Benin art

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Benin bronze of a woman's head

Benin art is the art from the Kingdom of Benin or Edo Empire (1440-1897), a pre-colonial African state located in what is now known as the South-South region of Nigeria. Primarily made of cast bronze and carved ivory, Benin art was produced mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin - a divine ruler for whom the craftsmen produced a range of ceremonially significant objects. The full complexity of these works can be appreciated only through the awareness and consideration of two complementary cultural perceptions of the art of Benin: the Western appreciation of them primarily as works of art, and their understanding in Benin as historical documents and as mnemonic devices to reconstruct history, or as ritual objects. This original significance is of great import in Benin.[1]

The royal arts of Benin[edit]

The royal arts of the Benin Kingdom of south-central Nigeria affirm the centrality of the oba, or divine king, portraying his divine nature. While recording the kingdom’s significant historical events and the oba's involvement with them, they also initiate the oba’s interactions with the supernatural and honor his deified ancestors, forging a continuity that is vital to the kingdom’s well-being.[2]

The materials used in Benin’s royal arts—primarily brass, ivory, and coral—are endowed with sacred power. The innate value of these materials within Benin and the time and skill that is invested in working them reflect the earthly and otherworldly influence of the oba and the great wealth of his kingdom. Benin’s royal arts belong to a tradition that favors convention even as it promotes creativity and innovation, especially as a reflection of royal prerogative. Through time, rulers have used the arts to interpret the history of the kingdom and to orient themselves with the past in an effort to support their own initiatives and define their images for posterity.

Although only made popular to Western audiences after the Punitive Expedition in the 19th century, Benin art has been in existence since at least 500 BCE.[3]

Ancestral altars[edit]

For the full article on ancestral altars see Benin ancestral altars

A newly installed oba is responsible for creating an altar dedicated to his father, commissioning the appropriate objects to adorn it and activating it on a regular basis with sacrifices of food or animal blood. The oba does the same for his mother if she attained the title of iyoba, or queenmother. While bells and rattle staffs are placed on all ancestral altars, ivory tusks and commemorative brass heads are made specifically for royal altars. Associated with trade, ivory and brass are durable and valuable, and their colors—white like sacred kaolin clay and red like fire and coral beads—relate to royal power.

Before the British conquest, an oba’s courtyard was the focal point for rituals in his honor. British troops reported 18 altars dedicated to previous obas when they took possession of the palace in 1897. Today, all of the royal altars stand together in a single courtyard.[2]

One of the objects unique to Benin art is an Ikegobo, or "altars to the hand," which celebrates the accomplishments of exceptional individuals. The hand is associated with action and productivity, and is considered the source of wealth, status, and success for all those who depend on manual skill and physical strength. Altars of this kind are commissioned in terracotta, wood, or brass, depending on the status of the patron.[4]

Art related to rituals at court[edit]

For the full article on art related to rituals at court see Benin court and ceremonial art

This ivory double bell (Egogo) is one of the oldest surviving African ivory sculptures; only six of these ivory gongs are known. They were used by the oba during the Emobo ceremony to drive away evil spirits. Carved with the oba, supported by his military commander and his heir.

Private and public ceremonies mark many of the important moments in Benin’s yearly calendar. In the past, an elaborate series of rites were performed throughout the year to secure otherworldly support for the kingdom’s well-being and to celebrate decisive events in its history. For the sake of convenience, the current monarch, Oba Erediauwa, emphasizes the end-of-year festival called Igue, which is held during the winter holidays to allow the greatest number of people to attend. Igue includes a sequence of rituals that renew the oba’s supernatural powers and cleanse the kingdom’s unruly spirits.

Benin’s other important ritual festivals include Ague, where the first budded yams are blessed in hopes of a successful harvest; Ugie Ivie, the Festival of Beads, in which the oba’s coral and red stone regalia is bathed in cow’s blood to reinvest it with spiritual force; Ugie Erha Oba, which honors the oba’s father and all paternal ancestors; Oduduwa, a masquerade that likewise honors the oba’s paternal ancestors; and Ugie Oro, celebrating Oba Esigie’s victory over the Idah Kingdom in the 16th century.

Finely carved ivory double gongs are examples of art related to rituals at court. They are called “double” gongs because of second, smaller resonating cups at their front. Typically, the central image is the oba in coral regalia supported by the high priests osa and osuan, officials who tend the altars of the kingdom’s two patron gods. These gongs are still carried today by the oba during Emobo, the last of the empowering rites of the Igue festival. The oba gently taps the ivory instrument, creating a rhythmic sound to calm and dismiss unruly spirits from the kingdom.

