was decided to cast a mold. A coat of lacquer would be spread over the pendant to protect it during the process and removed post-molding; as for the replica, this would be made of resin. The task was entrusted to Derrick Giles, of the museum’s Facsimile Service – by all accounts a remarkable conservator. So successful in the eyes of the trustees was his replica that it earned him not one but two letters of thanks from the museum’s highest echelons.

The second letter to Giles, signed by none other than the museum’s director, reads as follows:

Mr. David Owen, the Foreign Secretary, has asked me to write and express his great appreciation of all the work you put into making the copy of the Benin ivory mask earlier this year. He regrets that political circumstances at present make it impossible for him to present the mask to the Nigerians, but he hopes that on a future occasion he will be able to do so.

As these lines suggest, it had belatedly dawned on the British government that its Nigerian counterpart might not – to put it mildly – find solace in a copy. Of particular interest here is the fact that both of the letters to Giles, as well as the memorandum quoted earlier relaying Ekpo Eyo’s appalled response, postdate FESTAC:  the first was written on 29 July 1977 and the second on 11 October. Well after the festival had come to an end, the pendant bomb was still ticking.

The replica was not ready in time for FESTAC. Museum records show it was crafted by Giles between 3 and 15 June 1977 – a full five months after the event. Why this was remains unclear. What is clear is that, in at least two instances after the festival, the FCO attempted to present the copy to representatives of the Nigerian government. To no avail:  they were not interested in so much as discussing the subject. One instance verges on the comical. In June 1977, London hosted the Commonwealth Meeting, bringing together 26 heads of government from across the Anglophone world. In this context, Owen raised the matter of the replica with Brigadier Joseph Garba, the Nigerian Commissioner for Foreign Affairs. He was met with stony silence. A related suggestion – that the FCO seek out for Nigeria an alternative pendant rumored to be in private British hands – was met with equal silence, or, as one memorandum put it, “studious avoidance.”

In the face of Nigeria’s steadfast refusal to engage, the FCO finally backed down; the replica would not be presented:

The Nigerians [wrote Owen to the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees] have been given two chances to show interest in the replica and have not done so. If we now offer to present it a third time, we would risk resuscitating the whole issue … [T]he Nigerians might use the existence of the replica as an excuse for reopening the campaign for the return of the Mask, proposing that the Museum keep the replica and return the original.

But that was not all:

The suggestion that our replica should be handed over [Owen added] might also be regarded as reflecting on [Nigeria’s] own craftsmen, since before the Festival opened a replica made by local carvers was presented, with much publicity, to the organisers and hailed in the local press as even better than the original.

Here, indeed, was a new wrinkle:  while the British were weighing the pros and cons of their copy, another replica had emerged … in Nigeria.

III. Nigeria Repli(cat)es

As 1976 drew to a close, in Benin City, oba Akenzua II (r. 1933-1978) commissioned from local artists a replica of the British Museum pendant. On 3 January 1977, during a ceremony held at Dodan military barracks in Lagos, the replica was presented to Nigeria’s head of state, Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo, by Commodore Husaini Abdullahi, the governor of Bendel Province (home to Benin City). Present as well were FESTAC president Commandant Ochegomie Promise Fingesi and several representatives from the Ministry of Chieftaincy Affairs and Culture. Upon receiving the new carving, reported journalist Bayo Rotibi in the Lagos Daily Times, Obasanjo remarked that, clearly, it “showed … the grandchildren of the great artists of Benin were capable of creating pieces of art just as their forefathers.”

Rotibi’s article came out on 4 January. In the following days, Obasanjo’s remark was taken up and amplified in the press. On 6 January, an article in the Daily Times presented the new carving as a “recreation,” suggesting an equivalence between the original and the copy. Then came an opinion piece, also in the Daily Times, arguing for its superiority:

It is magnificent, it is even better than the old mask which has been haunting our sleep and disturbing our waking hours.

In a letter to the editor, the notion of superiority was amped up further still:

[The] replica if of a much higher monetary value than the one pinched years ago and it is hoped that our Department of Antiquities realizes this pricelessness and will therefore safeguard it from being stolen.

Hyperbole? Certainly. These successive statements, however, also – and more importantly – highlight a fundamental difference in approach between Nigerian and British actors involved in the former’s quest to return the Idia pendant to its home of origin and the latter’s sustained efforts to prevent this. For the British, without a doubt only one object held value:  the original. For their Nigerian counterparts, the notion of originality, as well as that of value, were both more elastic and significantly more complex.

Unlike the resin replica produced by the British Museum, the Nigerian replica was not intended to be an exact copy. In the absence of access to the original, it was clear from the beginning that the artist(s) commissioned by the oba would have to work from photographic reproductions – in particular, a British Museum postcard, which provided the pendant’s dimensions – and that this would have a material impact on the finished product. As the postcard (and related photographs in publications) provided a frontal view only, it would be impossible to reproduce exactly aspects of the pendant requiring a side or a rear view. This working method was detailed in newspaper accounts of the period and is visible in the resulting carving, on view, today, at the National Museum in Lagos. Two key differences obtain:  the coiffure is not the same (in the British Museum original and resin copy alike, it has three tiers, while in the Nigerian copy it has two, for only two are visible in head-on shots) and the rear (invisible in the postcard) is not handled in the same way. The Nigerian carving was meant to depart from the British Museum original in another respect as well. The latter’s coiffure is damaged. Whereas the resin copy reproduces this damage, the Nigerian replica does not. It restores what has been lost. Also restored, at the base of the forehead, are two vertical inlaid bands that have gone missing in the original (and thus in the resin copy as well).

