The inspiration for this week’s article, which is the predecessor of a two-part series titled “Conversations with Fellow Nigerians,” stems from some unwritten exchanges that started some 40 years ago, in early 1977, among historians and students of history immediately after the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) that revealed so much about the black world. It opened up a deeper understanding into who we are and how we came to be as a people and as a nation as well as understanding our fellow human beings and how best to relate with each other, irrespective of our religious and cultural backgrounds. Thousands of artists, writers, musicians, activists and scholars from Africa and the black Diaspora assembled in Lagos for FESTAC ’77. Back then, Nigeria was looked up to as the leader of the black world and as the cradle of civilization.
During the preparations for FESTAC ’77, Nigeria appointed a committee to locate and return to Nigeria any and all documented and historical works of art from anywhere in Europe and the Americas. The committee selected the ivory mask of Queen Idia of Ancient Benin Kingdom as the festival symbol, and offered £2m to the British government for the loan of this mask that sits in the British Museum following their refusal to return the mask. The British government rejected the offer, to the chagrin of all decent people. By the end of FESTAC ’77, that committee was disbanded. Since then, Nigeria has relied on the approach of quiet diplomacy to press for the recovery of its stolen history. Such quiet diplomacy had more or less been a colossal failure until recently with the announcement that the British Museum would be ‘leasing’ our works to us in the coming years.
To be honest, Nigeria has often proven beyond doubt that she cannot manage her affairs. A number of the museums set up in virtually every region are dying from neglect, poor staffing, low wages, low morale and poor funding. The problem of poor management can still be seen in the poor documentation of our art treasures and resources till date. But we can argue that, despite all these, stealing is never justified.
When I founded DIDI Museum in 1983, following the lessons and education from the black art festival, which was hosted by Nigeria, and as a continuation of my conversation with fellow Nigerians, I invited key monarchs and traditional scholars as key custodians of our history and tradition. They were the then Oba of Benin Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, the then Emir of Kanu Alhaji Ado Bayero, the then Ooni of Ife Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II and the then Obi of Onitsha Ofala Okagbue. Not only was my invitation honoured by all of them, they came with gifts of art that told so much about our past and they continued to support the development of the museum until they passed to the world beyond. The artworks donated by the monarchs mentioned above have become the most interesting part of the history of the museum. The artworks, in addition to the hundreds collected by the museum over the last 50 years, have all become priceless, cannot be valued and cannot be sold.
DIDI Museum remains the only private museum in Nigeria and continues to host young artists from all over Africa and sometimes from Europe. Such exchanges provide so much education for this stage of our development.
A few weeks ago, a very good friend of mine, Akin Olukiran, who is based in London and an avid reader and a contributor to this column, took over this page and wrote a tribute to commemorate my 84th birthday, which was on January 1, 2022. He also wrote a similar but different essay last year to commemorate my 83rd birthday. Reading through all his unbelievable commendations, I felt a bit flattered but humbled because Akin and I have been sharing advocacies and have travelled together all over the country and beyond, sensitising communities for a better and sustainable environment, particularly on fighting desertification.
In the same article mentioned above, Akin wrote, and I quote, “The life of Newton Jibunoh could almost easily by shared between construction, the arts and the environment.”
But he left out the most important part of my life, which is FARMING. For over 50 years, I have grown most of the food I eat and then I distribute to families and friends, including Akin whenever he is in Nigeria. I will forgive him for not mentioning it though because he has lived more outside the country in the last few years with the COVID-19 protocol affecting movement of persons and food items.
To my friend, Akin, for honouring and supporting me all these years, my prayer is that all those coming behind you will extend similar grace to you as you age.
Now at old age, the best I can do is to continue the conversations that I started long ago. Conversations that I hope are understood by all classes of people and make for a better living and healthier environment. The conversations all these years have centred on:
• The Nigeria that I knew.
• The Nigeria that was the dream of so many generations.
• The Nigeria that I love.
In a mentoring programme that I organised in 1983 for students of art and history, the then editor of the Sunday Times, Achike Chuks Okafo, who was the special guest of honour, wrote in his editorial, and I quote: “These times in our national history call for munificent patrons of our arts and culture, beyond what the government can afford, in order to fully explore what is left of the plundered and exploited cultural wealth of our society in the time past.”
One good thing, among many others, about Nigerians though is that we are an indefatigable people; a good number of us are. Citizens and groups have on their own kept on the fight for the return of our stolen history. Individuals, art lovers, cities and states have been able to trace most of the missing arts to most European and American cities. A lot of these are in private homes. Others are held in public view. However, we do not have a list of these works anywhere, comprehensive or otherwise. I believe that if a standing committee tasked with recovery of our art exists, it can easily set up such a data bank for effective dialogue with the looters.
You may be wondering why I deem these conversations around our arts and culture of great significance. Well, the answer is simple: Art both mirrors reality and shapes it. Its ability to mirror reality means that, at every time, there are artworks that tell of the society as it was in that time. History presented to us in drawings, woodwork and bronze sculptures. Without history, we are a people of the blind being led by the blind.
Next week, we continue our conversation and delve even deeper to matters of equal importance.