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From an African artistic monument to a Museum loot: A history of the 16th century Benin bronze plaques.
The manufacture, function and interpretation of an African masterpiece
Benin as it appears in documents of the seventeenth century was a wealthy and highly centralized kingdom, early European visitors never failed to be impressed with its capital; the Portuguese compared it with Lisbon, the Dutch with Amsterdam, the Italians with Florence, and the Spaniards with Madrid, Its size was matched by dense habitation; houses built close to each other along long, straight streets, it was orderly, well laid out, and sparkling clean so that the walls of the houses appeared polished, its ruler’s impressive royal palace, a city within the city, had countless squares and patios, galleries and passageways, all richly decorated with the art that has made Benin famous.1
The Benin bronzes are among the most celebrated works of African art in the world, but unlike the majority of the corpus of Benin art that was continuously made since the kingdom’s inception, such the bronze commemorative heads which were were needed by each successive king to honor his deceased predecessor, or the ivory, bronze and wood carvings that were made from the 14th-19th century, the commission of the Benin plaques is often attributed to just two rulers in a fixed period during the 16th century and was likely undertaken within a relatively short period that spanned 30-45 years between the reigns of Oba Esigie and Oba Orhogbua, the bronze plaques were later stashed away during the 17th century and safely kept in the palace until the British invasion of 1897.2 The destruction of the palace, the removal of the plaques and the apathy by western institutions towards restitution, has complicated the analysis of their function, installation and interpretations of the symbolism and scenes that they depicted.
This article explores the historical context within which the Benin plaques were made using recent studies of the artworks to interpret their symbolic function.
Map of Benin at its height in the 16th century (Courtesy of Henry B. Lovejoy, African Diaspora Maps Ltd.)
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Benin history until the reign of the ‘Warrior-Kings’:
The rise of Benin kingdom and empire was a long and complex process of state formation, Benin’s formative period begun in the late 1st millennium and lasted until the founding of the Eweka dynasty in the 13th century with the introduction of the title of Oba (king), the gradual reduction of the Uzama N'ihinron (an autochthonous body of territorial lords who governed Benin city before the establishment of the Eweka dynasty, they influenced the kingdom’s politics and the Oba’s succession to the throne), and the expansion of the kingdom from its core territory around Benin city to neighboring towns in a drawn out process that was best accomplished under Oba Ewuare in the early 15th century who introduced several centralizing institutions that were later expanded and reinforced by his successors of the so-called "warrior-king" era which lasted from 1440AD-1606AD and is generally considered as the golden age of Benin.3
Despite the warrior-king era's status as a period of increasing prosperity and political stability; Benin underwent a period of political upheaval and socioeconomic changes during the reigns of Oba Ozolua (1480s-1517) and Esigie (1517-1550s). The Oba Ozolua, also called Ozolua the conqueror, is one of the greatest Obas in Benin's history, and is credited with transforming the moderately sized kingdom into an empire with his many conquests reportedly involving 200 battles, he is also immortalized in Benin's art with depictions of him in a long chainmail tunic, an iconographic motif that signifies his power, successes and military prowess, and the memory of Ozula's conquests and successes was so great that all of Benin's later rulers styled themselves as emperors4 But the complete history of his reign contains accounts about internal strife and tumultuous court politics including rebellions in Benin city itself involving low ranking officials, thus painting a more nuanced portrait of his reign and a reflection of the challenges his legitimacy faced. Ozula was briefly overthrown during a period of uprisings across the empire beginning with the province of Utekon, that forced him into exile to the town of Ora, where he briefly ruled before regaining his throne at Benin. Ozolua remained a polarizing figure at the court and this ultimately led to his demise, the Oba was killed by his own men when campaigning in the province of Uzea in the year 1517, the mutiny was likely a result of his incessant wars.5
16th century plaques of a high ranking edo figure often identified as Oba Ozula6 (numbers III C 8209, III C 8397 at the Ethnologisches Museum, berlin).
