Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stolen art and forgotten art

I am still mourning the loss of art that happened in Iraq. When I was young the US was always praised in Europe for the care it took of protecting art and giving it back to European countries (see for instance here. It is in Mesopotamia that writing was first invented, so museums there are specially precious to me. But of course there are art thieves everywhere, and not enough money to find back all the stolen art.
There is also the fact that great art is sometimes ignored. Here is a short story about that.
The barefoot sergeant
For Dr Omoigui

The hero of my story was born in Benin City; in a country we now call Nigeria. It is way south, much more south than Miami, almost at the Equator and way, way across the Atlantic Ocean, in Africa. When he was born, the family elders held a meeting and discussed how he should be named, according to what was on their mind. Part of the family wanted him to be named "It has not rained this season" and another part wanted his name to be "Evil runs amongst men", because there was war and there was little crop, and everybody felt terrible. But his mother thought that these names were awful, and wanted something nicer. In the end, they decided to call him Edo, and that is what he was, a member of the Edo group, talking the Edo language and living in Edo country.
In Benin City though, one waits for the baby shower to announce the name of a child. Then, the mother teases her friends by inventing all kinds of ridiculous names for the child:
"We are going to call him Palm Tree in the Sky"
"This is not a good name", her friends would say, "Who ever heard of somebody called Palm Tree?"
"Well then, we are going to call him Eye of the Moon"
"O frankly what is it with you: it is not a name for a little boy"
And so it goes, and everybody is joking, and finally the father and mother whisper together, and the real name of the little boy comes out:” His name will be Edo Edo".
And then one opens a coconut, which represents the mystery of life, for who understands how milk goes into the wooden fruit of the coconut? And then there is a feast.
So, Edo Edo was born and named. He grew up like any other little boy, got married, and needed to make a living. Edo was too shy to be a good businessman, and not talented enough to be a great artist -artists were very praised in Benin. He decided that he would serve the British, who were in power at the time. He became a sergeant, I am not sure if it was in the army or in the police, but I do know that it was close to the highest rank any black person could achieve in the British system. He was only twenty-four years old.
It was Edo's day. We are not all destined to be famous, like the inventors of Aspirin, the last Oscar winners, the fastest runner of the year or the mathematician who just got the Fields medal. And how many of us remember their names anyway?
All of us, however, have our day in life: For some it is the day they fall in love, for some the day they buy a house, for some the day they finally retire. It is what we mean when we say that every dog has his day. Edo's day was the day he became a sergeant.

