Benin Brass Plaque

Benin Brass Plaque

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Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand [a] metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. Collectively, the objects form the best known examples of Benin art, and were created from the 13th century onwards by artists of the Edo people. [3] [4] Apart from the plaques, other sculptures in brass or bronze include some famous portrait heads, jewellery and smaller pieces.

Most of the plaques and other objects were looted by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria. [5] Two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest found their way to other European museums. [6] A large number are held by the British Museum [5] with other notable collections in Germany and the United States. [7]

The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art. Initially, it appeared incredible to the discoverers that people "supposedly so primitive and savage" were responsible for such highly developed objects. [8] Some even wrongly concluded that Benin knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese traders who were in contact with Benin in the early modern period. [8] The Kingdom of Benin was a hub of African civilization long before Portuguese traders visited, [9] and it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin by an indigenous culture. Many of the dramatic sculptures date to the 13th century, centuries before European contact, and a large part of the collection dates to the 15th and 16th centuries. It is believed that two "golden ages" in Benin metal workmanship occurred during the reigns of Esigie (fl. 1550) and of Eresoyen (1735–1750), when their workmanship achieved its highest quality. [10]

While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, like most West African "bronzes" the pieces are mostly made of brass of variable composition. [b] There are also pieces made of mixtures of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials. [12] The metal pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered among the best sculptures made using this technique. [13]


Social context and creation Edit

Olfert Dapper, a Dutch writer, describing Benin in his book Description of Africa (1668) [14]

The Kingdom of Benin, which occupied parts of present-day Nigeria between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, was very rich in sculptures of diverse materials, such as iron, bronze, wood, ivory, and terra cotta. The Oba's palace in Benin, the site of production for the royal ancestral altars, also was the backdrop for an elaborate court ceremonial life in which the Oba of Benin, his warriors, chiefs and titleholders, priests, members of the palace societies and their constituent guilds, foreign merchants and mercenaries, and numerous retainers and attendants all took part. The palace, a vast sprawling agglomeration of buildings and courtyards, was the setting for hundreds of rectangular brass plaques whose relief images portray the persons and events that animated the court. [15]

Bronze and ivory objects had a variety of functions in the ritual and courtly life of the Kingdom of Benin. They were used principally to decorate the royal palace, which contained many bronze works. [16] They were hung on the pillars of the palace by nails punched through them. [15] As a courtly art, their principal objective was to glorify the Oba—the divine king—and the history of his imperial power or to honour the Iyoba of Benin (the queen mother). [17] Art in the Kingdom of Benin took many forms, of which bronze and brass reliefs and the heads of kings and queen mothers are the best known. Bronze receptacles, bells, ornaments, jewellery, and ritual objects also possessed aesthetic qualities and originality, demonstrating the skills of their makers, although they are often eclipsed by figurative works in bronze and ivory carvings. [17]

In tropical Africa the technique of lost-wax casting was developed early, as the works from Benin show. When a king died, his successor would order that a bronze head be made of his predecessor. Approximately 170 of these sculptures exist, and the oldest date from the twelfth century. [18] The oba, or king, monopolized the materials that were most difficult to obtain, such as gold, elephant tusks, and bronze. These kings made possible the creation of the splendid Benin bronzes thus, the royal courts contributed substantially to the development of sub-Saharan art. [19] In 1939, heads very similar to those of the Kingdom of Benin were discovered in Ife, the holy city of the Yoruba, which dated to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This discovery supported an earlier tradition holding that it was artists from Ife who had taught Benin the techniques of bronze metalworking. [20] Recognition of the antiquity of the technology in Benin advanced when these sculptures were dated definitively to that era. [21]

European interest and the Benin Expedition of 1897 Edit

Few examples of African art had been collected by Europeans in the eighteenth century. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when colonization and missionary activity began, did larger numbers of African works begin to be taken to Europe, where they were described as simple curiosities of "pagan" cults. This attitude changed after the Benin Expedition of 1897.

In 1897, the vice consul general James Robert Phillips, together with six other British officials, two businessmen, translators, and 215 porters, set off toward Benin from the small port of Sapele, Nigeria. [8] Although they had given word of their intended visit, they were later informed that their journey must be delayed, because no foreigner could enter the city while rituals were being conducted [23] [24] however, the travellers ignored the warning and continued on their expedition. [25] They were ambushed at the south of the city by Oba warriors, and only two Europeans survived the ensuing massacre. [8] [23]

News of the incident reached London eight days later and a naval punitive expedition was organized immediately, [8] [23] [25] which was to be directed by Admiral Harry Rawson. The expedition sacked and destroyed Benin City. [8] [23] Following the British attack, the conquerors took the works of art decorating the Royal Palace and the residences of the nobility, which had been accumulated over many centuries. According to the official account of this event written by the British, the attack was warranted because the local people had ambushed a peaceful mission, and because the expedition liberated the population from a reign of terror. [23] [26]