Leopard imagery in the arts of Benin[edit]

This box, which is now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, was used to hold kola nuts presented to visitors in the royal court of Benin. Leopards are one of the most commonly portrayed animals in African art. Intelligent and courageous, they often serve as metaphors for powerful individuals or associations.

The oba is referred to metaphorically as “the leopard of the house,” and images of the beautiful, cunning, and immensely dangerous cat appear frequently in Benin’s royal arts. Before the British invasion in 1897, domesticated leopards were kept in the palace to demonstrate the oba’s mastery over the wilderness. Leopard imagery is also frequently linked to the oba’s military might.

The Oba's regalia[edit]

The oba’s divine right to rule is reiterated in his regalia. His coral crowns, shirts, aprons, necklaces, and accessories refer to those that Oba Ewuare is said to have stolen from Olokun, the god of the waters and prosperity. Coral and red stones such as jasper and agate are also filled with supernatural energy, or ase, as are elephant ivory and brass, two other valuable materials that the oba has historically controlled.

Despite his divine status, the oba can not rule alone. He must rely on others to fulfill his destiny, a dependence that is physically expressed when he walks or sits with his arms supported at the elbows and wrists by attendants. They help him bear the weight of his regalia, a constant reminder of the burden of kingship.[2]

Brass Casting[edit]

Brass casters (igun eronmwon) are the highest-ranking craft guild within the hierarchical structure of the Iwebo society, followed by blacksmiths (igun ematon) and ivory and wood carvers (igbesanwan).

The origins of brass casting in Benin are debated. One popular story credits Oba Oguola (enthroned c. 1280) with sending for a master brass caster from Ile Ife, the capital city of the ancient Ife Kingdom to the northwest, and with later establishing a royal brass-casting guild.[5][6] Others suggest brass casting developed independently in Benin and may have mutually benefited from exchange with Ile Ife.[7] Casters in both regions used the lost wax method, in which a precisely detailed wax model is formed over a clay core. When the model is complete, clay is carefully applied over the wax. It is then heated, melting the wax, which exits from a narrow channel. Next, molten metal is poured into the mold. Once cool, the hardened clay is chipped away, leaving behind an image now cast in bronze.[1]

Oba Ewuare and the Portuguese[edit]

The peak of the art making in Benin occurred in the fifteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries and traders. Oba Ewuare (enthroned c. 1440) was responsible for many innovations that defined and gave structure to Benin kingship.[8] In a popular myth, Ewuare went to the river and stole the beads that belonged to Olokun, god of the waters. He brought them back to Benin and in the process established the palace of the oba as the earthly counterpart and the kind of dry land.[9]

Therefore, the Portuguese met a militarily and economically developed city, their arrival catalyzed a process of even greater political and artistic development. Because of the Benin's military strength, the European visitors were for a while unable to make slaves of the people of Benin as they were in other cities in Africa. Instead, they established a trade whereby the Portuguese were able to offer military protection against enemies of Benin as well as luxury items that they needed. These items included coral beads, cloth and brass manilas for casting. In return, the Benin supplied them with pepper, cloth and their art work.[9]

As the trade flourished, the Portuguese influence on the art became apparent. Traditional art began to incorporate European imagery. For example, because the Portuguese sailed into Africa with luxury items, Benin artists began to associate them the Olokun, the god of seas and provider of earthly wealth. Images of the Portuguese sailors on bracelets, plaques or masks came with images associated with Olokun such as crocodiles and pythons. The brass plaque is also argued by historians to be a direct example of this Portuguese influence. There is indication that the first appearance of the brass plaque came about during the period of Portuguese contact. It is argued that the plaques were inspired by picture books brought to Africa by the Portuguese sailors. This is evident in the fact that certain plaques come with designs that suggest Islamic or European influence.[9]

Not many cities were as successful in preventing the sale of slaves and decline of their economy. Cities like Kongo, West Africa in the 16th century suffered because they found themselves manipulated by the European traders into situations whereby they were economically and militarily dependent on the sale of slaves. In “Letters to the King Portugal”, Alfonso I in his eagerness to develop his nation through European aid, falls prey to this economic tactic.[3] The letters contain Alfonso’s complaints to the Portuguese king over the fact that the Portuguese traders were taking slaves at their whim. According to the letter, they were taking not only free men, but sons of noblemen as well. He explained that rather than trade, all he wanted from the Europeans were such things as education, health care and so on. His complaints fell on deaf ears and the people of Kongo could only watch helplessly because slave trade was the only thing they could offer in exchange for European support. The art of Benin was important because it prevented this kind of economic dependence. The relationship between the Portuguese and the Benin natives became more like an equal business deal than the unequal dominating relationship that can be seen with King Alfonso I.

