Online rosary

Nigerian artwork defying British history at St Paul’s

Spotlights pick rhinestones from Victor Ehikhamenor’s giant rosary bead tapestry to sparkle, illuminating part of the 17th-century cathedral’s crypt.

This image of the oba, or king, of Benin dominates the space, crossed every week by thousands of visitors, and catches the eye.

Next to it – barely legible and tarnished by time – is a much smaller brass commemorative plaque honoring Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson, who led a punitive expedition in 1897 to the West African kingdom of Benign.

He oversaw British soldiers and sailors who destroyed an age-old civilization, looting and burning down the Oba’s palace in what is now Benin City in Nigeria’s Edo State.

Their looted treasures – thousands of metal carvings and ivory carvings made between the 15th and 19th centuries and collectively known as the Benin Bronzes – are now at the center of a debate over the return of artefacts taken from the colonial era.

But as his plaque reminds us, Rawson was revered at the time for his exploits throughout the British Empire.

Sculptures looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 have found their way around the world

Through memorials to hundreds of British historical figures, St Paul’s presents a version of the past. But in an ongoing art project, cathedral authorities are trying to bring in new insights.

Ehikhamenor’s 12-foot-tall (3.7 m) work, Still Standing, was specially commissioned as part of the 50 Monuments in 50 Voices project to tell different stories.

“There is something very powerful about seeing an oba standing next to the sign commemorating the Benin campaign,” Cathedral Chancellor Dr Paula Gooder told the BBC.

The work also recalls “the lasting legacies and losses of colonial warfare,” said the exhibit’s co-curator, Professor Dan Hicks.

St Paul has decided not to get rid of any of its monuments, recognizing that “people had different values” in the past, and instead wants to “engage in a conversation with history”, Dr Gooder explained.

Ehikhamenor has no doubts about his role in this conversation.

“To the people of Britain [Rawson] was a hero, for the family he was a hero, but it could also be that for other people he was a war criminal,” the artist said.

He feels that in all the debate over reparations and the push for the looted items to be returned to Nigeria, Rawson’s “painful” role in the whole affair has been overlooked.

“Sometimes we have to remind people that [atrocities] come.”

Ehikhamenor comes from the same Edo culture and artistic tradition as the bronzes, and his piece is inspired by Oba Ovonramwen, the Beninese monarch exiled by the British in 1897.

The installation depicts a larger-than-life figure of the oba standing in full dress and with the instruments of his power.

“It is me who wakes up Oba Ovonramwen and all the other people who were raped during this oppressive attack on the Kingdom of Benin,” said the artist.

five thousand pearls

Still Standing is a reference to the fact that for Ehikhamenor “the kingdom is still standing, the culture is still standing, we as a people are still standing”.

The work was created late last year at Ehikhamenor’s studio in Lagos, Nigeria, and required three months of continuous work by the artist and a team of four assistants. .

Nigerian artwork defying British history at St Paul's
Rosary beads and a bronze replica from Benin can be seen in this detail from Still Standing

“I call them The Kingmakers,” Ehikhamenor said of the team.

These were young women who played mostly Yoruba gospel music as they worked on the piece, stitching all the elements together, as the image of the oba materialized on the monumental canvas.

“There’s no way people can see it and not feel the joy and feel something they can’t understand,” the artist said.

To create the work, 5,000 rosaries, traditionally used to support Catholic devotion, were sewn onto lace, along with rhinestones and bronze statuettes.

Among the miniatures hung on the work is a replica of the mask of Queen Idia from the 16th century, the most famous of Benin’s bronzes.

The mask is coated with chalk, another strong feature of the whole, referring to the artist’s childhood memory of ritual invocations in chalk from his grandfather to the observation of the new moon.

“Chalk is very important for the Kingdom of Benin,” Ehikhamenor said.

“History is a moving train”

He began using the rosary in his studio practice in 2017, to raise questions about what is a religious object and what is art, what is held sacred and what is stigmatized as demonic.

“Our art has been demonized for so long. So now my thing is, if you see a work that’s made from the rosary, are you going to say it’s demonic?

“The Edo artist has always insisted on duality; this world, the other; past and present.”

Ehikhamenor is one of the leading voices in calling for the repatriation of looted art, but he avoids the activist label, insisting that: “When you ask for your father’s heritage, you are not an activist; you’re just asking what’s yours.

Still Standing was created in this vein.

Displayed in a building, it is at the heart of the British establishment, it is not a conference, nor does it impose a particular position on people.

But the brilliance of the piece draws attention, prompting the viewer to take another look at a historical episode and consider the ongoing impact of the destruction of the ancient kingdom of Benin.

For Ehikhamenor, the past must always be revised.

“History is constantly evolving. Inasmuch as people like to think of history as set in stone, history is a constantly moving train.