The works taken by the British were a treasure hoard of bronze and ivory sculptures, including king heads, queen mother heads, leopard figurines, bells, and a great number of images sculpted in high relief, all of which were executed with a mastery of lost-wax casting. In 1910, German researcher Leo Frobenius carried out an expedition to Africa with the aim of collecting works of African art for museums in his country. [27] Today perhaps as few as fifty pieces remain in Nigeria although approximately 2,400 pieces are held in European and American collections. [28]

Benin Kingdom

The Kingdom of Benin has produced some of the most renowned examples of African art. There are an estimated 2,400 to 4,000 known objects including 300 bronze heads, 130 elephant tusks, and 850 relief plaques. The art of the Kingdom of Benin, not to be confused with the Republic of Benin, is most widely known for its bronze plaques. The majority of the bronze plaques are at held the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum, British Museum, National Museum of Nigeria in Lagos and Benin City, Weltmuseum Wien, Field Museum of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most of the ancient art of Benin is royal and honors the Oba, or king of the Benin Kingdom.

The general aesthetic principles of Benin art, according to Kathryn Gunsch (2018), are triadic symmetry, frontality, alternation, and decoration in the round. Triadic symmetry in the royal arts of Benin commonly appears, for example, as two figures flanking a central figure on a carved ivory tusk. Figures appear frontally in Benin art with feet firmly planted and their torsos and heads facing the viewer. Alternation refers to the patterns on ivory saltcellars that alternate figures and animals surrounding the object. And finally, ivory tusks and saltcellars serve as examples of Benin artists’ preference for decoration in the round.

Oba Oranmiyan, who was from the Kingdom of Ife, founded the Benin Dynasty in 900 CE. The caster Iguegha was also from the Kingdom of Ife and was one of the first to create the emblematic commemorative portrait heads of the Oba. William Fagg, a historian of African art, classified the art of Benin into three distinct periods: Early, Middle and Late. The Early Period began in approximately 1400 CE, during which time the stylistic influence of the Kingdom of Ife was most evident in the naturalism among commemorative heads. Early period-style heads are lightweight and feature high collars under the chin. Oba Ewuare the Great was known as a promoter of the arts and in 1440 he was the first king to commission large objects in bronze. He is also known as the first art commissioner for an Oba’s elaborate regalia, consisting of coral beaded crowns and costumes.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are considered the Golden Age of Benin and are also the beginning of the Middle Period. The Middle Period ushered in heavier commemorative heads with more elaborate detail. Many scholars have noted that the reason the commemorative heads became heavier is because the Kingdom of Benin had access to more copper from the slave trade with the Portuguese. This assertion has since been contested by other scholars (Gunsch 2018 and Vansina 1984). Fagg characterizes the Middle Period with a uniformity of style and iconography, as shown by the plaques. Commemorative heads from the Middle Period also feature a hole in the top. This allowed the head to hold up a tusk on an altar.

Oba Esigie ruled from 1517 to 1550 and at the end of his reign, he commissioned a set of bronze plaques. These plaques depict moments in history and therefore serve as a record of Benin’s chronology. Esigie also commissioned a cast bronze idiophone for the Ugie Oro festival. There was increased interaction with the Europeans during this period and many Benin ivory carvers created oliphants (ivory hunting horns), salt cellars, and other objects for European royalty.

Europeans continued to encroach on the Benin Kingdom during the nineteenth century, when Benin opened up its tropical forests to colonists. This marked the beginning of the Late Period during which time brass casters began placing wing-like finials on either side of the cap of the commemorative heads and the metal work became much thicker. Fagg contends that the heads became more elaborate during the reigns of Oba Eresonyen and subsequent kings because they served as an over-compensation for the loss of the Oba’s power (Fagg 1970). The Late Period came to a head during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, during which the British ransacked Benin City, looted thousands of precious objects, and displaced Oba Ovanramwen. A new ruler, Oba Eweka II, was instituted in 1914 and he established the Benin Arts Council in the mid-1920s. Eweka II taught Ovia Idah, a noted ebony carver. During the 1950s and 1960s, Felix Idubor and Festus Idehen both became successful sculptors that combined classical Benin techniques while also incorporating their own modern influences. Since the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, brass casters shifted their focus to making objects for tourists, which caused a range in quality (Nevadomsky and Osemweri 2007). Triadic symmetry and frontality continued to be used with plaques created in the twentieth century. Plaques from this period lack horror vacui (fear of leaving empty spaces), typically feature the rope of the world around the edge, and are crude rather than aesthetic (Nevadomsky 2010). Commemorative portrait heads also changed in modern times: they shift from heads to busts, the patina of the sculptures are brighter, and the facial features are softer. There are also examples of brass casters commemorating modern events for example, a bronze sculpture of Oba Akenzua II meeting Queen Elizabeth II was created by Philip Omodamwen as found in the collection of the High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon in Benin City.

