The empire roars back as Victor Ehikhamenor’s Still Standing confronts colonial history
If you follow the ongoing debate around repatriation and restitution of stolen artworks, especially from the Bini Kingdom, one would be forgiven for thinking that following the sacking and pillaging of Benin City in the punitive expedition of 1897, the production of Bini art ground to a halt.
But nothing could be farther from the truth as the ongoing installation by Victor Ehikhamenor, which opened two days ago on February 17 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, makes clear. Contemporary Edo artists like Victor Ehikhamenor are keeping the flames of creativity burning and Igun Street, the bronze maker’s redoubt is still abuzz with activity.
Titled Still Standing, the 12-foot high work composed of rosary beads (chaplets), lace and miniature bronze pieces on canvas, depicts the imposing image of Oba Ovonramwen, the Oba of Benin who was on the throne of his fathers when British forces carried out the so-called punitive expedition.
The date was February 18, 1897. There were 1,200 British forces. The commanding officer was Admiral Harry Holdsworth Rawson. The expedition was carried out to avenge the death of Acting Consul General James Phillips, scores of other British officers and their African porters who were killed when they defied warnings not to enter the kingdom. The massacre of that first-party led to the punitive expedition of February 1897.
In a clear nod to that history, Ehikhamenor’s installation Still Standing which memorializes and commemorates Oba Ovonramwen and all those who lost their lives in the attack opened on the eve of the expedition 125th anniversary as part of “the 50 Monuments in 50 Voices, a partnership between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Department of History of Art at the University of York to invite contemporary artists, poets, musicians, theologians, performers and academics to showcase their individual responses to 50 historic monuments across the Cathedral.”
Curated by Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at University of Oxford and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Simon Carter, Head of Collections at St Paul’s Cathedral, the exhibition, according to a statement from The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Reverend Dr. David Ison “invites responses to these memorials and the people they commemorate, from an array of different perspectives. As part of that project, the installation of Victor Ehikhamenor’s artwork contributes to the ongoing task of understanding the complexities of these monuments in 21st-century Britain.”
To understand “the complexities of these monuments in 21st-century Britain” requires a confrontation and conversation that admits contemporaneous artworks like Victor Ehikhamenor’s, which have one foot planted firmly in the past and another in the present/future. By exhibiting Still Standing, the promoters seem to be echoing the sentiments expressed by Mr. Ehikhamenor on what he calls “the vibrant continuity of the kingdom till this day” and Prof. Hicks’ who has noted “the ongoing nature of the rich artistic traditions of Benin” in their comments on the exhibition.
For Ehikhamenor, the exhibition bears out the truism that “History never sleeps nor slumbers. For me to be responding to the memorial brass of Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson who led British troops in the sacking of the Benin Kingdom 125 years ago is a testament to this. The installation Still Standing was inspired by the resolute Oba Ovonramwen who was the reigning king of Benin Kingdom at the time of the expedition,” while for Dan Hicks, “this specially-commissioned work opens up a unique space for remembrance and reflection. Still Standing reminds us of the ongoing nature of the rich artistic traditions of Benin, of the enduring legacies and losses of colonial war, and of the ability of art to help us reconcile the past and the present.”
Visitors will be able to view Victor Ehikhamenor’s work, which will be sitting beside the plaque of Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson in a clear case of the empire roaring back, confronting colonial history and re-appraising the meaning of heroes and victors.
By presenting a work that is composed of Judeo-Christian icons and animist Bini bronze pieces, Mr. Ehikhamenor is expressing the duality and binaries that define his practice.
Beginning his art practice in the US, Victor Ehikhamenor has been back fully in Nigeria since 2008 and his works over that time have evolved dramatically thanks to a constant reinvention of his process and oeuvre.
He has moved from oil on canvas to large-scale murals and installations inspired by topical news, happenings and events. His perforation pieces have seemingly made way for sculpted pieces and to his current preoccupation with works made out of rosary beads and bronze elements, which speak to his traditional roots as well as Christian persuasion.
This is what makes his installation, Still Standing, an absorbing piece of art as well as a political and cultural statement because it embraces cultures while confronting a sad history of violence and forceful appropriation. And this is one of the abiding ironies of art, its ability to birth beauty from violence and carnage and pain.
An outspoken advocate for repatriation and restitution of stolen artefacts, it is gratifying that he is the first Nigerian artist at the vanguard of taking contemporary Nigerian work steeped in the history of the Benin Kingdom across the seas with ownership and provenance clearly defined.
The curators Dan Hicks and Simon Carter may have in placing Still Standing beside the plaque of Admrial Rawson down there in the crypt of St. Paul inadvertently set the stage for the two personages to confront the colonial history that thrust them front and center into our consciousness when all the guests have departed.
One can only imagine.