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Arts from Ancient Kingdom Come to Chicago

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The most comprehensive exhibit of art from an ancient African kingdom opens today at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the only showing of Benin court arts in North America. Some royalty from Benin, which is under Nigerian control, see the exhibit as both a source of pride, and a call to bring the artifacts home.

ambi: sound of prayer

Chief Esosa Godwin Eghobamien sits at the head table of the opening luncheon, and pulls apart a cola nut. He hands out the magenta sections to an attendant, who passes them through the crowd. The chief prays for the mayor and the land. He says the ceremony must be done the Benin way.

ambi: sound of prayer

The exhibit called Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is stunning. It features more than 220 objects in coral, ivory and brass. Artists who belonged to royal guilds created these ornate works for the king of Benin in southern Nigeria over several centuries.

The opening is an occasion.

The princess from Benin is decked out in strands of coral. Nigerians and Chicagoans from the historic kingdom wear their finest embroidered garb.

They say this is an occasion for great pride, and great emotion.

EHI: This is very beautiful. I think this is the first time in my whole life that I’ve seen such a collection from the city where I was really born.

Kingsley Ehi is a local realtor, who heads Edo Arts and Cultural Heritage. He hopes the exhibit inspires people to learn more about the diversity of Africa.

EHI: I think the civilization started as far as I’m concerned in Africa, and art, sculpture, history, we were all living those things before the white man came to Africa, even religion.

Now royalty from Benin – and some of the Edo natives living in Chicago – hope to bring the artifacts home.

Princess Theresa Evbakhavbokun Erediauwa wants to build a secure museum in Benin. She and several other Nigerian officials asked for support this week in getting the artifacts back through diplomatic channels. She says they’re family heirlooms.

PRINCESS: It’s like taking the spirit out of something. So they’ve taken that out, so it’s like taking the center, the core, out of something. If you bring it back, then it forms a whole.

Each work tells a story of her family’s history and traditions.

Chief Esosa Godwin Eghobamien says seeing the artworks in Benin would provide more context.

CHIEF: People coming to see them, they don’t know where these things are from. A lot of people, they don’t know where Benin is on a map of the world. Is better for them to come to where these things were made, and they see where civilization started in Africa.

Today, many of these artworks are in museums and collections around the world.

Benin was once a powerful kingdom. Then in 1897, Benin clashed with the British over control of trade. The British looted the kingdom and sent the king into exile.

Despite this sad history, Prince Ademola Iyi-Eweka is thrilled with the exhibit.

PRINCE: These artworks were taken away in the reign of my great-grandfather. So to me, doing it here in America, is like a memorial service in honor of that man.

He pleaded with collectors and museums who didn’t take part to put the art on public view.

PRINCE: We want the world to know, although we lost the war, we are still there. We are not forgotten. The monarchy is still there, and it’s alive.

Someday, he hopes the artwork gets returned.

Nigerian officials are working on that. They’ve been holding diplomatic talks with Britain and other countries for several years. If those fail, a Nigerian museum official says they’ll take their case to the World Court.

The Art Institute is not involved, it only holds a half dozen works from Benin. President Jim Kuno says the collection is small, but it’s exquisite in its beauty and importance.

KUNO: People perhaps have a simplistic notion of Africa, to make it seem as if it’s a single thing, when it’s obviously a continent, not a country.

He says encyclopedic museums allow people to compare art work from various countries and see connections between cultures. He’s concerned about the trend toward consolidating art from a particular time or place in a single location.

KUNO: If those objects are distributed in multiple places, they’re seen by more people. They promote the principle of inquiry and tolerance, and they distribute the risk to them. So the likelihood of some calamity is much less.

Nonetheless, Kuno says if there was a request for the Benin objects, the Art Institute would seriously consider it. In the meantime, he wants the relationship forged by the exhibit to continue to grow.

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