Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom

by Barbara W. Blackmun
Professor Emeritus, San Diego Mesa College

Brassworkers from the Iguneronmwon, Royal brasscasters’ Guild, Benin City, Nigeria, February 1982. Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.


Until the modern era, Benin’s sumptuary laws restricted the use of both brass and ivory to the Oba and a few high-ranking chiefs.  Today, however, Benin’s hereditary Iguneronmwon brasscasters’ guild, like the Igbesanmwan, sells the work of its members to the general public, while also completing commissions for the Oba’s palace. 

The brasscasters still use the lost wax process that was employed by their skillful ancestors, whose early work compares favorably with the finest bronzes of Europe or Asia.  Over a thousand brass reliefs once covered the pillars of the Oba’s palace courtyards, and intricate sculptures ranging from a few inches high to thirty foot serpents came from Iguneronmwon workshops.