Appreciating The Benin Kingdom’s Art Plaques
“Brass never rusts, lead never rots” (Eronmwonei-moton, ozeei-keke) – Benin Proverb
In February 1897, a punitive expedition was carried out on the Benin Kingdom by the British Colonial forces under the Command of the ambitious and brute Admiral Sir Harry Rawson. A good part of the ancient Kingdom was burnt down, the royal palace and sacred rooms were sacked. The colonial officers who raided the Oba’s palace and sacred rooms couldn’t believe what they discovered in the royal rooms. They discovered thousands of antiques, rare brass/bronze sculptures, and carvings dating back to the 15th centuries and some to the beginning of the Kingdoms’ existence. These sculptures that proved hundreds of year’s civilization were embodied in different artworks.
Large sums of the plaques looted during the 1897 expedition were made of Bronze and Brass.
The British officers carried thousands of these beautiful, sacred items to Europe and other parts of the world. For the first time, the world was formally introduced to the “Benin Bronze/Brass Art”. It was an uncalled-for introduction, but the world welcomed it regardless. The arrival of these items in the European market changed the global view, sparked debate and also allowed the European world to see the beauty of these rare artefacts from Benin.
One of the earliest recordings of the Benin Royal court commissioning an art piece was around 1550, when Iyoba Idia, mother of the Oba Esigie passed away. The Oba’s Mother shortly before her death had created a larger than life image in Benin History. Iyoba Idia was a warrior, the Oba’s spiritual advisor, an innovator, an art creator and collector, so, it was right for the Oba to commission the Palace royal carvers to carver an art piece of her face to immortalize the woman who risked all for the Benin Empire.
Historians and scholars were able to draw out two important notes when Iyoba Idia died: the Oba’s place in the Benin art industry, and also the relevance and presence of the royal carvers who lived within the Palace walls. Although the Iyoba Idia Mask was made out of Ivory (there were other works made of Bronze and Brass), other guilds of artisans and artists existed around the Benin royal court. The duty of these carvers was to create a bust of every Oba of Benin – this would be placed in the Palace royal shrine- and also to diligently create art pieces as a way of documenting the palace history and the history of the Kingdom.
These sects/guilds of artisans were a group of men who have dedicated their lives to their craft and have pledged their service to the Oba. In the middle of the 19th century, these guilds which were mostly hereditary includes the wood and ivory carvers, Igbesanwman, the brass casters, IgunEronmwon, the Iron smithers, IgunEmaton, the weavers (Owinan’Ido), the carpenters (Owina) and the leather makers (Isekpokin). These guilds can be traced to the 15th/16th century and some of them to the beginning of the Kingdom itself. They shared a common objective for the Benin Kingdom and unwavering loyalty to their Oba-who they see as a god in human form.
After the sacking of Benin in 1897, the world was exposed to the beauty of Benin art, and the Empire later rose from the destruction it suffered at the hands of the British. The guild of Brass and Bronze casters at Igun Eronmwon got more organised and began to create more artworks, for the palace and the general public. It was the beginning of a new art age.
The responsibility of creating these Bronze/Brass artworks solely rest on the shoulders of the craft masters on “Igun Street”- A UNESCO World Heritage Site and cultural and traditional headquarters for Bronze craft masters of the Benin Kingdom. The street is just a stone throw from the popular Ring Road roundabout, where you have the Benin National Museum. The structure of the street is just like any street in Benin City, but unlike other streets, Igun street is one of the busiest streets for tourists anywhere in Africa. Igun street is the traditional and ceremonial home of the guild of Bronze casters for the great Benin Kingdom. The street consists of 31 guilds that have pledged their allegiance to the Oba of Benin. Some of the casters are 7th generation casters. The Bronze and Brass casters both share Igun street.
The cultural and traditional significance of Brass to the Benin people cannot be neglected. It is sacred and holds in high esteem. Like all metals, Brass is associated with Ogun, the god of war, agriculture, hunting and creativity. In Benin culture, it is also associated with the preservation of memories, hence, a lot of Bronze plaques are used to preserve the history and memories of Benin History. These craft masters on Igun street sacrifice goats and hens before commencing any production. The ritual is more intense if it’s a commissioned piece for the Oba or any royalty.
Even in the 21st century, the guilds are still secretive, exclusive and traditional in its modus operandi making it impossible for non-initiates to know the core of their craft. This has been the case for over 600 years.
The four walls of the Benin royal court, the Benin art – Bronze casting, wood carving, and ivory carvings, Brass casting – is more than just art. It is a collective embodiment that seals all the spirits that hold the great Benin Empire together, and this has been in place since the Ogiso royal dynasty. To the people of Benin Kingdom, it is the essence that makes them stand proud whenever you see a Benin man or woman.
The world is yet to fully comprehend the genesis of Benin art. Its source will remain a mystery that is forever locked in its essence, as long as an Oba sits over the affairs of the Kingdom, the world would have no choice but to look and marvel at the beauty and wonders of the Benin Art.