Very clearly, the Nigerian replica was meant to repair – repair, that is, in the sense of fix (from the Latin repararere [again] + parare [make ready]) and in the sense of return (from the Old French repairer [return to one’s country] and, previously, the Latin repatriare). From this dual intent results an object that is not so much a replica as a replication:  a reply and an echo. It exists because of the original, to which it speaks, but departs from it. Too, it is in dialogue with still other objects, which echo it, transforming it further.

The British Museum (and, along with it, the FCO) saw the pendant’s return in the form of a replica as a simple matter of substitution; the Nigerian authorities took a quite different view. Rather than a one-for-one replacement, they opted for restoration by way of multiplicity. Instead of one carving patterned on the original, they commissioned two – the copy ordered by Akenzua II and a second one made at the direction of the Federal Ministry of Information.  To effect this work, they called not on one or even on two carvers, but on an entire Benin-based team. While, in the end, much of the project was undertaken by two men – Joseph Alufa Igbinovia and Emoruyi Omoregie – press and scholarly sources point to the involvement of at least six practitioners, including, in a supervisory role, Felix Idubor (1928-1991), a well-known artist whose work had been exhibited at the First World Festival of Negro Arts. Still another artist involved was Erhabor Emokpae, who had also shown in Dakar and whom we met earlier. Emokpae was put in charge of designing the décor of all FESTAC venues. In this capacity, in a flourish of conspicuous consumption echoing that of the event as a whole, he flooded Lagos with images of the logo. In front of key buildings and on the inside as well, on his orders massive medallions were installed. One, multiple times a grown man’s height, was mounted on a revolving, totem-like construction; others, several feet tall and rendered in gold and black, stood still. At Emokpae’s behest too, flags and giant textile banners bearing the image of the pendant lined avenues, stadiums and parade grounds. Present as well were a host of smaller versions of the logo. These appeared, en masse, on pamphlets, programs, tickets and posters, as well as on badges and T-Shirts, caps, cups, bags and even toilet paper manufactured by companies deputized by the organizing committee. Souvenir jewelry, some of it silver, some of it plated in gold, ashtrays, keychains and pennants adorned with the logo were available for sale across town. Banks and shoe manufacturers, department stores and breweries incorporated the logo into their newspaper advertisements. Idia was everywhere – including on 1 Naira bills, introduced four years earlier, in the run-up to the festival.

Filled with renderings of the FESTAC logo large and small, photographic views of Lagos during the festival read as a city-wide exercise in virtual repatriation. Brimming with depictions of the carving held hostage by the British Museum, entire swaths of the urban landscape respond to its absence with a surfeit of presence. The sense is of an all-encompassing call and response campaign aimed at bringing Idia home.

So effective did this campaign prove that, in short order, the distance between the FESTAC logo and the original it was meant to replicate had collapsed. In a telling turn of phrase to this effect, a January 1977 article in the Nigerian press refers to the British Museum pendant as “the FESTAC symbol.” Another article, published at about the same time, is accompanied by two photographs – of the original and the Igbinovia copy – labeled in such a manner that it is exceedingly difficult to establish which is which. In a mix of slippage, overlap and deliberate confusion, the original has become the replica and the replica the original. Or, yet again, each has become the other, such that the two, in fine, are one, available for replication ad infinitum.

*** Part restitution of looted, centuries-old heritage and part conspicuous consumption fueled by a booming petro-Naira, the flood of Idia images that attended FESTAC constituted a potent decolonial move and a brilliant branding project all at once. Untethered from its home in captivity and replicated over and over again in the land of its ancestors, Idia was deployed by the Nigerian government to tell a very particular story:  the story of a nation destined to act as a beacon for all Black people and as the economic powerhouse of a global South shorn of its colonial shackles. Recast as a clarion call to the oppressed by a military dictatorship in thrall to the capitalist system undergirding this selfsame oppression, she emerged as a powerful tool of hegemony in the hands of the Obasanjo regime. Rarely has instrumentalization of art to political ends been handled with such brio.


* These pages draw extensively on documents conserved at the Archives des Musées Nationaux (Paris), the British Museum (London), the Center for Black and African Arts and Civilization (Lagos), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (London) and UNESCO (Paris). Too, they are indebted to research published by Andrew Apter, Barbara Blackmun, Felicity Bodenstein, dele jegede, Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan, Peju Layiwola, David Murphy, Maureen Murphy, Joseph Nevadomsky, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Barbara Plankensteiner and Jerome S. Sandler. Our thanks to Felicity Bodenstein, James Hamill, Dunja Herzog and Joseph Nevadomsky, who generously shared with us their knowledge, views and time. 


This piece features in the Festac 77 publication. To purchase in print head to our online shop.

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