The Last of the Custodians


Tam Fiofori

In the build-up to the Nigeria-hosted 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture – FESTAC ’77, the then Director of the National Museum, Dr. Eyo Ekpo, set up a supplementary committee that included Francesca Emanuel, Wole Soyinka, Segun Olusola, Akin Euba, Christopher Kolade and Newton Jibunoh.

Their duties were to structure the modalities for the FESTAC Colloquium and to identify and find the original relics that told the ancient history of Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
This assignment was an uplifting and inspiring cultural exercise for Chief (Dr.) Jibunoh in particular; because during his student days in England in the sixties he was a regular visitor to the British Museum in London. “I found out,” he recalls, “that the best part of the Museum, with so much beauty, was the section for Nigerian Art with Benin, Ife and Nok antiquities and contemporary art. They told stories of our history I didn’t know about. Later, I found out that these great works of art were produced and kept in palaces.”

When, after a trip to London the Eyo Ekpo committee failed to get back some of these relics – even on loan from the British Museum – especially the exquisite and elegant 16th century Ivory mask of Idia n’Iye Esegie (Iyoba) which had been chosen as the official symbol of FESTAC ’77, the committee turned to Oba Akenzua II of Benin for assistance.

Omo N’Oba N’Edo Akenzua II directed the committee to the then Obi Rufus Osamelea of Iseluku; a descendant of the Benin Kingdom, who had a replica of the ivory Iyoba mask in his palace. Segun Olusola and Newton Jibunoh were the emissaries of the committee and, after traditional and official protocols were observed the Obi released the replica.

And so, the role of these and other traditional rulers as the original and true custodians of Nigerian arts and culture was permanently demonstrated and established in the psyche of Chief Jibunoh. This reality nurtured and strengthened his desire to initiate long-standing relationships with traditional rulers in his future efforts to establish Nigeria’s first certified private museum, the DiDi Museum, in 1985.

Earlier, on his return from England after his education as a Soil Engineer, Jibunoh became an avid collector of antiquities and art. He soon accumulated a storehouse of antiquities that were rightly classified as national treasures. He then started holding parlour exhibitions of these antiquities and art in his house.

These parlour exhibitions endeared him to the growing art community in Lagos and prompted the invitation to him to become a member of the Eyo Ekpo FESTAC ’77 committee. According to him, he “used the initial works I collected to learn and they led to my relationship with traditional rulers.”

Before the opening of DiDi Museum, he wrote letters to and sought audiences with prominent traditional rulers. “I sat down for days with the Emir of Kano, the Oni of Ife for days, the Oba of Benin for days. No one else can boast of these interactions, because these are the custodians,” he says.

It was no surprise then, that these prominent Nigerian traditional rulers – Emir Ado Bayero of Kano, Oni Sijuade of Ife, Oba Erediauwa II of Benin and Obi Ofala Okagbue of Onitsha, graced the grand opening of DiDi Museum and brought with them priceless gifts of antiquities from their kingdoms. Remembering the occasion Jibunoh rhetorically asks, “What else but art and culture could have brought these prominent traditional rulers together?”

It is therefore understandable that Chief Jibunoh has been deeply touched and saddened by the transition of these his mentors and custodians of culture and art; Emir Bayero, Obi Okagbue, Oni Sijuade and most recently Oba Erediauwa II.

Their transition has raised a big question in Jibunoh’s mind as to whether it is still possible to continue the momentum initiated by these custodians and, if so, in what direction.

Fortunately, when he recently paid HRH Ambassador Crown Prince Eheneden Edaiken N’Uselu of the Benin Kingdom a condolence visit, the Edaiken N’Uselu told Chief Jibunoh to explore the possibility of establishing a modern-day Museum in Benin City!

and resilience and; of creative ingenuity for the development of Nigeria.