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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Benin Bronzes: encounter of civilizations

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Benin Bronze, British Museum London
Benin Bronze, British Museum London

One of the topic of these days is the historical revisionism due to the Black Lives Matter’s movement, started in USA and spread all around the World.

The iconoclastic attacks against monuments, statues, name of streets or squares, in the act of altering, cancel or amend History, it is for me an incredible mistake of interpretation and can have deleterious consequences for the way we understand it. Looking back on earlier times is a privileged and elevated position from which to view it, one that is often distorted by current preoccupations and interests.

History is a passage of events happened in specific historical, political, social and economic situation. For this reason, it is important not to cancel history and its meanings but to preserve and studied deeply it.

Only from knowledge and from respect could start a dialogue that could connect different civilizations.

In UK, as in other countries, an historical aspect is developing that I may define as “historical neutralization”, an action intended to nullify or reduce the effects of some previous action.

This is evident when you have to talk about the colonial period of the British Empire which it is the creator of the wealth, globalization and multiethnicity of the country but it still a taboo topic to discuss. Another untouchable subject is the place where all the treasures and artistic objects taken unlawfully are saved, known as the British Museum.

In the British Museum is present one of the finest African art collection: The Benin Bronzes.

The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now modern-day Nigeria.

The golden age of the Kingdom of Benin was from XIII till XIX century. Its culture led to a great appreciation in Europe for the highest quality of the sculptures made by casting brass with the method of lost-wax casting and used to provided eloquent representations of the institution of divine kingship and the social and political hierarchies that supported it.

A craft guilds was oversaw the production of all the court’s art, such as the brass casters guild, the ivory and wood carvers guild, and the bead makers guild.

Only the King could distribute copper, ivory and coral so certain people at different ranks had the right to wear or have objects in their households made out of these materials.

In 1806 the Slave Trade ended, the English took the monopoly over the trade in Nigeria with the exception of the Kingdom of Benin, that was independent and trade under the control of his King, called Oba.

In 1897 the vice Consul General Phillips led an expedition to Benin to discuss trade agreement, although in the city were not allowed foreigners to enter while religious rituals were being conducted. The travelers ignored the warming and continued the expedition, they were ambushed by Oba warriors and all killed except for two. The British reacted with a punitive expedition that killed the Oba and totally destroyed Benin City.

More than 4000 artefacts between plaques and sculptures in metal, ivory, coral and wood that decorated the royal palace were taking by the English and sold by the British government to repaid the cost of the military expedition.

Unsurprisingly, the British Museum holds the vast majority of the objects that were plundered by its soldiers 700 Benin Bronzes even if the Benin bronzes were divided and ended up in different museums in England as the Horniman’s Museum (London), Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, in Germany (Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden), Austria, Netherlands, United State (Metropolitan Museum, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Sn Francisco) and private museums and collections.

The Benin plaques that were decorating the Royal palace were more naturalistic than most African art of the period with high level of great metal working at lost-wax casting. The plaques portrayed the Obas, noble dignitaries soldiers, which indicated their function in the court as symbol of wealth and military force.

The brass and ivory heads of kings or queens were reserved for ancestral altar, although they show a stylized naturalism, they were not individual portraits.

Benin’s massive earthworks, sophisticated technology , and traditional architecture conveyed the power of centralized authority, so the ivory and metal sculptures have provided eloquent representations of the institution of divine kingship and the social and political hierarchies that supported it.

For the Victorian London it was difficult to consider that this art was coming from what they considered the savage and barbarian Benin. There was a colonial bias against African population that were considered without history, culture and incapable of generating art.

This was not the first encounter of Benin with white European population, since centuries the country had a close relationship with Portugal. Portuguese went in Benin not as conquerors but as traders. Portoguese rapidly recognized that Benin had a powerful and sophisticated civilization capable to produce great art.

The respectful relationship allowed the Portuguese to enter as mercenary in the Benin’s army and as a members of the Benin’s Court. The sons of the Oba were learning Portuguese.

From the XVI century Benin was trading was trading pepper, gum, cloth, ivory and slaves with the Portuguese in exchange for brass, lead, iron, coral, cowrie shells (used for currency), firearms, spirits and luxury goods.

The contacts and the influences between the two cultures are showed specially in the art objects.

Queen Mother Idia, British Museum
Queen Mother Idia, British Museum
Queen Mother Idia, British Museum, detail.
Queen Mother Idia, British Museum, detail.

One of the most beautiful artefact in the British Museum is the ivory head of the Queen Mother Idia, mother of the Oba Esigie (c.1504-1550), celebrated as one of the great warrior king.

The head is a sensitive, idealized portrait that showed carved scarification marks into the forehead.

She wears a beautiful collar and tiara carved with stylized mudfish and beardhead of Portuguese traders.

