Bronzing the Benin Royalty
Throughout African history, many societies have remained immortal through the passing of traditions, oral storytelling, and cultural values. However, a significantly tangible piece of each and every society in Africa is the art that has been uniquely bound to the specific region from which it came. From the pottery of ancient Nubian Kingdom of the Nile River region to the terracotta figurines of the West African Mali Empire, art has served as a visual portrayal of the time and place at which the piece was created. These long standing traditions are evident in the art of the Edo speaking people of Benin. The majority of the art created in the Benin Empire was for the court of the Oba of Benin, a divine king or ruler, for which craftsman created ceremonial and ritual pieces, such as their elaborate bronze head castings. These castings, reserved only for the deceased of high status, were not strictly intended to aesthetically please; yet, also actively served as a symbol of the still present social, spiritual and political influence of the deceased.
Benin bronze castings have evolved from the time they were first introduced for the royal courts around the fourteenth century, to the demise of the Benin Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century. Initially, European imports of bronze were scarce, resulting in thinner bronze castings with less intricate ornamentation than those of the nineteenth century. The more modern casts were thicker and much larger due to increased imports of bronze, evolving them into highly ornamented, stylistic, and detailed pieces. So important was this act of bronze casting, that royally approved guilds were created in order to fashion these busts, therefore, creating a family lineage of bronze smiths. This specialization of labor provided a sense of exclusivity to the castings, which, in turn, created a revered sentiment towards the pieces by the people of Benin. One of the pieces in the Metropolitan...
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