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FESTAC at 40: The history and mystery behind the mask

As you enter the passage leading to the reception of the Centre for Blacks and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC), Broad Street, Lagos, the carved replica of the 16th-century Benin ivory mask standing (about 20 x 10 feet) like a colossus near the staircase, both intimidates and pulls you like a magnate. It was the festival emblem for FESTAC ’77.

The festival committee had chosen the mysterious and history-laden 16th-century mask as the festival emblem. And now, for the 40th anniversary of the festival, the Benin ivory mask, whose originals are presently sitting in British and New York museums, ‘singing the Lord’s song in a strange land’, may be on duty again.
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•The Benin Ivory mask in the Metropolitan Museum New York
The original mask, said to represent Queen Idia, mother of Oba Esigie, who ruled in the 16th century, was worn by Benin Obas as pendant during the Igue religious ceremonies and the Emobo rituals meant to remove evil spirits, and probably during memorial ceremonies for the ruler’s mother. The top of the mask, made about 500 years ago, is decorated with images of heads of bearded Portuguese, showing both the alliance and control Benin Kingdom had over the Europeans.

Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (aka Overami) who ruled from 1888 was the last king to wear the ivory mask. He was sacked in 1897 by Ralph Moor, the British Consul General of the Niger Coast Protectorate, in a punitive expedition.

Prior to the invasion of Benin Kingdom, the British, who detested Benin’s independence and the Oba’s trade monopoly, began to desire the land which was rich in palm oil, rubber, ivory and other natural resources. Vice-Consul, James Robert Phillips, and Captain Gallwey, the British vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate, pushed for the Benin Empire to be annexed and for the Oba to be sacked.

Finally, in 1896, Phillips took an army and set out to conquer the Oba and the kingdom. He disguised his force and pretended to be on a mission to negotiate with the Oba. The plan was discovered by Oba’s force and messengers. Philips and his soldiers were issued several warnings, but they refused to heed the warnings and rather chose to insult Oba Ovonramwen by sending him a stick. Subsequently, Philips and his army were ambushed and massacred.

Angered by the humiliating defeat and massacre, the British army, led by Harry Rawson, re-enforced and attacked the Oba in 1897. They burnt Benin City, killed many of its inhabitants, and would have hanged Oba Ovonramwen had he not escaped.

The Oba was later exiled to Calabar with his two wives where he died in 1914.They raided his bedchamber and inside a large chest, found and carted away four ivory masks and many other artifacts which were sold to Western collectors.

One of those ivory masks, now in the British Museum, was purchased in 1910 from the British anthropologist Professor Charles Gabriel Seligman, while the other one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, was acquired in 1972 as a gift from Nelson Rockefeller.

The actual size of the Benin ivory mask in the British Museum, London, is 22.5 cm high and 12.5 cm wide with registration number, AOA 1910.5-13.1. The British Museum and Metropolitan Museum ivory masks are almost identical, with only minor differences in decoration, such as the difference in the band below the chin. The collar band of the mask in the Metropolitan Museum is damaged. The two Benin ivory masks in London and New York are now priceless.

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