Ozolua's death sparked a succession crisis at Benin as the exact order of birth between his sons Aruanran and Esigie was dispute with the latter supposedly being born immediately after the former, nevertheless, Esigie (r. 1517-1550) ascended to the Benin throne and Aruanran promptly moved to Udo (a provincial town close to the capital of Benin), where he prepared for war against his brother. Esigie invaded Udo and fought Aruanran's armies in a costly battle that resulted in many causalities on both sides, but the former ultimately emerged victorious, killing Aruanran's son and forcing the father to commit suicide. Despite the depletion of his feudal armies from the devastation after the Udo war and his father's campaigns, Esigie was still faced with the need to protect his father's vast empire with its newly acquired vassal provinces that took advantage of critical moments of internal strife to remove themselves from Benin's central authority, and the most powerful among the rebellious territories was Igala, ruled by a kinglet named Ata of Idah. The so-called ‘Idah war’ was one of the most decisive in Benin's history, the Atah of Idah was a renowned military leader and is said to have founded the kingdom of Nupe (a powerful state north-east of Benin), his army had mounted soldiers and was reputed to be the strongest in the region, Benin's armies on the other hand were almost entirely infantry forces, while some elite soldiers and courtiers rode horses (and are depicted as such), the vast majority of Benin’s soldiers fought on foot since horse-rearing was nearly impossible in this tsetse-fly infested forest zone of West africa. Esigie's armies, which had been thoroughly exhausted by the Udo war and his father's incessant campaigns, now faced an existential threat that threatened the Benin capital itself, a dreadful feat that wasn’t repeated by any foreign army until the British invasion. The Oba enlisted assistance from his mother Idia who provided her own forces and spiritual leadership, and he also enlisted the Portuguese mercenaries with whom his kingdom had recently been in contact, the Oba also went to great lengths to convince the feudal lords into devoting more levees to the war effort and when they finally relented, they also brought with them wooden, life-like statues of soldiers to the war as a ruse for the enemy. On their war to the war, a bird flew over the Oba's armies signifying (or prophesizing) defeat, but Esigie shot the bird and carried it with him, announcing that "he who would succeeded in life could not listen to false prophesy". The war was bitterly fought and one of the soldiers of the Queen mother Idia is said to have assassinated the Atah of Idah, ending the battle in Esigie's favor, the Oba brought back with him the dead bird which he cast in bronze to remind people of his ability to overcome fate.7
Esigie’s triumph and the Benin plaques:
Esigie instituted two festivals to commemorate his victories in Udo and Idah, the first was Ugie Ivie which is a bead ceremony commemorating the victory over his brother at Udo where Aruanran is said to have possessed a large bead of coral suspended on multiple coral strands that Esigie seized after concluding his victory. The second festival that immediately follows the first was Ugie Oro, a procession ceremony in which the Uzama N'ihinron, accompanied by high priests and other Benin courtiers, pass though Benin city's streets beating the bronze effigies of the "bird of prophesy" that had warned of Esigie's defeat, and in the process symbolically acknowledge their mistake at initially failing to support their Oba while also reminding Esigie's subjects of his military prowess in the face of an existential threat. Also accompanying the courtiers were igala dancers captured from the Idah war who were formed into the emadose guild specifically for this festival trumpeting his success in the Idah war. The elaborate public displays that occurred during these festivals that took place for every five days for three months of a year, demonstrated the authority of the Oba, and his magnanimity for a war fought with few resources and little internal support, "Esigie's festival creates a tableau of courtly harmony across Benin's social order from the most powerful courtiers to the lowliest captives, allowing viewers to draw a message of power from an event that became the memorial of a decisive battle"8, Its within this context that the famous Benin plaques were commissioned; a unique iconography of the Oba’s power that converted Esigie's near failures into legendary successes through monumental art commission. By illustrating an overwhelming panoply of courtiers in their ideal portraits as loyal, devoted nobles carrying out the two royal festivals, visitors to the palace were left with an indelible image of political harmony that contradicted with the fractious reality of Esigie's early reign. One glaring example of this fractious reality was the continued resistance of the Uzama N'iHinron to Esigie's rule even after the successful Idah war, they are said to have refused to take part in the royal festivals, forcing Esigie to work around this affront by creating the Uzama N'Ibie, a new group of titled officials fiercely loyal to the Oba, that were placed immediately below the N'ihinron in the kingdom’s political hierarchy but were awarded fiefs and substituted the Uzama N'ihinron's place at the festival. Furthermore, the Uzama N'Ihinron are said to have used their Ukhurhe ancestral altar staffs to pray for their ancestors to plague the Oba, but a member of the Benin bronze casting guild stole their Ukhurhe staffs and gave them to his guild head who then gave them to the Oba Esigie, revealing that the bronze guild remained loyal to the Oba through this turbulent time. Esigie ultimately prevailed over his rebellious courtiers but at the expense of declining control over his vassals who gradually weaned themselves off the capital. His son and successor Orhugbua (r. 1550-1578) thus spent the greater part of his reign pacifying and consolidating the empire, using the coastal provinces including Lagos as a base for conquests into neighboring regions, by this time, the court was firmly under the Oba’s control and it remained largely loyal despite the Oba's lengthy absence. The courtiers would later plead for Orhugbua’s return to the capital which Orhogbua eventually did, establishing a positive relationship between the court and the Oba for the first time, that lasted until the late 17th century. The period of stable rule enjoyed by Orhogbua reveals that Esigie's institutions and elaborate artistic creations were successful in augmenting the power of the Oba, Orhogbua later expanded the plaque tradition and is often attributed with several innovations to the motifs and decorations in the plaque corpus.9
plaques depicting a high-ranking Benin figure often identified as the Oba Esigie10 (numbers: III C 27507; Ethnologisches Museum berlin, af1898,0115.44 at the british museum)
Dating the Benin plaques, their manufacture and the expression of history through Art.