And this is what made of it an extraordinary story. You would never guess what Edo did. Edo went to an artist in Benin City and asked for his statue to be made. It is not something that any Sergeant would think of over here. Because in America, when it is your great day, you take pictures or you make a video. People with more money sometimes call a painter to get a painting of themselves. But even rich Americans rarely think of getting a sculpture of themselves to celebrate the big event of their life. It was different in Benin City. Sculpture had been a major art form for maybe eight centuries; the King was always represented in bronze and surrounded by bronze artifacts. Happily for Edo's dream, the king had allowed the artists in town to tackle more profane subjects than Himself, for the King was related to the Gods, and had the power to decide who was worthy of a statue.
So this is what Edo did: he ran to the house of one of the artists in town and commissioned his statue to be made in bronze. Financially, it was foolish: bronze was expensive, and he had to pay in advance 11 pounds of metal.
Edo insisted that his uniform would be perfectly reproduced and that of course his face would be easily recognized. The sculptor first made a body of clay, and then he applied wax on it and sculpted directly in the wax all the details of Edo's face and uniform. Wax allowed all details to be easily and precisely carved. Then the sculpture was covered with the finest clay; the mould was done. The sculptor heated the mould and let all the wax melt and go out by a little hole. Melted bronze filled the void left by the wax and when the bronze alloy finally cooled off, the mould was broken, and the bronze statue appeared.
Most of Edo's family was there and had a great meal while waiting, eating yams and goat meat with an okra sauce. When the statue appeared, everybody agreed it was magnificent.
I do not know when Edo died. Maybe later in life in Burma, where a lot of soldiers under British rule went from Africa, probably much earlier, because nobody lives long in Nigeria, and it is very unlikely that Edo ever saw the Queen of England visiting his regiment. His family was dispersed, and the British uniform became a sign of shame in a country all entranced by the idea of independence. My husband used to say this: “Some of us die along the path of history, some of us die across it.” When you die across the path, you are soon forgotten. Hence, Edo's statue was sold to an art dealer who was buying anything he could find to fill a whole container and hoped to make a fortune in Europe.
The statue came to London and was bought as part of a lot by an antique dealer. It is where I saw it, in 1972, for the first time. My mother and I had come from France on a shopping trip. We entered that dark place, which was huge and filled with furniture, stuff too big for us to transport, so we were disappointed and heading out when I noticed a bizarre object holding a door open. I picked it up; it was a heavy statuette, almost black in color, portraying a young African. I had never seen anything like that. I went to the dealer and asked what it was. He looked embarrassed.
"O this? This is nothing, really. It is a statue from Benin, but it has no value. They are only valuable if they were made before 1897."
I did not know it at the time, but this is when the British took several thousands art pieces from the King's palace and sold them at an auction in Germany to pay for the expenses related to pacifying the country. It is exactly what we wanted to do in Irak: the population always needs to pay for unrequited pacification.
I said that I liked the statue, although it was difficult to see the details of it. "It is not for sale, said the shy dealer, nobody would be interested in it, we sell them to a foundry for the price of bronze". You would think that the British have some respect for the people who fought for them, but they don't. Nor do the French who are more embarrassed by- than proud of- the Algerian Harkis who fought by their side. Foreigners are always foreigners.
My mother and I thought that it was very sad to have the statue destroyed and melted again. We asked if we could buy it. As I said before, bronze alloy is expensive, close to 10 dollars a pound nowadays. The dealer put the statue on a scale and told us the price, and my mother and I had to combine our British shillings and dimes to complete the sale. It was heavy. I carried our suitcases to the boat, and my mother carried the statue and complained all the way. Once at home, we washed the statue with soap and water until it looked golden again and I waxed it lightly. The statue had been left unfinished: all the little defects that come from the lost wax process had not been smoothed out, maybe by lack of time or money. Maybe Edo was so impatient that he took the statue with him immediately.
Here was our Edo, with real big eyes and the most beautiful smile you could see: the smile he had when he was made a sergeant. And one could see that the uniform was carefully done, and that Edo posed with his hands just as the army requested them to be. He had long limbs and a surprisingly large butt, the kind that is called callipyge (beautiful one) by the dreamers and steatopyge (fat one) by other people. Partly, it was a decision of the artist to create these details: large eyes, long torso, big smile. The artist wanted everything bigger than life. Most of the bronze must have been used for these features, because there was little bronze left for the feet, which appeared thin and porous.
The little sergeant had no shoes. Most of the black members of the British army (this must have been the West African Frontier Force) had no shoes until the Second World War. Some say that the local British officers stole the shoes' money, some say that the white officers wanted to humiliate the black soldiers, some say that the black soldiers did better without shoes, because they were not used to wear shoes or boots. And as you surely know, it was tough leather that was used at the time: the American army has had to soften the soldiers' shoes several times in the last fifty years, because modern little soldiers are used to soft shoes and blister easily.
Who is to know precisely how come Edo had no shoes, while according to army regulations, he should have had them? All I know is that this part of the British army went without shoes until the Second World War, when Emmanuel Cole, a civil rights hero similar in many ways to Rosa Parks, revolted. While he was a gunman in Sierra Leone, in 1939, he refused to serve until he had boots like the white soldiers.
It was timely: who would want to go barefoot to Burma?
Edo's statue came with me to live in America. For a chance encounter, it would have been melted and forgotten, but here is the barefoot sergeant of a disbanded army, fighting forgotten wars in a forgotten country where they do not even teach his language any more.
Some people still discuss how many treasures were taken from Benin in 1897, I do not know of anybody who cares how many 20th century Benin statues were discarded and melted. There is not much left of their century: millions of deaths, ethnic wars, AIDS, children sold as slaves, - no, there is not much left of them, not much art either. Behind this, there are many stories of cruelty and injustice.

But Edo was lucky: his image lives in America. He had his day in a dog's life, just like we all do, and now he smiles his beautiful smile and if you come to our house, we will show him to you.

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