Saturday, 9th December 2023

Ogbebor’s perilous journey into Benin looted artefacts, trafficking

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
13 August 2023   |   3:07 am
Nigeria’s economy experienced a sharp downturn in the 1980s and 1990s, at the same time, demand for low-skilled agricultural labour overseas — especially in Italy — increased.

Nigeria’s economy experienced a sharp downturn in the 1980s and 1990s, at the same time, demand for low-skilled agricultural labour overseas — especially in Italy — increased.

The result was a sharp growth in irregular migration, including many Edo women, which soon attracted more workers than needed. This forced many migrants to seek alternative livelihoods, including drug peddling and prostitution, which proved very profitable, and ‘madams’ began to traffic Nigerians into the commercial sex industry for huge fees.

As European immigration laws became stricter over the course of the 1990s, these madams increasingly used human traffickers to supply them with young women and girls.

Decades after, Edo-based human trafficking networks have expanded across the globe, led by a cadre of self-made kingpins, madams, recruiters, fixers, facilitators and financiers that have become skilled specialists in their field.

Despite the local and international attempts to shut these networks down, they have remained resilient, trading off socio-economic inequalities to sustain themselves and shape their own narrative.

At some point, in 2016 and 2017, there were had about 30,000 young Edo boys and girls who had got themselves to Libya to cross over to Europe.However, through legislation, law enforcement, and awareness campaigns, there has been a notable reduction in the number of individuals being trafficked.

This issue is what Enotie Ogbebor has raised in his ongoing exhibition, Perilous Journeys: Reflections on migration at the British Museum, London.
The show mirrors the complexities and challenges faced by migrants across the world, and delves into the emotional and physical landscapes of their dangerous journeys.

Serving as a poignant testament to the harrowing experiences faced by migrants, it sheds light on the human trafficking crisis prevalent in Nigeria, particularly in Edo State.

Featuring a diverse range of art forms, including photographs, paintings, sculptures, and installations, all of which aim to provoke empathy and raise awareness about the issue.

The exhibition also highlights the efforts made by the government, in collaboration with international partners, in reducing the number of individuals trafficked.

Emotionally careful and conceptually pleasing, the show interrogates the 1897 punitive invasion of Benin by the British Army and the socio-cultural challenges in the death-defying journeys by some Africans to Europe, through the desert and Mediterranean.

A Cambridge University MAA Visiting Fellow, Ogbebor, a renowned multidisciplinary visual artist and singer/composer/performer who proudly embraces his rich Benin heritage in this thoroughly involving show to examine issues that create migration.

KNOWN for intertwining traditional motifs with contemporary mediums, he often creates impactful works of art. His intricate details encapsulate the essence of his Benin heritage.

This is what you see in Room 3 of the prestigious British Museum, London: Ogbebor’s deep appreciation for the artistic heritage of his ancestors.The iconic image of the famous Queen Idia mask (FESTAC 77), which was the symbol of the Second World African Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC), in 1977, is the lighting rod of the show.

It not only brings you back to question of repatration and reparation of stolen artefacts. Though a dark narrative, recent history is brightening this fact of history.

There’s a recognisable charm in the manner the bronze is cast. It is full of chutzpah and offers expressive freshness. Forcefully taken as a spoil of war during the British invasion of Benin in 1897, it is one of the two artworks at the ongoing exhibition.

The 16th century AD bronze work, by a Benin bronze caster, measures 24.5cm in height, 12.5cm width and 6cm deep. The original Queen Idia mask carries a serene face of the Queen Mother (Iyoba) wearing a beaded head dress, a beaded choker on her neck, scarification highlighted by iron inlay on the forehead, all framed by the flange of an open work tiara and collar of symbolic beings, as well as double loops at each side for attachment of the pendant.

Ogbebor’s use of the ancient lost wax method and the incorporation of culturally significant symbols in brass further underscore the resilience and richness of Nigerian heritage, while simultaneously shedding light on the dark realities faced by victims of human trafficking.

Rooted in centuries-old bronze casting tradition, wood carving, Ivory and terracotta, passed down through generations, Ogbebor’s artistry seamlessly blends cultural lineage with powerful, colourful imagery.

The captivating charm also encapsulates the show, as it engages a visitor to the exhibition in nondescript manner. Capturing today’s realities, especially the trending modern slavery, Ogbebor distorts features of the mask by replacing the 12 beaded headdresses with symbols of United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Libya and Niger.

The other features on the headdresses of Perilous Journeys I (bronze) like Burj Tower in Libya and Agadez Mosque in Niger Republic represent countries through which people are trafficked, while the middle monuments (Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and Colesseum) represent where people are trafficked to such as United States, United Kingdom, France and Italy, which has the largest number of immigrants.

The figures on the foreground represent immigrants who were cramped into boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea while the camels on the background capture those who were trafficked across the desert in Niger, Mali and Libya to Europe.

Some crossed while many ended up in slave camps in Libya and Sudan. The hands on the face represent those calling for help from their different locations where they are trapped as slaves.

Ogbebor’s second artwork, Perilous Journeys 2, which interrogates same theme, is a large size painting that shares some commonalities with the bronze work.

At the background of the painting are the monuments of countries that play active role (either as transit or receiving countries) in modern day slavery, while at the base is am army of migrants surging forward in an attempt to reach the promised land or greener pastures turned slave camps.

The foreground captures the turbulent blue sea through which rickety boats convey migrants to Europe. Not many arrive safely at their destinations. The artwork draws attention to the consequent loss of cultural knowledge that Ogbebor, who is actively engaged in current debates around the repatriation of objects from the Kingdom of Benin, believes has contributed to the current migrant crisis experienced in Edo State.

The collections serve as a poignant reminder of the profound impact historical events can have on contemporary issues such as migration and human trafficking.

By exploring the consequences of colonialism and the disruption of traditional societal structures, the artworks compel viewers to reflect on the enduring consequences of such actions.

Accompanying Ogbebor’s works is an installation by Mexican artist Betsabeé Romero, which was from the museum’s collection. Known for her unique use of discarded bus tires as a canvas, Romero’s work reflects the controversial responses to migration on the American continent, representing the dignity and humanity of migrants worldwide.

This compelling show has not only fuelled discussions and debates about these critical issues, but also broken attendance records! It’s reported as the most attended show in Room 3 in the museum’s history few days after opening. The show will remain open till September 24.

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