Episode Transcript – Episode 77 - Benin plaque - the Oba with Europeans

In 2001, the UK National Census recorded that one in twenty Londoners were of black African descent, and it's a figure that's continued to rise in the years since. Modern British life and culture now have a strong African component. It's a development that's merely the latest chapter in the history of relations between Africa and western Europe. And in that long and turbulent history, the Benin Bronzes, as they used to be known, hold a unique place.

Made in what is now modern Nigeria, in the sixteenth century, the Benin plaques are actually made of brass, not bronze. They're each about the size of an A3 sheet of paper, and they show figures in high relief that celebrate the battles won by the army of the Benin ruler, the oba, and the rituals of the oba's court. They're not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting, they're also documents of two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact - the first, peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.

"This was really our first notable encounter with the European world. People came in looking for trading partners, looking for expansion of their own knowledge of the world - and being astonished to encounter this society." (Wole Soyinka)

Throughout this week we are with objects that describe how Europe first encountered, and then traded with, the wider world in the sixteenth century. But the magnificent sculptures of this programme record the encounter from the other side - from the African side. They offer us a remarkable picture of the structure of this West African kingdom. Their main subject is the glorification of the ruler of Benin, the oba, and of his prowess as hunter and soldier, but they also tell us how the people of Benin saw their first European trading partners. The plaque I've chosen is dominated by the majestic figure of the oba himself.

The plaque is about two feet square (60 cm). Its colour strikes you as coppery rather than brassy, and there are five figures on it - three Africans and two Europeans. In the centre, in the proudest relief and looking straight out at us, is the oba. He's on his throne wearing a high helmet-like crown. His neck is completely invisible - a series of large rings runs from his shoulder right the way up to his lower lip. In his right hand he holds up a ceremonial axe. To either side of the oba kneel two court functionaries, dressed very like him but with plainer headdresses and fewer neck-rings. They wear belts hung with small crocodile heads, and these were the emblem of those authorised to conduct business with the Europeans. And the Europeans are present - or at least part of them. Against the patterned background, we can see floating the heads and shoulders of two tiny Europeans.

The Europeans shown are Portuguese, who were sailing down the west coast of Africa in their ocean-going galleons on their way to the Indies, but they were also seriously interested in West African pepper, ivory and gold. They were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa, and their ships astonished the local inhabitants. Until now, any trade between West Africa and Europe had been conducted through a series of middle-men, with goods carried across the Sahara by camel. The Portuguese galleons cut out all the middle-men, and offered a totally new kind of trading opportunity. Their ships carried gold and ivory direct to Europe and, in return, brought back larger quantities of European brass than had ever before reached West Africa. This was the raw material which enabled the Benin plaques to be made in the quantities they were.

After the initial arrival of the Portuguese around 1470, the Dutch and the English followed shortly after. All European visitors were struck by the oba's position as both the spiritual and the secular head of his kingdom.

Like some West African music, the Benin brass plaques are principally concerned with praising the oba. They were nailed to the walls of his palace - rather in the same way as tapestries in a European context - and they allowed the visitor to admire both the achievements of the ruler and the wealth of the kingdom. The overall effect was enthusiastically described in detail by an early Dutch visitor:

"The king's court is square. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam. From top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean."

In short, Europeans visiting Benin, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, discovered a society every bit as organised and structured as the great courts of Europe, with an administration able to control all aspects of life and, not least, foreign trade.

Because of their ocean-going ships, the Europeans could provide commodities from all over the world that were greatly valued by the oba's court. Coral from the Mediterranean, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean to serve as money, cloth brought from the Far East and, from Europe itself, the massive amounts of copper and brass needed for the metal-casting. The court of Benin was, in fact, a thoroughly international place, and this is one aspect of the Benin plaques that fascinates the Nigerian-born sculptor, Sokari Douglas Camp:

"The oba has a certain amount of rings on his neck, and even when you see contemporary pictures of the oba, he has more coral rings than anybody else, and his chest piece has more coral on it. You know, the remarkable thing about Nigeria is that all the coral and things don't actually come from our coast, they come from Portugal, and places like that. So all of that conversation has always been very important to me, you know we have things that are supposed to be totally traditional, yet they're traditional through trade."

The brass needed to make the plaques was usually transported in the form of large bracelets - 'manillas' in Portuguese - and the quantities involved are staggering. In 1548 just one German merchant-house agreed to provide Portugal with 432 tons of brass manillas for the West African market.

When we look again at the plaque, we can see that one of the Europeans is indeed holding a manilla, and this is the key to the whole scene. The oba is with the officials who manage and control the European trade. The three Africans are in the foreground and they're on a far bigger scale than the diminutive Europeans, both of whom are shown with long hair and elaborate feathered hats - in fact they look both feeble and ridiculous. The manilla makes it clear that the brass brought from Europe is merely the raw material from which the Benin craftsmen would create great works of art like this one. What we're looking at is in fact a document that demonstrates that the whole process of the trade in brass was controlled by the Africans. And part of that control was a total prohibition on the export of the finished brass plaques. So although carved ivories were exported from Benin in the sixteenth century and were well known in Europe, the Benin plaques were reserved to the oba himself, and they were not allowed to leave the country. None had been seen in Europe before 1897.

