For most of us, the interesting story we heard and read of the Benin art still comes with doubt. In this article, we would delve more into the Benin art of the medieval ages. Benin art was/is ascribed to the kingdom of Benin or Edo people which lived from 1440 – 1897, the pre-colonial West Africa empire, located in the south-south region of Nigeria.
The Benin art was made of cast bronze and carved ivory and created mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin, who was regarded as a divinely-mandated ruler to whom most of the famous craftsmen in the Kingdom produced a wide range of ceremonially significant artifacts for.
One can only praise the full complexity of these works when they take cognizance of the complementary cultural perceptions they imbibe. While the western world merely perceived them as works of art, the Benin people see them through the prism of their culture and as a mnemonic tool in reshaping history, and as ritual objects.
Due to their stylistic varieties, these works of art have been classified into different epochs or timelines, which are:
- The Archaic Period (Origins – 1360)
- The Ancient Period (1360 – 1500)
- The Flowering Period (1500 – 1575)
- The Apogee Period (1575 – 1648)
- The Renaissance Period (1648 – 1691)
- The Decline Period (1691 – 1819)
For decades, the only thing the royal arts of Benin represents is that they are affirming the importance and centrality of the Oba, exhibiting him as a divine subject, drawn from nature. While they documents the kingdom’s historical events and how the Oba dialogue with them, they also initiate the Obas involvement with the deities, to ensure a continuity that is most significant to the growth and wellbeing of the kingdom.
The ivory, brass and coral were the basic materials used in making the Benin art and wielded with sacred powers. The span it took to carve or sculpt them, and the innate powers they imbue all added up to reflect the supernatural and otherworldly powers the Oba and the great wealth he commanded.
For centuries, the Obas of Benin have used the art to interpret historical developments within the kingdom and to remind themselves of past efforts to support their own initiatives and secure their own place in history. The Benin arts only gain the attention of the world after the Punitive Expedition of the 19th century, although they have been in existence at least way back from the 13th century.
Once a new Oba is crowned, he is responsible for building an altar totally dedicated to his father, selecting and commissioning the appropriate materials to beautify it, and activating it on a daily basis with victuals and animal blood. The same ritual is done for his mother if she attain the title of Iyoba or queen mother.
Rattle staffs and bells are crucial of ancestral altars, although ivory tusks and commemorative brass heads are usually made for royal altars. The reason being that, although associated with trade, ivory and brass are both efficient and valuable, and their colors, white as sacred kaolin and red like fire and coral beads, have an ancestral relationship with power.
Prior to colonialism, an Oba’s courtyard was the central and most focal point for rituals to reference him. When British forces invaded the kingdom and took possession of the palace in 1897, they accounted 18 altars dedicated to previous Obas. Though, today all previous altars have been held together in a single courtyard.
However, Benin art declined in the 19th century when the Punitive Expedition by the British led to massive impairment in the creation of artworks. In the early hours of February 18th, 1897, British forces invaded Benin City with strict instructions to invade and conquer the land.
As a result, all the properties of the Oba and the various artworks became the spoils of war and were rounded up with less value for their deep associated meaning. There was no documentation and systemic records kept of their grouping, placement or relocations. Many were then sold in the United Kingdom to defray the cost of the expedition.