Richard Lander is best known for being the first European, with his brother John, to trace the course of the Niger river to the Atlantic. In 1973, however, Philip Allison, writing in African Arts journal, credited him as the first to have made a very different kind of discovery. In the journal Lander kept of his first voyage to the Yoruba regions of southwest Nigeria in 1825, he recorded that ‘the natives of that part of Africa appear to have a genius for the art of sculpture’. For Allison, this was ‘probably the first appreciation of Nigerian art […] ever recorded in writing’.
Earlier this month, the government of Lagos State put Lander at the centre of another kind of origin story. This one begins in 1830, with Lander’s second voyage to the Yoruba interior, and a small village called Kaiama, then ruled by an emir of the Fulani people, with whom the Yoruba had been at war for some 40 years. Lander found that the emir’s home was decorated not only with ‘very good prints of our gracious sovereign George the Fourth’, but also with a number of Yoruba sculptures, including a finely carved stool, with sides ‘supported by four little wooden figures of men’, and another figure, ‘of larger dimension, seated on a clumsy representation of a hippopotamus, placed between them’.
The emir presented this stool to Lander, and it was subsequently shipped to England, where it is currently held in storage by the British Museum. Now, Lagos State has asked publicly for its return. It is the latest in a series of appeals for the restitution of objects from sub-Saharan Africa – but this request is not quite like the others. Last November, Senegal demanded the return of all objects identified as Senegalese that are held in French museums. Ivory Coast has a list of 100 works it wishes to see returned from France. The Lander stool is a single object, from among the many hundreds of Yoruba woodcarvings the British Museum holds. Steve Ayorinde, the commissioner of tourism for Lagos State, has since clarified that the stool is among several objects which were requested from the museum on loan. Unlike the Benin Bronzes – which have been objects of rancour ever since they were looted by the punitive British expedition of 1897 – the Lander stool has been known by few people other than specialists before now.
The stool is unusually old for a Yoruba wood sculpture. Most objects of the same age that are still in Nigeria have been destroyed by termites; nor are there are many pieces of this antiquity in European collections, since, before Lander’s voyages, explorers were largely content with a sketchy topographical knowledge of the slave ports along the gulf coast of Guinea. The stool is also an enthralling piece of carving, with its caryatid gong players, drummers, and various ranks of soldier supporting the regal, equestrian figure at the centre. (What Lander called a ‘clumsy representation of a hippopotamus’ is actually a stylised horse.)
For Lagos State, the stool ‘represents the very beginning of a colonial story that led to the formation of the Niger Company and ultimately the colonial state of Nigeria’. As such, it is intended to ‘form a centrepiece’ of the new John K. Randle Centre for Yoruba History and Culture, which is expected to open in Lagos later this year. The institution seems a different prospect to existing museums in Africa. It takes its name from a much older community project. In the early 20th century, Dr John Randle – appalled by the corpses washing up near his surgery after accidents on the passage between the Lagosian islands – built a community centre and swimming pool on Lagos Island. The building has long been slated for renovation and, after it was discovered that Lagos State Government had purchased an adjacent plot, as the site of a new museum, the two projects joined forces. Most of the major building work is now complete.
Renders of the centre show a structure with a steel lattice roof, echoing the patterns of traditional Yoruba textiles. The roof rises directly from the earth in a smooth, shallow slope; on completion, it will sport a grass-covered walkway leading to a viewing platform on top of the building. It’s intended to suggest the Yoruba creation myth, which tells that human beings were sculpted from the soil at Ife by the orisa Obatala, before the prime mover Oludumare brought them to life with his breath. Creation is to be the subject of the first room in the centre, which will lead through reconstructed shrines to the various orisa (deities), displays of objects used in ritual events (naming ceremonies; masquerades), and explorations of the secular structures of traditional Yoruba life, revolving around the twin pillars of the monarchy and the marketplace. Later rooms will present the history of colonialism, the slave trade, and the Yoruba diaspora.
A cluster of trees inside the museum will be a spot for storytelling, where audio-visual displays will relate the myths of the Yoruba; narrative is at the very heart of how this centre has been envisaged. The most ambitious hope for the place is that it might help to revive an interest in traditional history that has been on the wane in Lagos in recent years.
What the Randle Centre appears to be proposing is a new kind of African museum, one that adapts Western museological practices to traditional modes of storytelling. If it can pull this off, it would be hard to imagine a better place for the Lander stool to be: somewhere it can bear witness to the past in a community centre that will attract a wide audience. The request for its return was made at a closed-door colloquium at the British Museum on the future of museums in West Africa, at which director Hartwig Fischer said that ‘the idea of working together includes the possibility of engaging in exchange’. While it considers this possibility, the museum would do well to bear in mind that the importance of the Lander stool resides less in its intrinsic value as an object, and more in the opportunity its return would present for Yoruba Lagosians.