MC Hammer and the Benin Bronze Heads
By Femi Olugbile
There is a trending video on Twitter. It concerns a beautiful head carved in ivory and bronze that has been domiciled in the British Museum for more than one century.
It is a well-known fact that the head, a unique artistic piece that shows the exceptional creative skills domiciled in the Benin Empire dating back to a time in history when such skills and the technology were not present elsewhere in the world, including Europe, was among thousands of objects pillaged from the Benin Kingdom when King Ovonramwen’s domain was invaded by the British in 1897. With the usual swagger and self-assurance of colonialists, the invaders could write in their history books that the sacking was not only a muscular response to the African King’s blood-thirsty intransigence, but also a further step in the civilizing mission that had taken them to the furthest reaches of the world, from Asia to America.
Such a high-minded sense of mission, however, did not prevent them from stealing art works, many of them also objects of religious ritual, from the King’s palace and many individual homes all over Benin.
Most of these looted treasures were sold on the ‘black market’. Many have ended up in museums in Europe and America, with the British Museum being the most visible repository.
What MC Hammer has done on twitter is a short video in which the mask of Queen-Mother Idia, the most well-known of the Benin masks, animated as a beautiful but distressed, long-suffering soul, is moving slowly this way and that, eyes fluttering, trying to find release. The caption on the video reads ‘#BrutishMuseums Can I go home?’.
MC Hammer’s real name is Stanley Kirk Burrell. He is an African American Rap musician and producer. In the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a superstar who was as much admired for the vigour of his dancing as for the music itself, with hits such as ‘U Cant Touch This’ and ‘2 Legit 2 Quit’. He has led a colourful life, which has included filing for bankruptcy in 1996 after lavishly spending a fortune of $70 million, becoming a Christian preacher, and establishing himself as an early ‘influencer’ and entrepreneur on social media, with 2.5 million followers on Twitter by 2010. Lately he has turned his attention to African causes, with a mix of patriotism and Pentecostalism. In September 2020, in an exchange with author and historian Dan Hicks, he published a tweet that read ‘…I give Glory to God. He has appointed this as the time to spring the TRUTH of Africa..Africans(Blacks) to the World and restore our Magnificent untold True History…’ Hicks was then in the process of publishing a volume titled ‘The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution’
The British Museum is considered one of the ‘I-must-visit-at-least-once-in-my-lifetime’ places in the world by many people. Millions pass through its doors every year. They go there to see millions of artifacts and natural objects, most of which were garnered from all over the world during the era when the British Empire ruled over much of the known world. There are objects from India, as there are from the Americas. There are even objects seized or stolen from other European countries, such as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, which were taken from the Parthenon in Greece in the early 1800s while the land was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The Benin Mask is an elaborately wrought artwork in ivory, inlaid with bronze. Two almost identical units of it lie at the British Museum in London and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There are others on the same theme in other ‘Western’ museums.
Idia was the first ‘Iya Oba’ of Benin, and the ivory carvings of her head were among the most prized possessions of King Ovonramwen. The clamour for the return of Idia’s stolen head has been on for several decades, as part of a general advocacy for return of objects stolen from other lands by British colonial invaders. When the British refused a call to return the Benin head before the grand African cultural event known as FESTAC-77, the artist Erhabor Emokpae carved a replica which was then used for the festival. ‘Iya Oba’ Idia till today remains the emblem of that well remembered event. But the ‘originals’ of her head remain in London, and New York.
Many people have complained bitterly about the ‘stolen glory’ of Africa. Iya Oba Idia’s head is even featured in the ‘feel-good’ film ‘Black Panther’.
But a lot of glory has been stolen from Africa, and not all of the ‘stealing’ has been done by foreigners. There is ‘stolen development’. Benin Empire was once a mighty empire protected by walls said to be more more formidable in places than the great wall of China. Its artists created art objects that could not be matched anywhere in the world. Its sea-faring warriors controlled places as far away as Lagos. What became of that enterprise, that derring-do, that creativity? By comparison, the Benin of today, occupied with sordid wrangling between loyalists of vain and petty politicians who daily look up to Abuja for their power and sustenance, with its highways wracked with robbery and kidnapping, and its young maidens the objects of dehumanizing human trafficking for sex-trade in Italy, is a shadow of its great past.
It is hard to attribute the decline of Benin entirely to the invading British vandals of 1897. Something went from the soul of the nation that needs to be regained, so its youths may rebuild its lost glory.
MC Hammer, for his part, and like many other African-Americans, is a stranded African belatedly trying to find his soul. For him, it is a journey within a journey.
If, and when, Iya Oba Idia’s head is eventually returned, to Nigeria, and the Benin monarch’s court, there will be much rejoicing. But it will not solve the problem of arrested human development in Benin, or Nigeria. The question on the lips of Benin people should not just be ‘Who did this to us?’
Rather, what their famous Queen-Mother’s head should be saying to them would be
‘If we did this before, we can do it again, better even. Let’s go’.