On 13 January 1897, the London 'Times' announced news of a "Benin Disaster". A British delegation, seeking to enter Benin City during an important religious ceremony, had been attacked, and some of its members killed. The details of what actually happened are still far from clear, and have been vigorously disputed, but whatever the real facts, the British, in ostensible revenge for the killing, organised a punitive expedition which raided Benin City, exiled the oba and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues and plaques. Many of these objects were then auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.

The arrival and reception of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe. It is not too much to say that they changed European understanding of African history. One of the first people to encounter the plaques, and to recognise their quality and their significance, was the British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read:

"It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous."

Many wild theories were put forward. The plaques must have come from Ancient Egypt, or perhaps the people of Benin were one of the lost tribes of Israel. The sculptures must have derived from European influence - after all, these were the contemporaries of Michelangelo, Donatello and Cellini. But in fact, research quickly established that the Benin plaques were entirely West African creations, made without European influence. It is a bewildering fact that the early, broadly harmonious, relationship between Europeans and West Africans established in the sixteenth century had, by 1900, almost completely disappeared from European memory. Most of Europe had simply forgotten that they had at once admired the court of the oba of Benin. Why this strange amnesia? I think it's probably because the later relationship was so dominated by the transatlantic slave trade, with all its dehumanising implications. Later still, there would be the great European scramble for Africa, in which the punitive expedition of 1897 was merely one bloody incident. That raid, and the removal of some of Benin's great art works, may have spread knowledge of Benin's culture to the world, but it left a wound in the consciousness of many Nigerians - a wound that's still felt keenly today, as Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet and playwright, describes:

"When I see a Benin Bronze, I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art - the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self-esteem, because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilisations, established some great cultures. And today it contributes to one's sense of the degradation that has overtaken many African societies, to the extent that we forget that we were once a functioning people before the negative incursion of foreign powers. The looted objects are still today politically loaded. The Benin Bronze, like other artefacts, is still very much a part of the politics of contemporary Africa and, of course, Nigeria in particular."

The Benin plaques, these beautiful and disturbing objects, speak as powerfully today as they did when they first arrived in Europe, a hundred years ago. To many, they're not only supreme sculptures, but a reminder that in the sixteenth century, Europe and Africa were able to deal with each other on equal terms. In America at the same time, the situation was quite different. There, the terms of engagement between the local inhabitants and the European intruders were profoundly unequal.

In the next programme, I'll be talking about the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico, and I'll be looking at it through two pairs of eyes . . . I'll be with a double-headed serpent.

Benin and the Portuguese

Trade with the Portuguese probably encouraged the growth of brass casting in Benin at this time. Although West Africans invented the smelting of copper and zinc ores and the casting of brass at least as long ago as the 10th century, they did not produce enough metal to supply the casting industry of Benin city, which gave such splendor to the king’s palace. The Portuguese found a ready market for brass ingots, often made in the form of bracelets called “manillas.”

These were made in the Low Countries (modern Holland), traded throughout West Africa as a kind of currency, and melted down by the brass workers of Benin. When the Portuguese arrived in Benin, Nigeria, in the fifteenth century, they quickly started trading brass and copper for pepper, cloth, ivory and slaves. In the 1490s a Portuguese trader wrote that at Benin copper bracelets were more highly prized than brass ones.

Brass manilla (bracelet), 19th century C.E. © Trustees of the British Museum

The number of manillas in circulation increased dramatically from the sixteenth century when they became one of the standard trade currencies. Millions were made in Europe, along with brass and copper pots and pans, and imported into Africa for trade. Research by British Museum scientists has shown that objects like these were melted down and made into works of art such as the Benin bronze plaques.

A Portugese soldier

Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket, 17th century C.E., Benin, Nigeria © Trustees of the British Museum

This is an image of a Portuguese soldier. He wears a typical 16th century European costume, with steel helmet and sword, and he carries a flintlock gun. Guns were new to the people of West Africa when the Portuguese arrived. So, Africans traded them from Europeans and learned to make them for themselves, to help them in their wars against peoples who still only had hand weapons or bows and arrows. Sometimes the king of Benin even employed Portuguese soldiers, like this man, to fight as mercenaries in his wars. Figures of Europeans such as this Portuguese soldier were kept on royal altars or on the roof of the royal palace in Benin city.

Control of trade

The rulers of Benin fought their neighbours for control to the supply of goods which could be traded to the Europeans on the coast. The king himself was in charge of trading slaves, ivory and other important goods, so that all the profit went to support his court and government.

Other merchants could only trade with the king’s permission. To prevent unauthorized trading, Europeans were seldom allowed to travel inland or visit Benin city.

Suggested readings:

J. Williams (ed.), Money: a history (London, The British Museum Press, 1997).

K. Yoshida and J. Mack (eds.), Images of other cultures (Osaka, National Museum of Ethnology, 1997).

P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995).

