The ‘court art’ of the Kingdom of Benin (today’s South-South Region of Nigeria) has achieved global recognition. Over 4,000 exquisitely worked items in brass, bronze, coral and other materials, revered sculptural pieces including bronze heads and elephant tusks, it tells the tale of royal dynasties and a once powerful kingdom.
The court art was primarily created to explain and uphold the majesty of the Oba (the king). Believed to be divinely ordained, the Oba exerted – and continues to exert – enormous influence on the affairs of the kingdom. Among his duties was the patronage of craftspeople who observed traditional rites and rituals, investing huge time and skill in artworks created to reflect the physical and spiritual influence of the king and the vast wealth of his kingdom. Moreover, successive kings used the arts to interpret and establish their version of their kingdom’s past, align themselves with its history to support their own policies, and carve out their own place in the national narrative.
Within the court art collection, the bronzes have undoubtedly attracted the most global attention for the sophistication of their form and the technology behind their production. Oba Oguola (1274-1287) is credited with originating the ‘Benin Bronzes’ when he sought a bronze caster to bring new knowledge to his kingdom. The master craftsman Igueghae, sent from Ife, introduced ‘investment casting’, a technique relying on the lost-wax procedure which delivers a sophisticated thinness of cast in a cost-effective manner unknown at the time to European or Chinese artists and which has become valuable today in high-tech aeronautics and nuclear science.
The collection presents physical evidence of the greatness of the Kingdom of Benin and the remarkable history of its people, Equally, it provides the cultural continuity that is vital to the kingdom’s growth and confidence. Certain pieces merit particular mention, including the pectoral mask used as the symbol for the FESTAC 77. The formal complexity of this piece tells a compelling tale of the strengths, conquests and resourcefulness of a Queen Idia, the Queen Mother, whose son Oba Esigie reigned between 1504 and 1550. This warrior queen and reformer was endowed with high intelligence, a zest for life and an innovative, even feminist, mindset. At her death, Oba Esigie commissioned his craftspeople to immortalize her in a bronze head and hip mask.
For many years, the Benin Empire’s cultural, diplomatic and trading relationships brought it global attention and respect. In February 1897, however, during reprisals for the murder of British consular representatives, the Oba’s palace was burnt and art collections were seized and taken to Britain. Now housed in leading museums around the world, these works continue to bear witness to the ingenuity and sophistication of the culture that made them – the Kingdom of Benin. Unwillingly, perhaps, and at great cost, by sharing these beautiful narrative masterpieces and reminders of a rich past upon which a more productive future is being built, the Kingdom of Benin has shared with humanity its unique and invaluable cultural heritage.