Bronze casting was present in Benin since the 13th century but the plaques were made during the first half of the 16th century as a unique iconographic device, while some scholars had suggested that Benin's art originated from Ife, the consensus among historians is that Benin's art tradition was independent of ife's and that the association is a result of political expediency rather than a historical fact.11 There is some early external documentation about the display of the Benin plaques that allows us to date their first appearance and when they were removed from public display. The Dutch geographer Olfert dapper in 1668, wrote that: "the king's court is square and stands at the right hand side when entering the town by the gate of Gotton (Gwato).. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars from top to bottom covered with cast copper on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean… every roof is decorated by a small turret ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings… cleverly made after living models" the reference of copper "pictures" is clearly about the plaques, dapper based this on an account from Bloemmaert, who inturn gained his information from Dutch traders visiting Benin before 1644 during Oba Ohuan's reign (1608-1641).
The plaques were likely stored away not long after, because when another dutch visitor to Benin city in 1702, David van Nyendael, wrote about the palace, he confirmed Dapper's earlier account and added details about a large copper snake that was cast on a wooden turret ontop of one of the gates to the palace, but observed that the galleries of the palace had "planks upon which it rests are human figures which my guides were able to distinguish into merchants, soldiers, wild beat hunters, etc" these figures were more likely carved wooden reliefs rather than plaques, representing a new commemorative art medium that had been commissioned by the 17th century Obas. While the 17th century decline in Benin's wealth has been blamed for the end of the bronze plaque tradition, the 18th century resurgence witnessed increased production of royal sculptural artworks in bronze, ivory and wood, showing that the plaque tradition was only one medium out of several, and that it represented a continuous tradition of palace ornamentation in bronze, ivory wood, and terracotta.12
“De stadt Benin” (The Benin City) by Van Meurs in Olfert Dapper’s “Description de l'Afrique”
Manufacture: on the metal sources for the Benin plaques and cire perdue casting
While scholars in the past suggested that the Benin plaques were cast using the copper manillas whose importation into Benin increased with the coming of the Portuguese to a tune of 2 tonnes a year, the metallurgical properties of the manillas traded during this period differ significantly from the metallurgical properties of Benin plaques, and archeological excavation around Benin city provided evidence for bronze casting as early as the 13th century, the more likely source for the Benin copper used in the plaques would have been from the Sahel through a northern trade route13, The sahel region was also where the bronze casters at Ife in the 14th century derived most of their copper.14 but some local sources were also available and were used by Igbo ukwu bronze casters in the 8th century, the Benin plaques were thus a combination of these sources.15 The choice of plaque-form representation, quatrefoil decorations and other foliate designs used by the Benin sculptors is still subject to debate but is probably not dissimilar from that used on the square panel reliefs on carved wooden doors and the textile designs common in the region’s art.16
The vast majority of bronzeworks from Benin including the plaques were made by a specialized guild of artists headed by the Ineh n'Igun Eronmwom who supervised the completion of the Oba's commissions, training new guild members and standardizing the artworks. The highly stylized figures of Benin which are fairly similar and of fairly equal dimensions, were more difficult to make than individualized artworks thus requiring a higher degree of central control. The artists made their plaques from a special section in the palace, and they employed the lost-wax method of casting where the wax sheet was put ontop of a clay core created with a preformed mold, the quatrefoil decoration was then added after this primary composition had been formed, and the brass was then poured into the mold, after cooling, the wax was carefully scrapped and the plaque tied to the palace pillars in orderly fashion.17
plaque showing high ranking courtiers with one holding a double-faced gong, the back side of the plaque shows the nail-holes, side flanges, and provides the shape of the clay mold that was used to attain the raised relief. (Af1898,0115.68, british museum)
Expressing history and the sculptural art style of the Benin plaques:
In the Edo language, the verb "to remember" is literary translated as "to cast a motif in bronze", guides in the city during the 17th century told visitors that plaques depicted their battles and war exploits, the Benin plaques were thus part of a larger assemblage of artworks that create a historical narrative of the empire.18 One eldery palace courtier who was a palace attendant prior to 1897 recalled that the plaques were kept like a card index up to the time of the punitive expedition, referred to when there was a dispute about court etiquette"19.
like the oral history recounted by the Benin court guilds, the plaques elide specificity, the fluidity of oral history, its ability to change in order to meet the needs of the reigning court, is reflected in the visual narrative conveyed by the plaques; a purposeful embrace of the contingent narrative produced by oral transmission that allows the work to become part of many discourses, rather than illustrating a fixed moment in time, the plaques collapse several historical moments into one event, in a way that achieves narrative multiplicity, allowing viewers to make out key figures, regalia, dressing, architecture, fauna and flora, activities and motifs in the majority of the plaques, without dictating the rationale behind their depiction.20 The Benin plaques were conceived as an installation artwork which joins many compositions into a single aesthetic statement, although a select few of the plaques convey a specific historical narrative, the majority of the corpus don't, but instead offer detailed ambiguity and may have likely portrayed a more dynamic narrative of historical events depending on their original installation pattern that is unfortunately now lost.21 Furthermore, the decision to represent almost all figures on the Benin plaques with the same facial and somatic types and predominantly frontal body position, despite the Benin artists' exposure to the naturalistic, individualized artworks of Ife and the Benin artist's own ability to create individualized artworks such as the Iyoba head, was a deliberate artistic choice; the plaques don't celebrate individuals but the entire social order of the court.22 The plaque figures’ wide open eyes that are spaced apart, with detailed outlines of the eyelids and iris, also serve to create a sense of immediacy for viewers and accentuate the figures' strong gaze.23
16th century bronze commemorative head of the queen mother (iyoba) thought to depict Esigie’s mother Idia. This naturalistic, nearly life-size sculpture, while departing from the stylized figures of the benin plaques, shows that the latter style was a conscious choice by the Benin artists. (III C 12507 at the Ethnologisches Museum, also see Af1897,1011.1 at the british museum)
Figures, Scenes and interpretations : the Oba, palace courtiers, soldiers, pages, and events.
The pinnacle of Benin's system of control rested with the Oba, Benin's bureaucratic rule which sought to control large areas of social, political and economic life in the empire; comprised of state appointed officers (courtiers) who served in limited terms and were responsible to their superiors including vassal rulers, forming a hierarchy that led directly to the Oba. The Oba's power was based ideologically on his divinity, his control of the army and his ability to grant official titles. The Palace was the nucleus of Benin’s administrative structure, accommodating a large population of officials and other attendants that included high ranking soldiers and titled courtiers who were often present at the palace of the Oba for all major festivals24, as well as guilds and palace pages the latter of whom served as the Oba’s attendants. Courtiers such as the Eghaevbo n’Ogbe (palace chiefs) were non-hereditary titled officials who constituted the palace bureaucracy.25 Benin's standing army was the royal regiment divided into two units, namely the Ekaiwe (royal troops) and the Isienmwenro (royal guards); its high command was constituted by four officers: the Oba as Supreme military commander, Iyase as general commander, Ezomo as senior war Commander, and Edogun as a war chief and commander of the royal troops26. Both soldiers and courtiers are often depicted wearing slightly different clothing to signal their rank in the palace hierarchy or identify as vassal rulers.27 Also present at the court were the Oba's pages, there are several groups of these but the exact identification of which pages are represented remains elusive, the Iweguae is the closest candidate, its a palace association which constitutes personal and domestic servants of the Oba tasked with various duties, such as the Omada and the Emada; the Omada were a non-hereditary guild enrolled in the palace system that served as attendants for courtiers and the Oba, manufactured and sold artworks and used their earnings to purchase titles28, The emada were the last of the pages, often represented nude save for several ornaments, they were granted permission to marry by the Oba after reaching a certain age.29