The Benin Kingdom's Golden Age ended when Oba Ohuan (enthroned c. 1608) died without an heir. Ensuing conflicts over succession weakened the control of Benin's monarchy.

The Punitive Expedition[edit]

The decline of Benin art occurred in the 19th century when the Punitive expedition by the British caused impairment in the creation of the arts. On February 18, 1897, the British arrived in Benin City under orders to invade and conquer it. As a result, the possessions of the oba and his court became spoils of war. The objects were rounded up with little regard for their associated meaning; no systematic record was kept of their grouping or placement. Many of these objects were sold in London to defray the cost of the expedition.

Influence of the Portuguese on Benin art[edit]

The work pictured is a sixteenth-century Benin Plaque. On the background can be seen the floral pattern that is characteristic of plaques made at this time. The patterns suggest Portuguese influence. The image in the plaque consists of an Oba surrounded by his subjects. The oba is the largest image on the plaque. As traditions go, the oba and rulers are viewed as larger than mortal men.[10] This attitude can be seen in the artist’s depiction of the oba. He is attired in full war garments that suggest the importance of possessing military/warrior strength. The staff he holds in his hand also shows his power and divinity among his people. Apart from military and political strength, the plaque shows the relationship between the Portuguese and the Benin traders. The oba’s subjects are depicted carrying bent iron bar, a ceremonial sword and musical instrument. These are artworks made by the Benin artists and are used as trading items. Behind the oba in the plaque, are the Portuguese traders. Europeans at this time were popularly depicted with rounded hats, shoulder-length hair and short beards, as can be seen in the plaque.[10] In their hands, they carry what looks like a mirror and a goblet. These represent the luxuries that the Portuguese brought with them as they sailed to Benin. The plaque is a good example of the trade that existed between the Portuguese and native Benin inhabitants.

Edo salt cellar

Another example can be seen in the Benin-Portuguese salt cellar. This artwork shows further the influence of the Portuguese on Benin. The salt cellar shows Portuguese officials and their assistances. Although the figures are Portuguese, they are depicted much like Benin rulers. The figure in the front is wearing a cross which can be seen as showing the mercenary intentions of the Portuguese. They came not only for trade but to convert the Africans to Christianity. The person is also wearing a crown and is holding a staff and a ceremonial sword which is said to have been the ruler, Esigie’s way of showing approval of an oba’s coronation (Ben- Amos, 1980). The fact that the figure is wearing these items shows the power that the people of Benin associated with the Portuguese. The ship in the figure also shows the means of transportation with which they arrived in Benin. This also reinforces the sense of power as it showed the associated with the river god, Olokun. These examples of art show the attitudes of the people as well as their traditions and beliefs. They are important because of the lack of literary work that can be found among other cultures. They guide in the historian's understanding of the ideas and feelings that came with the art.


  1. ^ a b Barbara Plankensteiner, ed. (2007). Benin- Kings and Rituals: Court Art from Nigeria. Exhibition catalogue Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna mit MVK und OTM/Snoeck. 
  2. ^ a b c "Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2 April 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Andrea, A. J., Overfield, J. H. (2005). The Human Record. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company. 
  4. ^ "Oba with Animals, Altar to the Hand (Ikegobo) of Ezomo Ehenua [Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin] (1991.17.113,1996.11)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  5. ^ Inneh, David (2007). Barbara Plankensteiner, ed. Benin kings and rituals : court arts from Nigeria. Ghent: Snoeck. ISBN 9053496262. 
  6. ^ Egharevba, Jacob U. (1968). A Short History of Benin, 4th Edition. Ibadan University Press. 
  7. ^ Gore, Charles (Summer 1997). "Casting Identities in Contemporary Benin". African Arts 30 (3): 54–61, 93. doi:10.2307/3337500. 
  8. ^ Berzock, Kathleen Bickford (2008). Benin - Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom. New Haven and London: The Art Institute of Chicago / Yale University Press. 
  9. ^ a b c Ben-Amos, Paula (1980). The Art of Benin. London: Thames and Hudson. 
  10. ^ a b Blackmun, 1988

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