Tuesday, December 13, 2011

77. Benin Plaque: the Oba with Europeans (Nigeria, AD 1500-1600)

Europe meets Africa!
Here’s a sculpture MacGregor uses to speak about two encounters between Europeans and Africans on African turf: the first, depicted in the sculpture, presumably around 1600, a peaceful exchange of trade and maybe ideas; and the second, in 1897, when this object was looted and taken back to England, a war in the service of empire and then, perhaps as terrible as the lives lost, trashing or denying a culture because of the insidious cultural residue of slavery.

Now, this is a neat work of art, there’s no denying that—the figures are carefully done, the symmetry is pleasing, the two European guys at the top with lots of hair and funny hats with feathers are kind of cool. So much so that, as with the Ife Sculpted Head, in 1900 the Europeans were baffled—what was this object doing in Nigeria? They were so racist at that time, so into their thing about the savage, barbarous ways of the Africans, that they couldn’t comprehend how such an object could have been created there. Although that’s a sad comment on the British scramble (against the French and Dutch and Portugese and, by the 19th century, the Belgians) for colonies in Africa, I think it’s an even sadder comment on the process of dehumanization. Presumably the Portugese traders depicted in this sculpture, the guys with the silly hats at the back, who traded the Nigerians the bronze they used to make this sculpture, presumably they weren’t so appalled and astonished by the rich culture in the court of the Oba, the king of this region of West Africa in the 16th century. But between 1600 and 1900, slavery happened...three hundred years in which white people around the world—yes, I know the Brits gave it up long before the Americans did, but the racism persisted there as long as it did here—worked their hardest, in thought and writing and teaching and culture, to dehumanize those they wanted or felt compelled by financial necessity to keep as slaves. “They” were savage, barbarous, etc., not quite human, lucky to have us to look after them and take care of them. A myth which developed simultaneously with the slave trade, as it grew into the 1800s. And myths, we’ve seen, are hard things to kill. One of the very pernicious things about the kind of dehumanizing myth we’re talking about here is that both sides may end up half-believing it, the oppressor as well as the oppressed. MacGregor’s Nigerian writer looks at this sculpture and it makes him think almost wistfully or with a kind of nostalgia for a time, before slavery became the main industry, when Nigeria (and lots of other parts of Africa) had functioning societies.

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