the Oba depicted with mudfish legs and his enobore attendants hovering above two leopards, the Oba grasping two leopards by the tail with mudfish legs, the Oba grasping two leopards with mudfish belt30. the symbolism of these two animals is discussed below. (numbers: af1898,0115,29, Af1898,0115.30, Af1898,0115.31, at the british museum)
Soldiers and courtiers:
procession of a high ranking soldier with several attendants including miniature Portuguese figures; procession of a mounted courtier flanked by multiple attendants including emada pages and other the higher ranking pages; procession of a mounted courtier wearing a deep-beaded collar with a smaller figure of page holding a rope tied to his horse, with two large attendants31 (numbers; III C 7657, III C 8056, at the Ethnologisches Museum, and af1898,0115.45 at the british museum)
Plaques depicting benin soldiers dressed In full battle gear, the firstfigure holds a shield and staff, the second two figures hold an ekpokin gift box and wear distinctive helmets, the third multiple figures show a procession of three soldiers and their attendants and horn-blowers, they hold various weapons including the ceremonial eben sword, with disntictive shields (Numbers: 16086 at the Museum of Ethnology Dresden, L-G 7.29.2012 at the boston museum, Af1898,0115.86 at the british museum)
The Oba’s pages:
Plaques depicting four pages standing infront of the Oba's palace, the outermost figures are emada pages, between them are two pages of higher rank, behind them on the palace pillars are miniaturized figures of titleholders, soldiers and portuguese merchants, this same pattern is repeated in the second plaque but in reverse order 32(number af1898,0115.46 british museum)
Plaque depicting a drummer sitted cross-legged while playing two slit gongs, plaque depicting a hornblower with a helmet, plaque depicting an emada page carrying an ekpokin bag, plaque showing a dignitary with drum and two attendants striking gongs (Af1961,18.1 at the british museum, 16090 at the Museum of Ethnology Dresden, III C 8254 at the Ethnologisches Museum berlin, L-G 7.32.2012 boston museum)
figure bearing an ekpokin (gift box), priest figure often identified as an Olokun priest, two high-ranking title-hodlers offering libation33 (numbers; III C 8271, III C 8207, III C 8211 at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)
Depictions of foreigners in Benin art: Portuguese mercenaries and traders, and high ranking war captives.
The Portuguese figures are often portrayed either with military accouterments or as merchants reflecting the roles they played in Benin history; as mercenaries that assisted in his idah war and as the merchants who bought Benin's pepper, ivory and cloth34. They are often shown wearing costumes typical of fashion in the 16th century with long skirts, embroidered doublets and split sleeves. The depiction of the Portuguese figures with sharp attenuated limbs, long hair and long nose was a deliberate representation of the European "other" in contrast to the smooth, rounded bodies of the Benin figures who represented the "self".35 Other foreigners are often shown in battle scenes that comprise a small group of compositions among the wider corpus, the foreign status of the high status captives is often denoted by their facial scarifications, they are often shown wearing battle gear including protective armor, helmets and swords, and are all shown riding a horse perhaps a reference to the cavalry forces of the Atah of Idah or to the infamous foe himself.36
portuguese figure holding a crossbow and a bird, portuguese figure holding a dreizack three-pronged spear, portuguese figure holding a manilla copper currency ring37 (numbers: III C 8352, III C 8358, III C 8360 at the Ethnologisches Museum berlin)
Battle scenes that include war captives:
Plaques depicting a battle scene showing a high ranking benin soldier puling an enemy from his horse, thefacial marking on the enemy's cheek denote his foreign status (numbers: L-G 7.35.2012 at the boston museum, Af1898,0115.48, Af1898,0115.49 at the british museum)
Depictions of Fauna in Benin plaques: Leopards, mudfish, bird of prophesy, and crocodiles.
