The Art of Benin I
A. Cultural Encounters Between Europe and Benin from the Fifteenth to the Twentieth Century 1. The trade in objects in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries 2. The imperial confrontations of the late nineteenth century 3. The engagement with ideas about art in the twentieth century B. European Contacts with Benin
Europeans first became aware of the existence of Benin through Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century. The accounts left behind indicate that the first contacts between Europeans and the people of Benin were based on the exchange of goods, which included ivory carvings. Direct European contact with Benin was limited during the era of the slave trade (approximately 1650–1850) and little more was learned about the kingdom until British imperial forces conquered it in 1897.
The encounter between British and Benin culture continues. Migration and globalisation have made people more aware of the way that their different histories are interlinked. In this spirit the British Museum now displays its treasures, including the Benin artworks, as an archive of global, intertwined histories kept in trust for all mankind. On the other hand, some African leaders and scholars argue that the looted Benin objects fulfil a different function in Nigeria from that represented in European museums and galleries. In Benin, history has traditionally been recorded through the arts – through songs, art objects and ceremonies – rather than written down. As such, works of art constitute a crucial repository for representing the past and, it is argued, they should be returned to Benin. II. The Art of Benin
Activity (p. 5)
This brass head of a Queen probably dates from the early sixteenth century and was made in Benin (Plate 3.1.1). Examine it carefully. If you have expectations of African art, does this conform to them? Choose three or four words to characterise this sculpture. Discussion
‘Surprising’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘skilled’ are the words I chose to characterise this sculpture. It is a ‘surprising’ sculpture because of its very early date and because it is so unlike the sorts of African art that I am familiar with and which so influenced western artists from the beginning of the twentieth century, such as carved wooden masks (see Section 2.2). I described the head as ‘skilled’ because, as we shall see, the process of casting brass is technically difficult, and this is quite a complicated piece. It is a ‘sophisticated’ work partly in a technical sense, notably in the decorative detail of the headdress, and partly because to me the head projects a particular royal image, just as an official photograph of a ruler might do today. A. A Detailed Description of the Brass Head of the Queen (Plate 3.1.1)
Almost certainly a representation of Queen Idia, the Queen Mother, this sculpture dates from the reign of her son, Oba (or King) Esigie, who ruled Benin from c.1504 until c.1550. Oba Esigie is said to have ordered a representation of his mother in recognition of her services as an advisor and warrior. Her tall pointed headdress and the four scarification marks (deliberate, decorative scarring) above each eyebrow mark her out as female – men in Benin had only three marks above each eyebrow. The lattice work decorating her headdress is of simulated coral beads, and a long fringe of coral beads hangs from the bottom of the headdress, almost like hair. Coral beads are again the material imitated in the necklace, which completely covers the figure’s neck. Coral, like brass, was one of the materials appropriated by the royal dynasty in Benin. It is supposed to have been Oba Ewuare, the ruler who built up the kingdom of Benin in the fifteenth century, who began the custom of the ruler wearing coral beads. Hence, the coral beads so obvious in this brass head are an attribute of royalty.
Although in one sense very lifelike, this brass head is idealised. This means that rather than...
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