In Benin culture, ivory is related to the color white, a symbol of ritual purity that is associated with Olokun, god of the sea. The mudfish is a creature that lives both on land and in water, and is a symbol of the king’s dual nature as both human and divine. Similarly, Portuguese, as voyagers from across the sea, may have been seen as denizes of Olokun’s realm. Like the sea god, Portuguese brought great wealth and power to the Oba.

Ivory was Benin's principle commercial commodity and it helped attract the Portuguese traders.

Ivory carvings were traditionally produced only for the royal court, but the Oba granted permission for decorated saltcellars, horns, spoons and forks to be made for European visitors. These luxury goods are possibly the earliest examples from Africa of objects made specifically as souvenirs for foreigners. One of the most fascinating objects produced in Benin for the Portuguese, and one of the first African artefacts to be brought back to Europe, is the carved ivory saltcellar, a synthesis of both African and European style.

There are only fifteen known examples of Bini-Portuguese saltcellars in museum collections, created in one court workshop by no more than seven or eight artists.

Salt was expensive in Europe during this period, gracing the tables of European noblemen in elaborate containers as ivory was rare, an exotic, high value material, demonstrating status, wealth and success.

All the known Bini-Portuguese saltcellars are spherical, recalling the round-bottomed gourd, pottery and wooden vessels made in all parts of Africa. The separation between lid and bowl at the mid-point is uncommon in European lidded containers of the period.

All examples of Benin saltcellars also feature Portuguese figures traders shown with long hair, beards and hooked noses together with their ship showing probably on live or through drawing giving by the Portuguese.

One of the most interesting saltcellar is in the British Museum and depicted four Portuguese with long bear, crosses, swords and capes and on the top the saltcellar with a vessel with a single mast and a crow’s nest, in which a seaman holding a staff.

Saltcellar, British Museum
Saltcellar, British Museum
Saltcellar, British Museum, detail.
Saltcellar, British Museum, detail.

All these artefacts were sending to Lisbon, a really cosmopolitan city at that period.

A painting that is really interesting is in the Pálacio da Bacalhôa (Lisbon) is title The King's Fountain (Portuguese: Chafariz d’El-Rey). It is is a 16th century oil painting by an anonymous Flemish painter. The work depicts a scene in front of the Chafariz de El-Rei, in the old borough of Alfama, arabic word for hot fountains or baths.

The King's Fountain, Palacio da Bacalhoa, Azeitao
The King's Fountain, Palacio da Bacalhoa, Azeitao

In the painting the 30% of the population are Africans, Renaissance Lisbon had the highest percentage of black people in Europe (about 20%).

In many movies and books about this historical period the African populations are rarely mentioned apart in a slavery contest. This painting shows a completely different reality where white and black people of different classes were living peaceful in Lisbon.

In the painting are depicting African people of different social classes: aguaderas, dancers, traders, boatmen, guards, robbers, slaves but in the foreground there is a gentleman João de SáPanasco (1524 – 1567) in his horse.

João de SáPanasco, who was gradually promoted from court jester to eventually becoming a knight of the prestigious order of Saint James, which is evident from the heraldry of the order of Santiago embroidered on his cloak. He was awarded that honour by the king in 1535, when he was part of the victorious military campaign over the Turks.

In front of the Afro-Portuguese horse rider, we can see two other African men, who seem to be dressed formally and rather nobly, and not only is their dress code an indicator of their status, but also the swords that they both carry show that they are of high rankings among the society.

A noticeable thing in the painting which demonstrates human diversity at that time in this Lisbon square is that we see white people and African people in both genders, men and women and in different ages too, for along with the adults, there are African children as well as white children playing around in the square.

Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that Africans were wrongfully portrayed in this era, and their depiction was confined to them being nothing but slaves, which is far from the truth. Africans were long known travelers and explorers of the different lands. They settled in various places, European countries being one of those places. Naturally, generation after generation of free Africans were born and raised in those European countries, (as proven in the case of Africans living in 1570 Lisbon) making those Africans who lived there official citizens of said countries.

The Benin Bronzes, artefacts of fine technique, show how art was a union of different civilizations.

These objects can still show this union with a new project of cultural integration realised by the Benin Dialogue Group.

The project is about to build a museum in Nigeria in collaboration with the European museums to exhibit on rotation loans of the Benin Bronze .

The museum will show the historical and cultural richness of the Benin Kingdom from the archeological items till the contemporary art, as the Kingdom still a vibrant artistic center.

The museum will have the purpose of memory, education, inspiration for the people of the Benin Kingdom and around the world.

The project’s will is the return of all the Bronzes that are spread in different museums around the World after the British attack of 1897.

The restitution is big a debate between the different museums about the real value of the conservation of the Bronzes but the possibility to exhibit these works in the original and for the community whom those belong is a serious matter to considered.

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