Benin owes its distinguished place on the global art map to the bronze and ivory artworks produced in Benin City, now the capital of Edo state in Nigeria, West Africa.
Known worldwide as the ‘Benin bronzes’, this vast collection of over 5W,000 metal plaques and sculptures, including portraits of Benin royalty, was designed to stand in the palace of the Oba of the Benin Kingdom but was looted during the British ‘punitive invasion’ of Benin City in 1897.
The bronze casters’ guild, with the Oba as their patron, started practising their craft in the 13th century, methodically honing their skills to produce the spectacular 15th and 16th century works that still dazzle and puzzle the global art world today. Europeans first glimpsed the Benin bronzes – and ivory artworks – from the Portuguese travellers and traders who visited the Kingdom in the 15th century. The awe they inspired across Europe may have been behind the British decision to seize the entire treasure trove when they attacked the palace of the Oba in 1897.
Many of the looted artworks remain in the British Museum in London while others were sold off by the British Foreign Office. One hundred and thirty years since they were seized, these magnificent works have become prestigious items in museum and individual collections in Europe, America and Asia. The greatest piece of Benin ivory art remains the 16thcentury mask of Queen Mother Idia (Iyoba). At 9 3/8 inches high, 5 inches wide and 3 1/4 inches in depth, it was usually worn as a pendant by her son, Oba Esigie, and is the epitome of divinely inspired artistry.
It is not only the value attributed to centuries-old Benin art by the citadels of high culture that confirms their outstanding aesthetic significance on the global art map. It is the dogged refusal of many, including the British Museum, to return them to their rightful owners on the spurious grounds that, as recognised universal art treasures, they deserve protection and should be safely and prominently displayed in prestigious museums across the world. In this writer’s opinion, at least, it is a decidedly backhanded compliment on their artistic quality!
In reality, the western art world is still trying to come to grips with the fact that such treasures could have been produced in the supposedly ‘dark continent’ many centuries ago, using the most ‘primitive’ of tools. Who were these artist-craftsmen who produced such timeless masterpieces? What was their artistic vision and philosophy? What techniques did they use, and how did they shape and sustain their centuries-old tradition? In sum, how did their genius come about?
Certainly, they achieved a level of creativity that transcended their simple instruments and developed a true affinity for their materials. Employing an innovative lost-wax process, they used brass of variable composition, mainly sourced from manila, using methods which have survived to this day. Their mastery is demonstrated in the attention paid to the most minute details and the way they designed the surfaces of the bronzes to show contrasts under a source of light. But their majesty also lies in the fact that their art had a greater purpose. There is an overwhelming spirituality to it which, combined with its ultra-aesthetics, eventually contributed to artistic modernism in the western world: the ‘revolutionary’ Cubism of Picasso and other artists who became trend setters in global art.
Although sadly scattered about the globe rather than cherished in its rightful home , few would dispute that Benin art remains the high point in the grand and ancient landscape of African art overall. Further reading: Kathleen Bickford Berzock: Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom