The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than a thousand commemorative pieces that originate in the royal palace of the Benin Empire. They were created by the Edo people starting in the 13th century, and, in 1897, the British appropriated most of them. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest were split among other museums. Today, a large number are held by the British Museum and are on display in hall 25 (in the Africa wing). Other pieces are in the United States and Germany, among other countries.
The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and tribal art. Initially, it appeared incredible that people supposedly so primitive and savage were responsible for such highly developed objects. Some even concluded that the makers' knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese. Today, it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin beginning in the 13th century and that a large part of the collection dates to the 15th and 16th centuries. It is believed that these two golden ages in bronzework occurred during the reigns of Esigie (c. 1550) and of Eresoyen (1735-1750).
While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, not all the pieces are made of bronze: there are also pieces made of brass, of a mixture of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials. The pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered the best sculptures made using this technique.
Social context and creation
The Benin Empire, which occupied present-day Nigeria between the 14th and 19th 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, was also the backdrop for an elaborate court ceremonial life in which the Oba, 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 also the setting for hundreds of rectangular brass plaques whose relief images portray the persons and events that animated the court.
Bronze and ivory objects had a variety of functions in the ritual and courtly life of the Kingdom of Benin. They were principally used to decorate the royal palace, which contained many bronze works. They were hung on the pillars of the palace by nails punched directly through them. As a courtly art, their principal objective was to glorify the Oba—the divine king—and the history of his imperial power. Art in the Kingdom of Benin took many forms, of which bronze and brass reliefs and kings' heads are the best known. Bronze receptacles, bells, ornaments, jewelry, and ritual objects also possessed aesthetic qualities and originality, demonstrating the skills of their makers, though they are often eclipsed by figurative works in bronze and ivory carvings.
In tropical Africa, in the continent's center, 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. Around 170 of these heads exist, and the oldest date from the 12th century. The Oba, or king, monopolized the materials that were most difficult to obtain, such as gold, elephant tusks, and bronze. These king made possible the creation of the splendid Benin bronzes; thus, the royal courts contributed substantially to the development of sub-Saharan art. In 1939, heads very similar to those of the Benin Empire were discovered in Ife, the holy city of the Yoruba, which dated to the 14th and 15th centuries. This discovery supported that earlier tradition holding that it was artists from Ife that had taught Benin the techniques of bronzework. The surprise increased when these were dated definitively to that era: this meant that they had preceded the earliest European sculpture made using lost-wax casting, the mid-16th-century Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini.
European interest and the Benin Expedition of 1897
Few examples of African art were collected by Europeans in the 18th century. Only at the beginning of the 19th century, when colonization and missionary activity began, did larger numbers of works began to be taken to Europe, where they were seen as simple curiosities of "pagan" cults. This attitude changed after the Benin Expedition of 1897.
In 1897, the vice consul general James Philips, together with six other British officials, two businessmen, translators, and 215 porters, set off toward Benin from the small port of Sapele, Nigeria. Though 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; the travelers ignored the warning and continued on their expedition. They were ambushed at the south of the city by Oba warriors, and only two Europeans survived the expedition.
News of the incident reached London eight days later, and a naval punitive expedition was organized immediately, which was to be directed by Admiral Harry Rawson. The expedition sacked and totally destroyed Benin City. Following the British victory, 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, the reprisal was warranted because the local people had ambushed a peaceful humanitarian mission, and because the expedition liberated the population from a reign of terror.
The works taken by the British were a treasure trove of bronze and ivory sculptures, including kings' heads, leopard figurines, bells, and a great number of images sculpted in high relief, all of which were executed with a surprising mastery of lost-wax casting. Later, in 1910, the German researcher Leo Frobenius carried out an expedition to Africa with the aim of collecting works of African art for museums in his country. The plunder was so great that today only around fifty pieces remain in Nigeria, though around 2400 pieces are held in European and American collections.
Division among museums
The Benin Bronzes that were part of the booty of the punitive expedition of 1897 had different destinations: one portion ended up in the private collections of various British officials; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sold a large number, which later ended up in various European museums, mainly in Germany, and in American museums. The high quality of the pieces was quickly reflected in the high prices they fetched on the market. The Foreign Office gave a large quantity of bronze wall plaques to the British Museum; these plaques illustrated the history of the Benin Kingdom in the 15th any 16th century.
|Museum collections of Benin Bronzes|
|City||Museum||Number of pieces|
|Berlin||Ethnological Museum of Berlin||580|
|Oxford||Pitt Rivers Museum||327|
|Hamburg||Museum of Ethnology, Museum of Arts and Crafts||196|
|Dresden||Dresden Museum of Ethnology||182|
|New York||Metropolitan Museum of Art||163|
|Philadelphia||University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology||100|
|Leiden||National Museum of Ethnology||98|
|Leipzig||Museum of Ethnography||87|
The two largest collections of Benin Bronzes are located in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and in the British Museum in London, while the third largest collection is located in several museums in Nigeria (principally the National Museum of Lagos.
Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has sought the return of these artifacts on several occasions. The debate over the location of the bronzes in relation to their place of origin has been contention. Often, their return has been considered an icon of the repatriation of the African continent. The artifacts have become an important example in the international debate over restitution, comparable to that of the Elgin Marbles.
The British Museum sold more than 30 Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government between 1950 and 1972. In 1950, the museum's curator Hermann Braunholtz, emphasized that of the 203 plaques acquired by the Museum in 1898, 30 were duplicates, though made individually; because they were identical representations, they were superfluous for the Museum. The sales stopped in 1972, and the Museum's African art specialist said that the sales had been an error.
The Benin Bronzes are more naturalistic than most African totems. The bronze surfaces are designed to highlight contrasts between light and metal. The features of the heads are exaggerated from natural proportions, with large ears, noses, and lips, which are shaped with great care. The most notable aspect of the works is the high level of the metalsmiths' great skill at lost-wax casting. The descendants of these artisans still revere Igue-igha, who introduced the art of casting to the Kingdom of Benin, possibly learned from the Arabs in the late 13th century.
Another important aspect of the works is their exclusivity: propoerty was reserved only for certain social classes, reflecting the strict hierarchical structure of society in the Kingdom of Benin. In general, only the king could own objects made of bronze and ivory. However, he could allow high-ranking individuals to use such items, such as hanging masks and cuffs made of bronze and ivory. Coral was also a royal material, and coral neck rings were a symbol of nobility, granted specifically by the Oba.
The rectangular plaques exist in two formats. In one, the long vertical sides are turned back, creating a small edge that is decored with an incised guilloche pattern. In the other format, which is much narrower, the turned-back edges are missing and the design of the plaque background ends abrupt, as if cut off. These variations probably reflect the size and shape of the pillars and the arrangement of the plaques on them. The plaques are generally about 1/8 inch thick.
The backgrounds on the front of most of the plaques are incised with foliate patterns with one to four leaves, which is referred to as ebe-ame, or the "river leaf" design. The leaves were used in healing rites by priestesses of Olokun, the god of the sea.
Some of the reliefs represent important battles of the sixteenth-century wars of expansion; however, the majority show noble dignitaries with splendid ceremonial dress. Most of the plaques portray static figures either alone, in pairs, or in small groups hierarchically arranged around a central figure. Many of the figures depicted in the plaques can only be identified based on their clothing and emblems, which indicated their function in the court but not their particular historical identities. Though there have been attempts to link some of the depictions with historical figures, these identifications have been speculative and unverified. In certain cases, the lack of information even extends to the figures' function, which cannot conclusively be determined.
The bronze heads were reserved for ancestral altars. They were also used as a base for engraved elephant trunks, which were placed in the heads' openings. The commemorative heads of the king or the queen mother were not individual portraits, though they show a stylized naturalism. Instead, they are archetypical depictions and their design changed over the centuries, which also occurred with the insignias of the depicted kings. The elephant trunks with decorative carvings, which probably began to be used as a decorative element in the 18th century, show distinct scenes from the reign of a deceased king.
As a prerequisite for royal succession, each new Oba had to install an altar in honor of his predecessor. According to popular belief, a person's head was the receptacle of the supernatural guide for rational behavior. The head of an Oba was especially sacred, since the survival, security, and prosperity of all Edo citizens and their families, depended on his wisdom. In the annual festivals to reinforce the mystical power of the Oba, the king made ritual offerings in these sanctuaries, which were considered essential for the continuation of his reign. The stylistic variation of these bronze heads such an important characteristic of Beninese art that it constitutes the principle scientific basis for establishing a chronology.
The leopard is a motif that occurs throughout many of the Benin Bronzes, because it is the animal that symbolizes the Oba. Another recurring motif is the royal triad: the Oba in the center, flanked by two assistants, highlighting the support of those in whom the king trusted in order to govern.
The Benin artists may have been inspired by items brought over by the Portuguese, including European illuminated books, small ivory caskets with carved lids from India, and Indian miniature paintings. The quatrefoil "river leaves" might have originated from European or Islamic art. By contrast, Batabtunde Lawal cites examples of relief carving in southern Nigerian art to support his theory that the plaques are indigenous to Benin.
Though the works are generally called the Benin Bronzes, they are made of different materials. Some are made of brass, which metallurgical analysis has shown to be an alloy of copper, zinc, and lead in various proportions. Others are non-metallic, made of wood, ceramics, ivory, leather, or cloth.
The wooden objects are made starting from a tree trunk or branch and carved directly; the artist obtains the final form of his work from a block of wood. Since it was customary to use freshly cut wood in carvings, once the piece was finalized the surface was charred to prevent cracking during drying. This also allowed for polychromatic artworks, which were achieved using knife cuts and applications of natural paint made with vegetable oil or palm oil. This type of grease, which was made near smoke from residences, allowed the wooden sculptures to acquire a patina that resembles rusty metal.
