Benin bronze

Benin

The Kingdom of Benin existed since the 11th century until it was annexed by the British in the 19th century. Benin City was the capital. Benin was home to the Edo, a people known for their advanced artistic and architectural skills. During a period of economic prosperity in the 13th century, King Oguola appointed a collective of metalworkers and bronze casters who were commissioned to create a large collection of art for his palace and the temples in his kingdom. The statues created by this collective are now known as the Benin bronzes. They not only have great decorative value, but also symbolize power and prestige because the order came from the king himself.


Depiction

When it comes to performances, we see different genres.
  1. History of Edo with stories of kings and soldiers
    In the bronze statues you often see the faces of kings, also called Obas. These can be recognized, among other things, by their crown and bead necklace. Brave soldiers are also depicted. These can be recognized by their weapons or shields. The depiction of soldiers is also a sign of power because the king shows how strong his army is and how brave his warriors are.
benin bronze head
bust oba
Bust of an Oba. Benin City, 1960s. From the Rootz Gallery Collection.
  1. Animals
    Within this genre you usually encounter the lion or the leopard. These animals, like many other cultures in the world, are a symbolic representation of courage and royal power for the Edo people.
Benin bronze leopard
  1. Mythological figures and gods
    Figures such as dwarfs and monsters sometimes also appear on bronze statues. There are also gods. These figures come from religious and spiritual stories.
  1. Daily life
    In addition to all these heroic and religious representations, there are also bronze statues that show daily life in the Kingdom of Benin. For example, you see agriculture or various crafts depicted.

Design

Material
The statues are made of bronze or brass. The lost wax method is used for this. This is done as follows: the model of the statue is first made in wax and covered with clay. When the clay is dry, the wax is melted. The bronze or brass is poured into the cavity. When it has cooled and hardened, the clay is removed. Then only the bronze or brass remains. Using this technique ensures that no two images are the same.

Size of the figures
A visual hierarchy can be seen in certain bronze statues. This is often seen on plaques depicting several figures. The size of these figures can vary considerably depending on the social status of the figure depicted. For example, kings are usually depicted larger than warriors and warriors in turn larger than citizens. This sizing strategy serves to emphasize and symbolize the hierarchical social status of each individual depicted.
Benin bronze plaque with warriors.

Relief
The plaques are embossed. This makes the figures appear to come forward.

Details
Vertical stripes appear on some Benin bronze heads. There is no clear explanation for this. For example, it can represent scarring, but it can also have a symbolic meaning such as an indication of status or spiritual power. However, some people believe that it is only an aesthetic choice.


Benin bronze head with vertical stripes.

You can also often see a pattern on the coat of bronze leopards. Here you see two such examples on the leopards of the Rootz Gallery Collection. In the first image you can see that the patterns are made on the bronze itself. They are concentric circles, with a kind of grainy texture in between. In the second image you can see that the patterns are made by circular holes in the bronze. There is a ring around it. There are still small dents in the bronze between these circles.

Detail of the leopard. Here you see the concentric circles.
Detail of the leopard. Here you see the holes with rings around them.

Eyes
Characteristic of the Benin bronze statues are the large eyes that are prominent in the statue. The eye sockets themselves are usually quite deep in the face. They are realistically depicted and sometimes the irises are delicately decorated, drawing your eye into the image.

Symmetry in composition
What also plays a role in the often perceived beauty of the images is symmetry. You can see this in almost all images. For example, in the animals you see symmetry in the pattern, in the heads of kings you find facial symmetry and in the plaques with multiple figures there is often symmetry in the composition. For example, there is a larger figure in the center and two smaller figures to the left and right of it.

Refund

Today, the Benin bronzes are often mentioned in discussions about looted art. The original bronze statues were looted in the late 19th century by British colonists from what was then the Kingdom of Benin (southern part of present-day Nigeria). They ended up in museums and private collections all over the world, but most of the images ended up in the British Museum in London.

Nigeria has been trying for decades to get the statues back and even has plans for a museum to properly care for and display the statues (called the Museum of West African Art (MOWAA) in Benin City). However, their request has not yet had much effect. The problem with these types of applications is that the laws on this matter vary from country to country and there is no central, international legislation on the matter. [1]

Rootz Gallery collection

The Benin bronzes that Rootz Gallery sells are not the original Benin bronzes. In present-day Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, a long tradition has developed of artists or craftsmen making replicas of the original masterpieces. We have a number of beautiful specimens in the store, but they are not the stolen specimens.


All in all, the Benin bronzes not only reflect the artistic sophistication of the former kingdom, but also provide valuable insights into the social, political and religious aspects of society.

[1] Lecture by Evelien Campfens (lawyer specialized in international cultural and heritage law), Leiden University.

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