Monday, November 3, 2014

FESTAC and the Tragedy of a Mask

In the year 1977, at the height of Nigeria’s past glory, the entire (global) black race converged on the Nigerian soil in a global feast we called FESTAC ’77. It is rather very unfortunate however that a few unlearned minds, sometimes even highly placed, have come to link the nations recent misfortunes, (which actually are attributable to barefaced misrule and corruption), to that global fiesta that brought fame and recognition, and also development to the country.

FESTAC actually means the world Festival of Arts and Culture (being the second edition of the world black and African festival of its kind) in which all black people and people of African descent were fully represented, and Nigeria just excelled herself in that memorable carnival of awesome colours . The symbol of that great gathering was the carved mask image of the Queen-Mother, Idia, during the reign of the irrepressible Oba Ovomramwen of the great ancient Benin Kingdom. That great kingdom is today a part of modern Nigeria.

The original FESTAC mask

In the month of February 1897, the British conquering colonialists carried out a raid which has been popularly tagged the “Punitive measure” on the then reigning monarch and his kingdom. Oba Ovomramwen who was said to be recalcitrant towards the colonial rule had his empire sacked and he was subsequently deposed to Calabar. Many of his chiefs were killed in that coercive move, and the climax of it all was the looting carried out on the vast artistic treasures of Benin. The stolen works of art from the private collections of the royal house are said to number more than 3,000 pieces of treasured artefacts which were carted away to the United Kingdom by the British. 

Among the numerous treasures carted away stands out one particular piece – the carved mask of Queen Idia, the queen-mother herself. It is instructive to note that the FESTAC mask or symbol, which was employed during the festivities, was actually a replica of this stolen mask. As the British refused to return, donate or sell it back to the country, the Nigerian government of the day commissioned a skilled craftsman in the modern day Benin area (which is still famous for its rare quality traditional craftsmanship) to produce a copy of the original mask. And this was what was used at FESTAC ’77. As it stands therefore, the original mask that was stolen from the Benin treasures is sadly sitting in the British museum where many tourists world-wide, including Nigerians sometimes, come to pay to see this beautiful work of ancient Benin artistry among other works in the museum.

In 1997, the International Council on Museums, ICOM declared that the looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are part of the cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. ICOM also reiterated that a whole section of African history have been wiped out, arising from such unguided behavious, and that they can never be reconstituted. Is this not sad enough?
The financial gains that have been made by the British Museum from the Benin artefacts alone are conservatively estimated at around 100 Million Pounds. 

And so far no royalties of any sort have been made to the Nigerian people or government. And Article 11 of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on cultural objects taken across borders clearly defines "as illicit, the export and transfer of ownership of cultural properties under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power”.

The Queen Idia face or mask was the face of FESTAC’77 as it were; it was the brand icon of that world fiesta hosted well by the Nigerian people, and ably initiated by the then General Olusegun Obasanjo led government. The original queen Idia mask is a masterful work of craftsmanship executed in ivory. The quality of this art coupled with the strong roles of the then Queen-Mother, Idia, whose face the sculpture depicts, are perhaps the reasons for choosing it for the purpose it served at FESTAC.

 And of course, it was also rife that it meant to raise global attention towards the persistent call for that precious piece of artefact among so many others, to be repatriated by those holding them hostage. And this is the crux of the matter: Art, and our art for that matter is the bedrock of our rich cultural heritage and embedded in it is our inalienable history; it carries with it an immeasurable wealth of value, and we have to guard it jealously or someone else who values it more will take it away from us. 

By Morgan Nwanguma


  1. Ditto the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, and the Egyptian things. A very sad history. I am glad to have been able to see them in London, but our colonial history is a very mixed thing. The Brits - like the Germans, Americans and many other groups who have misused their power - have much to regret in our past and it always adds a layer of guilt to our appreciation of these objects. If there is a compensation, it is that because the British Museum bought these things, often at enormous expense from private collectors, (who bought them from the looters), millions upon millions of people of all nations have been able to see, study and appreciate the beauty of African art for free as entrance to the British Museum is free and it has changed the course of Modern Art - see Picasso.

  2. And, interestingly, there is a story that the wonderful Benin Heads which are also in the British Museum, were "discovered" by an ethnographer, who tried to buy them. The owners said "NO", so the ethnographer had secret copies made by Benin craftsmen. Some say that the ones in the British Museum are these copies. If so, where are the originals? Some say he swapped the copies for the real ones in Benin at Ife. Do you know anything about this? Are these in the Museum at Benin?

    1. Many thanks for your remarkable insights and leads on these matters. I think we are left with the responsibility of digging further and enlightening all lovers of art and African art on these issues. Together we can remake our world


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