Nigerian artist’s work in St. Paul’s does not challenge British history
Even though some British and Nigerian media say otherwise.
On 17 February 2022, the eve of the 125th anniversary of the sacking of Benin City by British forces, Still Standing, an artwork by Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, was unveiled at the St Paul’s Cathedral. It is part of Ehikhamenor’s series of multimedia ‘Rosary Works‘, made with fabric, rosaries and coral beads to reflect the confluence of local and Western influences that make present-day Edo society, of the former Benin Kingdom.
Still Standing, commissioned for the Cathedral’s 50 Monuments in 50 Voices project, stands next to a brass panel commemorating the British Rear-admiral Harry Holdsworth Rawson, who led the Benin expedition 125 years ago. The artwork is a portrait of Oba Ovonramwen of the Benin Kingdom whose reign suffered the infamous expedition.
Installed in response to the Rawson panel, Ehikhamenor’s work was commissioned to “increase the range of visual, archival and conceptual sources brought into relation with [Rawson’s] monument,” according to the Cathedral. Speaking to the BBC about the artwork, the artist said: “This is me reawakening Oba Ovonramwen and every other person that was violated during that oppressive attack on the Benin Kingdom.”
In the media framing around the work, however, it is claimed that the work does much more than the Cathedral or even the artist himself envisioned.
In a review piece, the BBC’s headline read: “The Nigerian artwork challenging British history in St Paul’s.” Similarly, The Art Newspaper said the artwork “presents a direct challenge to the legacy of the admiral Harry Holdsworth Rawson.” ArtNet called it a “symbol of resistance.” The Guardian (Nigeria) triumphantly announced that “the empire roars back“, on account of Ehikhamenor’s work.
These claims are mistaken.
Headlines and commentary like these are part of a worldwide media ruse that paints singular individuals in a community as involved in a contemporary form of Mungo-Parking. Other examples of this ruse sound like ‘The man bringing sanitation to his community.’ ‘The woman inventing Nigeria.’
They present the world as ever new, and events in it as without precedent: grounds waiting to be broken. In the light of this, this coverage of Ehikhamenor’s Still Standing can feel inevitable, beyond the control of the artist or even those writing about him.
The media’s claims are worth examining.
Empire is not challenged because something spectacular from (its former) provinces has been brought to its finest courts. Rather, these spectacular things are further proof that the empire was once so powerful, that even after the sun has set on it, its metropole remains a bulb attracting the best and brightest from its provinces, for capital, fame and fortune. Picture this: someone walks into St. Paul’s cathedral – a British architectural marvel – and sees a wonderful artwork by a Nigerian artist. While in this physical representation of British excellence, the viewer might think, “hmm, the British did fucked up things to these amazing cultures.”
Then what? What is challenged in that moment? A collective history or a private memory? Power replenishes itself by absorbing ‘challenges’ of this kind. Likely, the viewer still leaves in awe of British hegemony. At best, they now believe it’s a flawed one. What is being replenished and reified here is British history, which is made better because works like Ehikhamenor’s can find a place in its institutions.
Dan Hicks, Head of Collections at St Paul’s Cathedral and Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at University of Oxford, who commissioned the piece, in a website statement, said the work “opens up a unique space for remembrance and reflection”. And this space is for who? Specially commissioned for St Paul’s and funded by the British Art Fund, Still Standing will find a permanent home at the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, which holds one of the most significant collections of artworks from the Royal Court of Benin looted during the 1897 expedition.
Speaking of restitution
You cannot speak about the infamous 1897 expedition, the subject of Still Standing, without joining the current debate on restitution and repatriation. The artist himself has become a face of this debate, especially in the Nigerian context.
“I think people will come [to Still Standing] with different readings, backgrounds and meanings. I’m not one to prescribe how people should receive my work,” Ehikhamenor said, in an interview on the Cathedral’s Youtube channel.
“But I hope it will open conversations and point people to a direction they were not looking before […] I hope this will lead people to the conversation [on restitution].”
However, as the Art Newspaper reported, “the cathedral’s chancellor, Paula Gooder, stressed that St Paul’s is not trying to make a pointed statement on the issue of repatriation. Rather, she says that by hosting the work, her institution is ‘providing a space for conversation around how we should approach monuments in the 21st century’.”
It makes sense that the cathedral says this is not a conversation about restitution. It proves our point that even if one artist intends for their art to do so, feeding a single artwork to the Empire is simply not enough to challenge the beast on the issue of its past. The idea that situating the portrait of a ruler next to the memorial of his conqueror–in a bastion of the conqueror’s empire–gives the portrait teeth to bite the conqueror’s history is a dangerous illusion. Dangerous because the illusion perpetuates the very thing it claims to be resisting, while encouraging uncritical satisfaction. As Toni Cade Bambara reminds us: Not all speed is movement.
The same lack of rigour in the conversation on Still Standing is present in the restitution debate. Both the artwork and the restitution debate are responses to the looting of the 1897 Benin Expedition. Yet, both conversations fail to reflect on the fact that: art fossilised in a museum is an extension of European imperialism and the colonial sensibility of conquering by collecting. Not to mention the museum itself is an artefact of Western civilization.
As such, both conversations ought to open us up to rethink the role and possibilities of the museum, beyond replicating colonial institutions and hierarchies of knowledge production.
The true challenge
Yes, Still Standing brings past and present into the same room but what is the consequence of this reconciliation? The artwork appears to say: this is who the British empire stole art from, art that Nigerians have still preserved and persevered with, despite colonial attacks. But does this change what we already know about British history: that the expedition and its looting happened, that Britain colonised Nigeria? No one denies these events.
Rather, the urgent questions are: What is the enduring impact of this colonial encounter? How do we deal with similar tensions today, given how the past turned out? A true challenge would be too bitter to swallow in the same frame as a Rawson memorial.
It would topple the institution of the museum and its imperial logic from its pedestal.
This article is published as part of the African Arguments fellowship for young freelance journalists.