The Art of Benin, Part 1, Option A
Look closely at Plate 3.1.16 which shows a figure of a Portuguese man holding a manilla. What can this work of art tell us about cross cultural encounters?
Cross cultural encounters happen every day, in business, people holidaying abroad, even in schooling and banking. These encounters can take many forms, the way we deal with other ethnicities problems, the way we greet people from other cultures, the different clothes worn by different cultures, even the art produced by other races form our understanding of “Cross Cultural Encounters”.
Benin Art, dating from the 15th Century, when Fernao Gomes first discovered Benin on his exploration of the Guinea Coast, as Africa was then called, (AA100 Cultural Encounters 1.1 page 8) is a prime example of Cross Cultural encounters by two very different civilisations and cultures.
Typical of Benin art, relating to Cross Cultural Encounters is the brass plaque shown in Illustrations for books 3 and 4, plate 3.1.16. This art piece displays a Portuguese soldier, or trader, carrying a manilla (bracelet) and a rifle. The plaque is set in brass and is very detailed, showing ornate patterns on the clothes and helmet worn by the subject. The background is similarly detailed with what appears to be flower petals. If we look closely at the background of the plaque, there are obvious signs that holes have been cut in the work of art. These holes would have served a very practical purpose, inasmuch as they were designed as fixing holes for the plaques. Once completed, the pieces would be hung on the outside of the Obas (King) house to display his status. Sometimes lesser works would be given to the Obas Chiefs. In the fullness of time, as the Portuguese traders started to admire these artefacts, the trade in art works between the Benin people and the traders began to escalate.
The manilla was a much prized piece of jewellery for the Benin artists, not just as an adornment but, as it was made from brass, it was a valuable material for their artwork. Up to the time the Portuguese traders arrived, most of the Benin sculptures were made of bronze, this being due to a scarcity of the harder wearing alloys contained in brass. Indeed the Benin people accepted every brass gift from the Portuguese and then set about melting the artefacts down in order to create their own art materials.
Benin history is recorded without any written documentation. Generation after generation have passed down the history of the Benin people orally. This has been reinforced by pictorial images in Benin art and effigies. Sculptures of Obas, Benin Queens, and Queen Mothers, these in addition to everyday images of Benin life, alter scenes and so on, are represented in their historical elegance. No surprise then to see when the Portuguese arrived and became a part of that history, they were depicted in their unusual clothes, weapons and everyday pursuits such as hunting, (British Museum). It is unusual to note that the majority of these art pieces are by unknown artist, even with just an oral historical record, one would think the names of the most prominent artists would be recorded! Bibliography
The Art of Benin, Part 2
How and why have European attitudes to the display of Benin Art in museums and galleries changed? The Portuguese arrived in Benin in the 15th Century. They came as peaceful traders and viewing Benin art from around this time, it would appear that this was a successful trading partnership.
It is naïve to think that a Western Colonial Power would enter an African country just to trade commodities with them, just as the Portuguese had done in Benin. The status quo was not to last. The most predatory Colonial Power the world had ever known was about to make its mark on Benin history. After the obligatory skirmishes and massacre of a small expeditionary force, raising anger in the home country, a fighting force was sent to...
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