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Festac at 45: Steal Back the Treasure

Calls for restitution African artifacts from Western museums are mounting. Against this backdrop, Nigeria’s response to the British (Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) in pirating the head of Queen Idia to use it as a logo for Festac 77 , proposes another dissonant route that challenges the very idea of the work of art as unique object.

Tam Fiofori gives the history “When in the run-up to FESTAC ’77 Nigeria asked Britain and the British Museum to return the exquisite carved ivory mask of Queen Idia which had been chosen as the symbol of the FESTAC ’77 logo, the British had the diplomatic nerve to suggest that the Queen Idia could be loaned to Nigeria for a sum of two million pounds sterling. Of course Nigeria rejected the ridiculous offer and, Oba Akenzua 11 – Patron of the Benin Bronze casters, Ivory, Wood carvers (and other) Guilds – asked the best of the skilled ivory carvers of Benin to produce a ‘photographic’ copy of the original carving and this was successfully used for FESTAC ’77.” (Forever Bronze, Modern Ghana, 2009)

Meet the artist who pirated Queen Idia back in calving the Festac 77 mask below.

Check out Akin Adesokan’s Festac 77 a faction that explores art piracy, the curse of Festac and its many restless gods and even suggests the festival was curated by Esu Elegba:

a priestess of Esu (Elegbara), the West African god of the crossroads and inspiration for the less tangible practice of hermeneutics. The woman, in her late sixties when the story begins, in August 1976, in a small village three hours by car north of Lagos, is also the mother of twins born in 1930. One of them was dead within months of birth, hence the obligatory recomposition of the spirit of the departed in ere-ibeji. The twin sculptures are polished to shiny black by original emulsion and decades of oiling and handling. Her profession of Esu does not confl ict with her attendance on the spirit of the twins, or even the fact that her children answer to Muslim names. Both are her life, fabric of the relative peace of early-to-mid-twentieth century western Nigeria, “with its modern constructions with one foot in the bush…the whole area with its infi nity of night lights that appear to illuminate the noise”, as seen through the eyes of Edouard the Antillean. The peace was relative because, in times past, when she was not yet a child, gunshots from the hundred-year wars were the heartbeats of life, its passions the periodic fires of ostentatious destructions. Insensate times: the smell of burning ivory, the sound of blunderbuss, the undying certainty that what was sold down the river for a flask of rum or sachet of gunpowder could not, like the river, flow back. What was gone was gone; the law of eternal return did not apply. Her name is Elesu, she who professes Esu.”

Soyinka proposed we simply steal them back:

“Perhaps the single most significant event of that festival, however, was one that never did take place: this was the repatriation of the original of the symbol… [the] famous ivory mask from Benin, exquisitely carved and detailed, remained safely ensconced in the vast labyrinths of the British Museum in London. The mask was stolen property, and the aggrieved had a right to reclaim their property by any means. What I proposed instead was that a task force of specialists in such matters, including foreign mercenaries if necessary, be set up to bring back the treasure—and as many others as possible—in one swift, once-for-all-time, coordinated operation. Spiriting away the Benin mask for FESTAC—the 1977 Festival of Black and African Arts—in good time for the opening of the festival would have been much easier, cost much less, and redressed, albeit symbolically, an ancient wrong. I was quite ready to be part of the team. The potential consequences seemed trivial, considering the prize.” (Wole Soyinka, You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, 2007)

This has been this has been the basis for Nigerian cultural production since Festac – Onitsha, nollywood, Naija jams etc. Also read Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s on the Onitsha Republic and Louis Chude-Sokei on how Nigeria invented the internet.

For more on this and FESTAC ’77 check out the publication available for purchase in print at our online shop.

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