The figures depicted in the bronzes were cast in relief with details incised in the wax model. Artists working in bronze were organized in a type of guild under royal decree and lived in a special area of the palace under the direct control of the Oba. The works made using lost-wax casting required great specialization. Their quality was superior when the king was more powerful, allowing him to employ a great number of specialists. The casting technique was introduced to Benin, according to tradition, in the 13th century by the son of the Oni, or sovereign of Ife, who taught its inhabitants the art of casting bronze using lost-wax techniques. These great artisans developed the technique until they were able to cast plaques only an eighth of an inch thick, surpassing the art as practiced by Renaissance masters in Europe.
Pieces in the British Museum
Bronze relief made using lost-wax casting. In a rectangular shape with lateral wings, which have largely been lost, the cast surface is decorated with patterns of stylized four-leaf clovers and dots. Dated between the 16th and 17th centuries.
Bronze relief made using lost-wax casting, rectangular shape.
Five figures are depicted in the plaque: in the center is the Oba on his throne, at his side are two kneeling servants, and in the background are two smaller figures that are identified as two Portuguese traders by their long hair and European-style hats. The figures' relative sizes indicate their position in the social hierarchy.
- The number of pieces is uncertain (Dohlvik, 2006: p. 7). Most sources speak of a thousand pieces or several thousand pieces. According to Nevadomsky, there were between 3,000 and 5,000 pieces (Nevadomsky, 2005: p. 66).
- "Benin plaque: the oba with Europeans". The British Museum. Retrieved July 18, 2010.
- Greenfield, 2007: p. 124.
- Benin Diplomatic Handbook, p. 23.
- Meyerowitz, Eva L. R. (1943). "Ancient Bronzes in the Royal Palace at Benin". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (The Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd.) 83 (487): 248–253.
- Greenfield, 2007: p. 122.
- "Benin Bronzes - African bronze sculptures". African Art Through African Eyes. Cedarartworld. Retrieved July 18, 2010.
- Dohlvik, 2006: p. 21.
- Nevadomsky, Joseph (2004). "Art and science in Benin bronzes". Retrieved July 26, 2010.
- Ezra, Kate (1992). Royal art of Benin : the Perls collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 0810964147.
- Pijoan, 1966: p. 12.
- Plankensteiner, Barbara (December 22, 2007). "Benin--Kings and Rituals: court arts from Nigeria.". African Arts (University of California). ISSN 0001-9933. Retrieved July 20, 2010.
- Gowing 1984: p. 578.
- Leuzinger, 1976: p. 24.
- Huera, 1988: p. 36.
- Huera, 1988: p. 37.
- Benin Diplomatic Handbook, p. 21.
- Dohlvik, 2006: pp. 21-22.
- Greenfield, 2007: p. 123.
- Darshana, Soni. "The British and the Benin Bronzes". ARM Information Sheet 4. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
- Huera, 1988: p. 20.
- Huera, 1988: p. 35.
- The collections listed are not exhausted and are intended to give the reader an idia of the dispersion of the artworks. For a more exhaustive list, consult: Dark, Philip J. C. (1973). An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology. Oxford University Press. pp. 78–81. ISBN 9780198171911.
- Dohlvik, 2006: p. 08.
- Dohlvik, 2006: p. 24.
- "Benin bronzes sold to Nigeria". BBC News. March 27, 2002. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
- "Sculpture: The Bronzes of Benin". TIME. August 6, 1965.
- Leuzinger, 1976: p. 16
- Dark, Philip (1973). An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology. Oxford.
- Ben Amos, Paula (1980). The Art of Benin. London.
- Fagg, William (1963). Nigerian Images. London.
- Lawal, Babatunde (1977). "The Present State of Art Historical Research in Nigeria: Problems and Possibilities". Journal of African History 18 (2): 196–216.
- Beretta, 1983: p. 356.
- Gowing 1984: p. 569.
- Huera, 1988: p. 52.
- Lawrence Gowing, ed. (1984). Historia Universal del Arte (in Spanish) IV. Madrid: SARPE. ISBN 84-7291-592-1.
- Beretta, Alcides; María Dolores Rodenas (1983). Historia del Arte: La escultura del África negra (in Spanish) II. Barcelona: Carroggio. ISBN 84-7254-313-7.
- Dohlvik, Charlotta (May 2006). Museums and Their Voices: A Contemporary Study of the Benin Bronzes. International Museum Studies.
- Greenfield, Janette (2007). The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521802164.
- Huera, Carmen (1988). Historia Universal del Arte: África, América y Asia, Arte Primitivo. Barcelona: Planeta. ISBN 84-320-6690-X Check
- Leuzinger, Elsy (1976). Arte del África negra (in Spanish). Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa. ISBN 84-343-0176-8.
- Nevadomsky, Joseph (2005). "Casting in Contemporary Benin Art". African Arts 38.
- Pijoan (1966). Pijoan-Historia del Arte I. Barcelona: Salvat Editores.
- Benin Diplomatic Handbook. International Business Publications. 2005. ISBN 0739757458.
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