Location: Benin, Nigeria
Culture: African Cultures
Period: AD 1400 -1600
Material: Metal

The figure at the centre of this brass plaque is the oba - the king of Benin in Nigeria. In the background on either side of the oba are two tiny figures, identified as Portuguese traders, characterised by their long hair and European-style hats. Two attendants kneel beside the oba, indicating the hierarchical nature of royal power in Benin. In pre-Colonial times the king was regarded as the highest political and religious authority and respected as the representative of the ancestors.

How did European brass spark an artistic renaissance in Benin?

The kingdom of Benin dominated trade with Europeans on the Nigerian coast from the late 1400s to the end of the 1900s. When Portuguese traders arrived in Benin in the 1400s they brought brass bracelets, known as manillas, to exchange for pepper, ivory and slaves. The artists of Benin transformed this European brass into plaques to decorate the oba's palace. When these plaques were first seen in Europe in the late 1890s they astounded art critics who couldn't believe that such technically accomplished sculptures were created by African artists.

Appreciating The Benin Kingdom’s Art Plaques

In February 1897, a punitive expedition was carried out on the Benin Kingdom by the British Colonial forces under the Command of the ambitious and brute Admiral Sir Harry Rawson. A good part of the ancient Kingdom was burnt down, the royal palace and sacred rooms were sacked. The colonial officers who raided the Oba’s palace and sacred rooms couldn’t believe what they discovered in the royal rooms. They discovered thousands of antiques, rare brass/bronze sculptures, and carvings dating back to the 15th centuries and some to the beginning of the Kingdoms’ existence. These sculptures that proved hundreds of year’s civilization were embodied in different artworks.

Large sums of the plaques looted during the 1897 expedition were made of Bronze and Brass.

The British officers carried thousands of these beautiful, sacred items to Europe and other parts of the world. For the first time, the world was formally introduced to the “Benin Bronze/Brass Art”. It was an uncalled-for introduction, but the world welcomed it regardless. The arrival of these items in the European market changed the global view, sparked debate and also allowed the European world to see the beauty of these rare artefacts from Benin.

One of the earliest recordings of the Benin Royal court commissioning an art piece was around 1550, when Iyoba Idia, mother of the Oba Esigie passed away. The Oba’s Mother shortly before her death had created a larger than life image in Benin History. Iyoba Idia was a warrior, the Oba’s spiritual advisor, an innovator, an art creator and collector, so, it was right for the Oba to commission the Palace royal carvers to carver an art piece of her face to immortalize the woman who risked all for the Benin Empire.

Historians and scholars were able to draw out two important notes when Iyoba Idia died: the Oba’s place in the Benin art industry, and also the relevance and presence of the royal carvers who lived within the Palace walls. Although the Iyoba Idia Mask was made out of Ivory (there were other works made of Bronze and Brass), other guilds of artisans and artists existed around the Benin royal court. The duty of these carvers was to create a bust of every Oba of Benin – this would be placed in the Palace royal shrine- and also to diligently create art pieces as a way of documenting the palace history and the history of the Kingdom.

Artworks on display in Igun. Photo Guardian

These sects/guilds of artisans were a group of men who have dedicated their lives to their craft and have pledged their service to the Oba. In the middle of the 19th century, these guilds which were mostly hereditary includes the wood and ivory carvers, Igbesanwman, the brass casters, IgunEronmwon, the Iron smithers, IgunEmaton, the weavers (Owinan’Ido), the carpenters (Owina) and the leather makers (Isekpokin). These guilds can be traced to the 15th/16th century and some of them to the beginning of the Kingdom itself. They shared a common objective for the Benin Kingdom and unwavering loyalty to their Oba-who they see as a god in human form.

After the sacking of Benin in 1897, the world was exposed to the beauty of Benin art, and the Empire later rose from the destruction it suffered at the hands of the British. The guild of Brass and Bronze casters at Igun Eronmwon got more organised and began to create more artworks, for the palace and the general public. It was the beginning of a new art age.

The responsibility of creating these Bronze/Brass artworks solely rest on the shoulders of the craft masters on “Igun Street”- A UNESCO World Heritage Site and cultural and traditional headquarters for Bronze craft masters of the Benin Kingdom. The street is just a stone throw from the popular Ring Road roundabout, where you have the Benin National Museum. The structure of the street is just like any street in Benin City, but unlike other streets, Igun street is one of the busiest streets for tourists anywhere in Africa. Igun street is the traditional and ceremonial home of the guild of Bronze casters for the great Benin Kingdom. The street consists of 31 guilds that have pledged their allegiance to the Oba of Benin. Some of the casters are 7th generation casters. The Bronze and Brass casters both share Igun street.

Sculptures at Igun street. Photo Nigeria International Calling

The cultural and traditional significance of Brass to the Benin people cannot be neglected. It is sacred and holds in high esteem. Like all metals, Brass is associated with Ogun, the god of war, agriculture, hunting and creativity. In Benin culture, it is also associated with the preservation of memories, hence, a lot of Bronze plaques are used to preserve the history and memories of Benin History. These craft masters on Igun street sacrifice goats and hens before commencing any production. The ritual is more intense if it’s a commissioned piece for the Oba or any royalty.

