Types of Art
The Kingdom of Benin has produced some of the most renowned examples of African art. There are an estimated 2,400 to 4,000 known objects including 300 bronze heads, 130 elephant tusks, and 850 relief plaques. The art of the Kingdom of Benin, not to be confused with the Republic of Benin, is most widely known for its bronze plaques. The majority of the bronze plaques are at held the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum, British Museum, National Museum of Nigeria in Lagos and Benin City, Weltmuseum Wien, Field Museum of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most of the ancient art of Benin is royal and honors the Oba, or king of the Benin Kingdom.
The general aesthetic principles of Benin art, according to Kathryn Gunsch (2018), are triadic symmetry, frontality, alternation, and decoration in the round. Triadic symmetry in the royal arts of Benin commonly appears, for example, as two figures flanking a central figure on a carved ivory tusk. Figures appear frontally in Benin art with feet firmly planted and their torsos and heads facing the viewer. Alternation refers to the patterns on ivory saltcellars that alternate figures and animals surrounding the object. And finally, ivory tusks and saltcellars serve as examples of Benin artists’ preference for decoration in the round.
Oba Oranmiyan, who was from the Kingdom of Ife, founded the Benin Dynasty in 900 CE. The caster Iguegha was also from the Kingdom of Ife and was one of the first to create the emblematic commemorative portrait heads of the Oba. William Fagg, a historian of African art, classified the art of Benin into three distinct periods: Early, Middle and Late. The Early Period began in approximately 1400 CE, during which time the stylistic influence of the Kingdom of Ife was most evident in the naturalism among commemorative heads. Early period-style heads are lightweight and feature high collars under the chin. Oba Ewuare the Great was known as a promoter of the arts and in 1440 he was the first king to commission large objects in bronze. He is also known as the first art commissioner for an Oba’s elaborate regalia, consisting of coral beaded crowns and costumes.
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are considered the Golden Age of Benin and are also the beginning of the Middle Period. The Middle Period ushered in heavier commemorative heads with more elaborate detail. Many scholars have noted that the reason the commemorative heads became heavier is because the Kingdom of Benin had access to more copper from the slave trade with the Portuguese. This assertion has since been contested by other scholars (Gunsch 2018 and Vansina 1984). Fagg characterizes the Middle Period with a uniformity of style and iconography, as shown by the plaques. Commemorative heads from the Middle Period also feature a hole in the top. This allowed the head to hold up a tusk on an altar.
Oba Esigie ruled from 1517 to 1550 and at the end of his reign, he commissioned a set of bronze plaques. These plaques depict moments in history and therefore serve as a record of Benin’s chronology. Esigie also commissioned a cast bronze idiophone for the Ugie Oro festival. There was increased interaction with the Europeans during this period and many Benin ivory carvers created oliphants (ivory hunting horns), salt cellars, and other objects for European royalty.
Europeans continued to encroach on the Benin Kingdom during the nineteenth century, when Benin opened up its tropical forests to colonists. This marked the beginning of the Late Period during which time brass casters began placing wing-like finials on either side of the cap of the commemorative heads and the metal work became much thicker. Fagg contends that the heads became more elaborate during the reigns of Oba Eresonyen and subsequent kings because they served as an over-compensation for the loss of the Oba’s power (Fagg 1970). The Late Period came to a head during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, during which the British ransacked Benin City, looted thousands of precious objects, and displaced Oba Ovanramwen. A new ruler, Oba Eweka II, was instituted in 1914 and he established the Benin Arts Council in the mid-1920s. Eweka II taught Ovia Idah, a noted ebony carver. During the 1950s and 1960s, Felix Idubor and Festus Idehen both became successful sculptors that combined classical Benin techniques while also incorporating their own modern influences. Since the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, brass casters shifted their focus to making objects for tourists, which caused a range in quality (Nevadomsky and Osemweri 2007). Triadic symmetry and frontality continued to be used with plaques created in the twentieth century. Plaques from this period lack horror vacui (fear of leaving empty spaces), typically feature the rope of the world around the edge, and are crude rather than aesthetic (Nevadomsky 2010). Commemorative portrait heads also changed in modern times: they shift from heads to busts, the patina of the sculptures are brighter, and the facial features are softer. There are also examples of brass casters commemorating modern events; for example, a bronze sculpture of Oba Akenzua II meeting Queen Elizabeth II was created by Philip Omodamwen as found in the collection of the High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon in Benin City.
The Benin Kingdom situated in southcentral Nigeria dates to approximately 900 A.D. The first, or Ogiso, dynasty lasted until 1170, at which time Yoruba rule was imposed from the city of Ife. Oranmiyan, the son of the Oni (king) of Ife, was sent to Benin City where he wed a Benin woman. She bore him a son, Eweka I, who became the first Benin Oba (king). Sometime during the 13th century, Iguegha, a caster, was brought from Ife to craft memorial heads of the Obas. Terracotta heads in collections have been dated to the late 15th or 16th century and were used by the Ogiso rulers on altars to their paternal ancestors. Benin art became well known to the West in 1897, after the British Punitive Expedition sacked the city of Benin and brought thousands of objects back to Europe as war booty. See also the related entry for modern-day Yoruba people.