Crowds of people enjoyed traditional Edo dance performances complete with dancing, drumming and singing while others learned about the ancient technique of bronze casting and the history behind the Benin Kingdom’s unique works of art. Many even got to enjoy the taste of various Nigerian-inspired dishes.
But for the Edo people who were involved in the showcase and those who came simply to visit, this was more than just an exhibition of art. For them is was and is a reflection of a thriving piece of their identity as a community and people — one that they appreciate having shared on a much larger scale.
For attendees like 40-year-old Jean Desrosiers the gallery provided a window into his family’s past — one that he hoped would give him insight and a sense of connection of who he is to where his family comes from.
“I came to see the exhibit because we traced our ancestry back to Nigeria, to the Oba family, so I came to see a part of my legacy, my culture, my roots,” Desrosiers said. “I’m feeling a lot of respect and awe. I’m humbled and grateful to whomever collected this art so we can see this and share it. I feel inspired and I’m definitely touched.”
Nigeria native Katie Igiede dressed in some of her best traditional garb for the opening and could hardly contain the excitement she felt.
“I’m proud of being a Nigerian so I felt it was necessary for me to be here and witness this history and support my country. I’m very proud, just proud,” Igiede said. “This is something that was very personal to us and now it’s being displayed for the whole world to see. In a way it is also history for the other side of the fence to learn about our culture. It’s overwhelming, interesting, exciting and emotional.”
The Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organizations expressed sincere gratitude to the museum for allowing the gallery, a now-permanent exhibition, to be a part of the museum. Still, many of them expressed anticipation in working with the MFA to reclaim more art pieces and, specifcally, some of the estimated 4,000 works that were forcibly removed by British military action as a result of the Punitive Expedition of 1897.
Nevertheless, it was a cause to celebrate.
“The MFA worked with the Coalition of Committed Benin Organizations to ensure their participation. I delivered a letter from the Oba of Benin granting the Benin community permission to participate in the events. I saw grandparents, parents and children all enjoying themselves and celebrating the greatness of the Benin Kingdom. … The rich culture of Benin could be felt with the presence of the traditional costumes and dances. I feel [this] is the beginning of a continual relationship between MFA and the Benin community,” Carrington said.
“We look at Western art so much that when art like this comes — they used to call it primitive —it’s so different I have to take time to appreciate each piece and the workmanship that went into it because it is so intricate and unlike any other art. It’s good to see that African peoples made great things as well, even though it hasn’t been as appreciated as Western art, but we did something. We did some great things as well,” Jean Desrosiers added.