The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, has returned an original Bakor monolith from the village of Njemetop in Cross River State to Nigeria. These works of art, also known as the Cross-River or Ikom monoliths, and locally referred to as akwanshi or atal, are mostly made of basalt or limestone that has been naturally shaped in nearby riverbeds. They probably depict ancient community leaders and ancestor figures.
Phallic references are in many cases unmistakable.
“Unknown artists have embellished the natural forms of the rocks by carvings of facial features, beards, decorative markings (probably indicating scarification), protruding navels, etc.,“ the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Preservation writes. This organization has a project aimed at conserving and raising awareness about the Bakor monoliths, in collaboration with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and the University of Calabar (UNICAL).
The Bakor monoliths can be found in more than 30 communities in Cross River state. “They are placed in circles, sometimes perfect circles, facing each other standing erect, except where they have been tampered with by weather or man,“ the Unesco Tentative List informs. The list is an inventory of properties to be nominated as World Heritage.
In the early 1960s, a survey on the monoliths was commissioned by the National Museum in Lagos. This put the number of carved stones at 300.
Many of them are in danger of getting lost: “The greatest threat comes from forest clearance and subsequent farming activity, in particular slash and burn methods which heat the stone, causing it to crack as it cools,“ Factum Foundation writes.
The 1970ies brought many losses following the crisis of the Biafra Civil War when art objects were smuggled over the nearby border and sold on the antiquities markets.
The Bakor Monoliths are included in the ICOM’s Red List of West African cultural objects at risk and in the Watch-List by the World Monuments Fund.
In February/March 2023, the British Museum had an exhibition showing many such objects. A webpage contains an online presentation.
The Repatriation Ceremony was held on June 23, 2023, in Lagos. A resin facsimile of the original will be produced with the support of the Carène Foundation and remain at the Chrysler Museum as an educational tool for discussing the restitution of cultural objects.
Photos: Chrysler Museum
(11.08.2023, USA: 08.11.2023)