Even in the 21st century, the guilds are still secretive, exclusive and traditional in its modus operandi making it impossible for non-initiates to know the core of their craft. This has been the case for over 600 years.

The four walls of the Benin royal court, the Benin art – Bronze casting, wood carving, and ivory carvings, Brass casting – is more than just art. It is a collective embodiment that seals all the spirits that hold the great Benin Empire together, and this has been in place since the Ogiso royal dynasty. To the people of Benin Kingdom, it is the essence that makes them stand proud whenever you see a Benin man or woman.

The world is yet to fully comprehend the genesis of Benin art. Its source will remain a mystery that is forever locked in its essence, as long as an Oba sits over the affairs of the Kingdom, the world would have no choice but to look and marvel at the beauty and wonders of the Benin Art.

Benin’s Looted Bronzes Are All Over the Western World. Here Are 7 Museums That Hold Over 2,000 of the Famed Sculptures

As talks continue between the UK and Nigeria over Benin Bronzes, we survey the institutions that hold the majority of these African treasures.

Nigeria recently gave signals that it may accept the loan of Benin Bronzes in the collections of museums abroad. The art historical treasures from the former Kingdom of Benin (modern-day southern Nigeria) were plundered by the British in 1897 during a punitive expedition. In total, some 4,000 of intricate sculptures were removed from the Oba’s (king’s) palace, gifted and sold, and many ended up in museums in Britain, Germany, and the US. For decades, Nigeria has been trying to work with European governments and museums to retrieve some of it lost art, with little success. Now, it seems like reconciliation may finally become a reality.

No timeline for the return of the bronzes has been established, and the process is in its early stages. However, a representative for the British Museum, which currently holds the largest collection of Benin’s treasures in the world, recently told artnet News that talks have had a promising start. In conclusion to a meeting with the Benin Dialogue Group, which was established in 2007 to create a conversation between Europe and Nigeria about returning the works, the parties arrived at the suggestion of a proposal that would “work towards a permanent, but rotating, exhibition of loaned objects” to Nigeria, according to the representative.

Many are skeptical about whether the potential outcome is fair or even ethical. Some think that a loan agreement is simply not enough and just a continuation of colonialism.

“Many museums are still caught in a colonial mindset,” Juergen Zimmerer, who is a professor of global history at the University of Hamburg, tells artnet News. “They feel that they are the custodians for mankind, of preserving objects from all over the world, where people allegedly cannot look after them themselves. This is an echo of the pro-colonial civilizing mission.”

France’s president Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Benin’s president Patrice Talon (The Benin Republic is not to be confused with the former Benin Kingdom, which is now a part of present day southern Nigeria) during his arrival to the Elysee Palace on March 5, 2018, in Paris. Macron has been vocal about restitution to former French colonies and called for a French plan for colonial-era restitution to its former colonies within the next five years. Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images.

But the heated topic of restitution of looted cultural objects is showing no signs of abating. Greece’s Prime Minister officially requested the Parthenon Sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles) back from the British Museum in late June. The works were taken from the Acropolis in Athens by Lord Elgin in the 19th century when Greece was under Ottoman rule. The same month looted human remains were returned to indigenous Alaskans by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The story of the Benin Bronzes is echoed in a scene in the blockbuster movie Black Panther, which is set in a fictitious Museum of Great Britain that bears an uncanny resemblance to the British Museum. But Benin’s very real lost art can be found in the galleries and storerooms of museums around the world. Some are more transparent than others about how they acquired the contested art in the colonial period. We’ve compiled a guide to each institution’s holdings and an update on their latest statements about Nigeria’s longstanding restitution claim.

British Museum, London, UK

A Benin Bronze plaque in the British Museum, London, collection. Photo: Michel Wal, via Wikipedia.

Unsurprisingly, the British Museum holds the vast majority of the objects that were plundered by its soldiers. The museum acquired more than 200 plaques, made of brass, as a gift from the British government. The UK also has a remarkable pair of leopard sculptures, which are now in the Royal Collection. A fter looting and burning Benin City during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897, commanders sent the pair to Queen Victoria.

The British Museum recently told artnet News that there will be a follow-up meeting in Leiden, Netherlands (where the National Museum of Ethnology has 98 works from the Kingdom of Benin) this summer with the Benin Dialogue Group. “The British Museum is not able to consider the proposal until there is a clear indication that this is officially desired by the relevant Nigerian authorities,” a representative for the museum said.

Two bronze works from the 1897 expedition were returned to Nigeria in 2014, but it was not because of institutional conscience. Rather, Mark Walker, who owned an ibis and a monarch’s bell he inherited from his grandfather, returned the works. Walker’s grandfather was of one of the soldiers involved in the 1897 attack.

