Peju Layiwola: Dealing with a Fragmented Heritage

Excerpt from a speech by Peju Layiwola held in Palermo on June 3, 2022

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne has 96 Benin objects which came directly from the expedition. There are museums that are very transparent and I find that the director Nanette Snoep is a very honet and open person. When she came there as a director she asked: “How many pieces do we have from Benin” and they told her: “Between three and five.” She went to the storage and she found 96 pieces! This is amazing. It means that for several decades, all these works were not shown. Only three works were on display! For my intervention within the exhibition entitled “Resistance! The art of resistance” at that same museum, I was to look at these 96 pieces in the storage and to invite artists to show their works in a way in which contemporary art would be recalling these classical Benin works and objects and enter in a conversation with them. Working for this exhibition I was very inspired by touching these Benin works. I had seen some behind glass, but it was the first time I was physically holding such objects. It inspired me to write a poem, that I will read now and I ask you to join in, there is a number of call-outs that I ask you to read with me. The poem is also inspired by a poem written by Diana Ferrus as a tribute to Sarah Baartmann in 1998.

I have come to take you home
I have come to take you home
Edo beckons on you
Edo yearns for you
O Edo, Edo ni mose (Edo, the land of beauty)

You whispered to me
‘Take me back to where I belong’
Amongst my kith and kin
Away from the soft whispers
Of words spoken in German, French, Dutch and …
Words spoken too often and yet still unfamiliar
Wunderschon! Exotisch! Spectacular! Schon!

I have heard too many sounds in my lifetime
The sporadic bursts of osisi (guns/ammunitions)
The crackling of burning sheaves
The thud sounds of Benin soldiers dropping from tree tops like nuts
The clanking of metal against metal
The shuffling of ivories, bronzes and wood by desperate soldiers
As I journey through Ugha ‘Erhoba, (Sacred palace shrines) to storages in ships,
pockets of looters, auction tables and to
the silent chambers of museum basements
Dead silence!

I have become a game of numbers
Stamped with a new identity
2011: 189701:11292

I have come to take you home
through familiar spaces
Remember Urhokpota? (Benin Town Hall), Remember Ogbe (Area where the palace is located)?
Of course, you remember Iguneronmwon! (Quarters for bronze casting/also the name of the guild of casters)
To again hear the sound of frenzied bellows
The happy chants of the craftsmen
The pouring of molten metal and the sound of moulds cracking
to reveal yet another cast

I have come to take you home to the land of

Omo N’Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo (Praise name of the king)
It’s been four reigns since we last saw
Yes, I shall rest forever in Edo.
In Edo, I shall find peace and rest for ever and ever.

Written and performed in Rautenstrauch Joest Museum, Köln, November 24, 2021
Inspired by Diana Ferrus a poem written in 1998 as a tribute to Sarah Baartman in Holland