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In the Time of the Benin Bronzes

In the Time of the Benin Bronzes

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In the Time of the Benin Bronzes
Benin Bronzes at the British Museum. Credit: Son of Groucho/Flickr.

The ancient Kingdom of Benin, which lasted 700 years in the present-day Edo State, was one of the most glorious chapters of precolonial Africa. Founded in 1180, at its greatest stretch it reached Lagos and dominated trade along the coastline west of the Niger Delta, up to Accra, including among its vassals the eastern Yoruba sub-groups of Ondo, Ekiti, and Ijebu, as well as the western Igbo, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Isoko, and Urhobo. Considered first-rate in terms of organisation, Benin Kingdom was most famed for its walls and advanced artistic culture. While the walls are no longer there, the art works, collectively known as the Benin Bronzes, have fascinated artists, historians, and social scientists for decades.

The art works were created from the 1300s onwards, with the best pieces produced during two “golden ages,” which came in the reigns of Oba Esigie (fl. 1550) and Oba Eresoven (1735-50). But they are not technically all bronze; most of the pieces are made of various compositions of brass and the rest are of combinations of bronze and brass, and of wood, ivory, and terra cotta. The metal workmanship adopted lost-wax casting.

The pieces ranged from masks and plaques to statues, relief images depicting people and events. There were also bronze receptacles, bells, jewelry, ornaments, and ritual objects of remarkable originality.

In the Time of the Benin Bronzes
A commemorative artwork of Queen Idia.

The Oba’s Palace, with its buildings and vast courtyards, was the showcase for hundreds of the bronze and ivory art works, which were mostly of obas and queen mothers. They hung on the walls and pillars, all of them aimed at glorifying the present Oba and the Queen Mother. The rest of the palace, suggested by the Dutch writer Olfert Dapper to have been as large as Harlem in New York, had long square galleries covered with cast copper and engraved with war exploits.

Upon the death of an Oba, his successor would command that a bronze head be made in the deceased’s image. There are 170 of such bronze heads. The most well-known of these is an ivory replica of Queen Idia, the heroic mother of Oba Esigie, also known as the FESTAC Mask, after its use in the logo of the second Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture (1977). There are also other ivory mask and four cast bronze depictions of her.

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In the Time of the Benin Bronzes
The two Igbo sculptures planned for auction by Christie's. Photo credit: Christie's.

While the Kingdom of Benin underwent political troubles, it was not until 1897 that it formally came to an end, during the infamous Benin Expedition. The city was razed by the British, who looted the Bronzes and annexed the Kingdom.

Most of the Benin Bronzes, numbering over 2,700 pieces, are scattered across museums in 15 Western cities, mostly in the UK, Germany, and the US, including London, Berlin, and New York City. For decades, there have been petitions, mostly unsuccessful, to have them returned.

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