It used to be that art history beyond Europe was of interest only to academics, but a West African mask of Idia, the Queen Mother of Benin, has hit headlines around the world - while brilliantly demonstrating the force of social networking. Here's the story.
The auction house, Sotheby's, announced a February 17th sale featuring Benin artifacts, including a 16th century ivory pendant mask of the head of Idia; her pre-sale estimate is around $7 million. Art history experts say that this African mask is one of only five remaining with this iconography and age; the four others are housed in major art museums. Sotheby's stated that the Benin artifacts were being sold by descendants of Henry Lionel Gallwey (now changed to Galway). True indeed, but what wasn't mentioned was how Gallwey obtained these works of African art in the first place.
Gallwey led the Benin Expedition of 1897 in which Benin was invaded, the king deposed, and the city burned and looted. Shortly after Sotheby's announced plans to sell the African mask and artifacts from this Expedition, objections spread rapidly: a non-governmental, U.K.-based group calling itself the Nigeria Liberty Forum widely circulated an online petition; a Facebook protest group was organized; and objections came from the Nigerian state government of Edo, which contains the modern city of Benin. For whatever reasons (which surely include the legal ramifications of selling looted items), Sotheby's next pithily commented on its website:
The Benin Ivory Pendant Mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors.
This African mask of Idia is an extraordinary ivory carving, likely made by artists of the Igbesanmwan, the Royal Guild of hereditary ivory artisans associated with the King. In many traditional African states, the ruler monopolised ivory because it symbolized power and immortality, making it highly likely that this mask was carved for an Oba (or King) of Benin. The mask, along with the other four, reflect a golden age when Benin thrived artistically, politically and economically.
Now comes the recurrent that bedevils art history and art museums: should this African mask be returned to Benin, where it was historically an object of veneration, or sold to a art museum, where this icon of African art will be seen by more people?