Ethnological Museum of Berlin, Germany

Memorial bust of king’s mother Iyoba, Benin Kingdom, located in the Ethnological Museum, Berlin.

The German ethnology museum has become the focus of the colonial debate in Europe, as it continues its epic move of half a million objects into the reconstructed Prussian palace in the center of Berlin. Director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, said in a recent interview that he doesn’t think the issue with the Benin Bronzes is “black and white.” Parzinger told Der Tagesspiegel: “It’s too easy to say it’s all stolen, so send it back, especially since many pieces were already purchased on the market before the British Punitive Expedition.”

Parzinger has also said in February that the foundation had received “no direct restitution claims.” But the nonprofit group No Humboldt 21 says that’s not entirely true: “[There have been] innumerable demands made by both the Oba of Benin and the various Nigerian governments. There have been in the past few years many meetings and discussions on the restitution of Benin Bronzes in most of which German museum authorities participated, such as the recent meetings in Benin City on 19th and 29th [of] February 2013, which issued the so-called Benin Plan of Action on Restitution.”

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Number of objects: 327

Interior of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK. Photo by Geni via Wikimedia Commons

The University of Oxford’s ethnographic museum is also a member of the Benin Dialogue Group. The museum has nearly one hundred objects from Benin on view, and 39 of these are confirmed to have been taken from the city by Captain George LeClerc Egerton, chief of staff on the 1897 British Expedition that resulted in the looting of thousands of objects. Egerton’s family and the Dumas Egerton Trust loaned the works to the museum in 1991 for a period of 100 years.

Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, Austria

Vienna’s Weltmuseum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Austria was unsuccessful in the so-called Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, but its museums did benefit indirectly from other colonial powers’ expeditions. Recently, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, which is also a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, opened its own hall dedicated to colonialism, as opposed to dealing with it throughout the entirety of its collection.

“The collection has been very well-researched by the KHM Provenance Centre,” the Weltmuseum’s Dutch-born director Steven Engelsman said in an interview late last year. “There have also been cases of restitution. A new project is currently underway with Nigeria, where we want to exchange objects and send them into rotation,” he said. “This is certainly forward-looking.”

Museum of Ethnology, Museum of Arts and Crafts, Hamburg, Germany

Exhibition view of “Looted Art? The Benin Bronzes” at MKG in Hamburg. Photo by Michaela Hille

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) has an ongoing exhibition series focused on provenance issues. For its most recent edition of “Looted Art? Provenance Research on the Collections of the MKG,” the museum focused on three Benin Bronzes in its collection. But the research pinpoints the institution’s founding director, Justus Brinckmann, who was the first German museum director to obtain Benin bronzes. To acquire these looted objects, he instigated a trade via the port city. Because of Brinckmann, a large portion of these objects ended up in the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg, which the museum says are “some of the most valuable treasures of the African collection.”

Dresden Museum of Ethnology, Dresden, Germany

Number of objects: 182

Dresden and Leipzig are both parts of a network of museums, the Saxony State Ethnographic Collections.

Dresden’s director, Nanette Snoep, told Saxony State Ethnographic Collections that she felt relaxed and that restitution will not empty the museums. She said sacred objects that are “perhaps only a stone for us, are extremely important for a community.”

While Dresden has a large amount of these works, the neighboring Saxonian city of Leipzig has another large bundle, with some of the most valuable of all Benin’s looted works: A carved head located at the Grazzi museum in Leipzig is estimated to be worth over €10 million ($12 million), according to one investigative journalist.

Colonial politician and professor Hans Meyer’s Benin collection became the property of the Free State of Saxony in 2001 after a dispute. They had been on permanent loan since 1902, but his family reclaimed the works after German reunification. As a resolution, Meyer’s heirs were given €6.9 million ($8 million) for 53 Benin objects. It was a steal of a deal for Saxony’s museums, considering the recent boom in the African art market.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Benin Bronzes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Mike Peel. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most important objects from the Benin Kingdom is the Idia head bronze and mask pendant, which depicts the Benin Queen Mother Iyoba. There is one at the British Museum and another at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is slightly more damaged.

The Met, as well as other museums in the US and France, have yet to become members of the Benin Dialogue Group, though it is hoped they will join in future. According to the Art Newspaper, Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology director said the group has had “preliminary discussions” with US museums and that “it is hoped they will participate in future.”

Benin Brass Plaque - History

The plaques below have been sold and are left here for reference and educational purposes.
We have others, also all sold, on BENIN STYLE BRONZE PLAQUES ARCHIVES 2

Although similar in style to many older works, these pieces are 20th C. and were made to be sold.

Photographs © Hamill Gallery


The extraordinary bronzes of the Benin kingdom in what is now Nigeria exhibit a virtuosity and sophistication of style that has astonished the Western world since they were visited in the 15th Century. Their work was brought to Europe following a punitive expedition by the British in 1897, causing a great sensation. The people of Benin, called Bini, are descended from the Ife, also known for their remarkable bronzes. Almost all Benin art was created to honor the king , or Oba, who has reigned, with his ancestors, from the 15th century. Styles have changed over the years. Although similar to many older works, these are all 20th C. pieces. Each is still sculpted by hand, then cast in bronze by the lost wax process. The plaque marked CAST is a plaster Museum Reproduction of a 17th C. original.

