A negotiated settlement is the best solution to the looted artefacts imbroglio, a Lagos-based collector tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
A veil of mystery shrouds a recent incident in the US. Dutiful American officials, who had apprehended a cache of Nok sculptures, returned them to the Nigerian Consul-General in New York on July 27. With all certainty, the consul-general declared that these artefacts were stolen from the National Museum in Lagos. But a denial from the National Museum and Monuments contradicted his assertion.
Indeed, the National Museum in Lagos even claimed that it “since 1996 had not recorded any theft of antiquities from its collections” or from any Nigerian museum from that matter. In other words, “the series of burglaries in the early 90s” (which did not affect the Lagos Museum) had not reoccurred.
Something about this claims-and-counter-claims affair struck keen observers as odd. Ineptitude seems to be one of the major problems here. Stolen artefacts, once a trending issue among the art writers, easily sank beneath the horizon in the midst of other issues. But a recent lecture, delivered by the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon at the Society of Nigerian Artists summit in Uyo, seemed intent on returning the issue once more to the front burner.
Shyllon had deplored the government’s attitude to art, which he described as “unfortunately...a product of our colonial mentality”. He also accused the leaders of ambivalence towards the visual arts.
“An important case of ineptitude demonstrated by us as a people is typified by our contribution and complacency to the recent insult [on] our intelligence by the British Museum,” he had alleged at that lecture. “The British Museum, in avoiding the consistent and increasing pressure for the return of our looted artworks, have [in the] recent past, strategically arranged some assisted, cheap and insulting trips to England for some low and middle-level civil servants of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments to carry out some curatorial works for private and public collections in England in exchange for some payment of mere pittance to the Nigerians. [This is] when compared to what they would have paid if they had used their own citizens.”
Shyllon, who owns and runs an art foundation he named after himself, is one of the most outspoken critics of the system. His foundation, OYASAF – an acronym which is coined from Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation – houses over 6000 art pieces in its private museum and was established in 2007. Its sculpture garden, at its Lagos Mainland neighbourhood site, never fails to impress first-time privileged visitors.
In a canopied fringe of this garden – adjacent to an office building – the collector pored over a hardcover coffee-table publication by Peju Olayiwola, titled Benin 1879.com: Art and the Restitution Question and offhandedly quoted both the 1970 UNESCO Convention and another from UNIDROIT (an abbreviation for International Institute for the Unification of Private Law).
“These two conventions avail Nigeria the instruments for pressing for the return of illegally-obtained and looted works of art,” he informed his guests.
Among the Nigerian scholars, who he acknowledged for devoting “their time and energy” in research and publications on the subject, are Professor Folarin Shyllon and Dr Peju Layiwola. Professor Shyllon (a blood relative of his) is a renowned global intellectual property scholar while Dr Olayiwola, a University of Lagos lecturer, authored a very incisive book on the issue, whose content the art collector was studying with keen interest.
Shyllon proffered two solutions to the looted artefacts imbroglio, which he deemed “workable”. “The first solution is for the National Commission for Museum and Monuments to...negotiate and package an agreement with the holders of our looted art pieces to agree to the transfer of the legal interest in the looted art pieces in their possession to the appropriate agency of our sovereignty. [This is] in addition to paying an annual amount in consideration to this agreement while the looters and retainers of these looted objects of ours continue to retain the equitable interest.”
Put more succinctly, the equitable interest holders (the looters) ought to be paying some kind of royalty to the legal interest holders (Nigeria). “This solution acknowledges the undisputed fact that the Western world has invested considerable energy, money, time and materials in multiplying the intrinsic value of these art pieces,” he argued.
The second solution advocates a World Museum, which would be the cultural equivalent of a World Court. “This is where all the looted artefacts should be housed alongside works representing other cultures and civilisations.”
This World Museum, he added, should be funded a World Museum Trust Fund, which should be facilitated by the UN.
Yet, his solutions seem to have endorsed the illegal looting of the artworks in the past. Not necessarily, he countered. “That period in history permitted brazen Darwinism more than now.”
Besides, he agrees with the school of thought which believes the looted artefacts are better preserved in the Western museums. Nigeria, he argued, is not serious about preserving these artefacts. “What have you done with the artefacts you have in your possession? Where is your standing National Gallery of Art? The art and culture aspect of our life is underfunded.”
He scoffed at the purported training exercise organised by the British Museum for the staff of the National Commission for Museum and Monument. “My experience does not show that the quality of their training is dedicated to improve their capacity.”
Shyllon seemed irked by the fact that the Nigerian government has left the refurbishment of the museum to foreign agencies. Because it lacks the understanding of its importance, the museum is understaffed.
Apparently, efforts aimed so far at reviving the museum are unlikely to yield the desire results “because our country has long ignored that aspect of our life.”