Plaques like these were mounted on the walls of the Oba's Palace and recorded the history of the Benin kingdom. Most depict the king or warrior chiefs.

Cast pieces are copper alloys, bronze (copper and tin) or brass (copper and zinc). The alloys are not always pure and pieces historically labelled "bronzes", often are not.

The Benin Bronzes are not just virtuoso works of art – they record the kingdom’s history

In the Edo language, the verb sa-e-y-ama means &lsquoto remember&rsquo, but its literal translation is &lsquoto cast a motif in bronze&rsquo. At the court of Benin, art in bronze perpetuates memory traditionally, the first commissions of every Benin king are sculptures in bronze and ivory for his father&rsquos memorial altar. The great aesthetic and historical significance of these artworks to the people of Benin raises the question: who should be able to access and enjoy them? Since 2007, the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium composed of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, delegates of the Oba (king) of Benin, and curators of African art at European museums, has been debating the future of Benin art held in Europe. It has recently determined that European institutions will loan important pieces on a rotating basis to Nigeria for a permanent display, at a museum purpose-built to display the art of Benin that will open in 2021.

The art of Benin entered European collections primarily as the result of the British occupation of Benin City in 1897 during the reign of Oba Ovonramwen (r. 1888&ndash97). By August 1898, most of the ivory and bronze artworks seized by the British from the royal treasury had been sold in large public auctions. Felix von Luschan, a curator at the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, trying to explain his interest in the Benin Bronzes to an audience more familiar with European art, famously compared them to the work of a celebrated Italian Renaissance sculptor, stating, &lsquoBenvenuto Cellini could not have made a better cast himself, and no one has before or since, even to the present day. These bronzes stand even at the summit of what can be technically achieved.&rsquo By 1901, nearly all of the bronzes had been swept into public and private collections in the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. The Obas of Benin have been asking for their return for decades.

Casting in bronze &ndash or more accurately, brass, bronze, and sometimes copper &ndash began in Benin before the 13th century, and large-scale artworks were first commissioned under Oba Ewuare I (r. c. 1440-70s). Commemorative heads made for royal altars date back to the 16th century, if not earlier. From the 18th century onwards, artists carved scenes into the ivory tusks that had always surmounted the bronze heads, providing greater visual reference to the life&rsquos work of the honoured Oba. Artists also cast sculptures of messengers, vanquished enemies, and foreign allies to celebrate the lives of departed kings through altar tableaux.

Head of an Oba (1550&ndash1680), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In addition to art intended for memorial altars, there are also more than 850 reliefs that once sheathed the columns of the Oba&rsquos audience court in Benin City. They were probably commissioned by Ewuare&rsquos grandson, Oba Esigie (r. 1517&ndashc. 1550), after a bruising civil war and a subsequent attempted invasion of Benin by the kingdom of Idah. The plaques depict the ideal relationship between a king and his court at a time of serious political division. Esigie&rsquos son Orhogbua (r. c. 1550&ndash70s), who likely completed the commission, may have added plaques that record the Idah war as well as religious rites, processions, battles, the payment of taxes, and other regular activities of the court. Oba Esigie so valued the importance of art as a tool of governance that he raised the head of the royal casting guild to the level of privy counsellor within the court hierarchy.

Plaque depicting warrior and attendants (16th&ndash17th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The casting techniques Benin artists developed over the centuries are marvellous. Artists created forms in wax models and used a layer of extremely fine clay to invest (surround) the waxwork, before adding layers of coarser clay to form a mould. The final sculpture was then created from the mould using the lost-wax method. Due to the artists&rsquo care in the original modelling and investiture of the sculptures, they did not chase patterns or details into the bronze after casting. The texture of luxury cloth and damask, fine woven ropes and braids, intricate bells and other minute details were all first formed in wax. Some Benin artworks display an even greater virtuosity. A mounted rider held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a masterpiece: the artist cast the base, the rider, and the horse&rsquos caparisons in pure copper, while the horse is cast in bronze, creating a play of colour between the two metals. Given the different melting temperatures of copper and brass, this sculpture is evidence of the caster&rsquos complete mastery of the medium.

Mounted ruler (16th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Prince Edun Akenzua, son of Oba Akenzua II, is a frequent spokesman for the kingdom at international art openings. In 2010, he eloquently summed up the palace&rsquos protests: &lsquoNobody in this world, except the people of Benin, can imagine the intrinsic value of the works or understand their relevance and meaning, no matter how much he may admire the aesthetics, the brilliance, or the magnificence of these works.&rsquo The loan agreement negotiated by the Benin Dialogue Group is an important step toward providing the people of Benin with access to these storied collections.

Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch is Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Watch the video: George the Poet The Benin bronze (December 2022).

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