Animals such as leopards, cows, goats and sheep represent various attributes and powers of the Oba and were sacrificed at the Igue ceremony, the leopard, which in Benin tradition was considered the “king of the forest" represented the Oba's ferocity and speed, leopard hip ornaments, teeth necklaces, skins and prints are badges of honor bestowed upon war chiefs, high ranking courtiers and serve as both protective devices and symbols of power38, and the Oba is known to have kept many tame leopards in his palace that were captured by leopard hunter's guild, and Ewuare is often credited with the use of the leopard as a visual metaphor for the Oba39. Mudfish has many meanings in Benin's art, it’s the preferred sacrifice to the sea god Olokun and refers to the Oba's relationship with the deity, as well as his ability to pass between land and water; between the human world and the world of spirits, it thus represented the Oba's mystical powers.40 The identification of the bird of prophesy has proved elusive, as it may represent an extinct species or may not be representation of the actual bird captured by the Oba but rather a more symbolic and fictions composite, it nevertheless features prominently in the Benin plaques as a representation of the triumph of Esigie.41
Leopard and her cubs eating an antelope, like the human figures, the animal figures emphasize the head and eyes over the rest of the body) (number III C 27486, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)
plaque depicting a leopard in motion with a small animal between its teeth, plaque depicting a crocodile, plaque depicting the bird of prophesy with outstretched wings42 (numbers: 26227 at the Museum of Ethnology Dresden, and III C 8270, III C 8427 at the Ethnologisches Museum berlin)
Other plaque scenes: hunting, sacrifice, harvesting
The Majority of these plaques were most likely composed during the latter period; ie, under the Oba Orhogbua's reign, they depict figures engaged in distinct activity and portray complex social narratives including hunting, drumming, animal sacrifice, games, plant harvesting and other activities, with different figures given their own motions.43 The plaque of the rider and the captive for example depicts a high ranking Benin soldier escorting a foreign captive, the of this plaque portrays a single action of the Benin soldier guiding the captive to a define place44, the "bird hunt" plaque is considered one of the best among these expressive plaques, rather than the front-facing position of most figures, the hunter is shown turning in the direct of the bird which he aims at with a croswbow.45 The leopard hunter is remarkable for its use of synoptic vision, the vegetation seen from above, while the leopards are in profile and the hunters between the two46 and the plate of the amufi acrobats that shows two acrobats at the Amufi ceremony whose members climb trees for certain ritual purposes, for this ritual, they climb into a very tall tree, which they secretly prepare with ropes at night. After reaching the highest branch in the next day's ritual, they wrap the rope around themselves and throw themselves into the air, arms and legs spread, to swing in large circles in the air. They move their arms, which are hung with rattles, as if they had wings. At the very top of the relief panel in the top branches of the tree sit three large birds.47
plaque with a figure of a man hunting a bird using a cross-bow (number : III C 8206 at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)
plaques depicting the Oba’s pages harvesting a sacrificial plant (numbers: III C 8383 at the Ethnologisches Museum berlin, and MAF 34545 at the GRASSI Museum of Ethnology in Leipzig)
plaque depicting a cow sacrifice, considered one of the masterpieces of the corpus, the cow hovers over the entire scene creating a three dimensional effect. plaque depicting a leopard hunt with five figures hunting two leopards in the forest. (numbers: Af1913,1211.1 at the british museum, IIIC27485 at the Ethnological Museum)
plaque depicting two acrobats in the amufi ceremony, with three large brids at the top of the tree, plaque depicting a Benin soldier guiding a captive on horseback (The National Commission for Museums and Monuments Nigeria, Af1898,0115.47 at the british museum)
Conclusion: the end of the bronze plaque tradition, Benin’s decline, the British invasion, displaying the loot in museums and debating African art.
Benin decline and end of the bronze plaque tradition:
Tradition holds that the Oba Ahenzae (1641-1661) gambled away the treasury and couldn't afford to obtain the bronzes needed to make the plaques, the plaques were most likely stored away during his reign and replaced by more modest wood carvings observed by the Dutch visitor Nendael a few decades later48, the traditions about gambling away the treasury may reflect the decline of power and wealth that Benin underwent in the 17th century, the primary factor seems to have been the increased power of titled officials and bureaucracy that reduced the power of the Oba at a critical point when there was no eligible successor, the Oba was confined to his palace where he couldn't led military campaigns and some of his authority was restricted, secondly were radical shifts in export trade, Benin still maintained its ban on exporting slaves that had been in place since the early 16th century and the Dutch who had been purchasing Benin's pepper and ivory for nearly a century since the Portuguese left, had started purchasing significant quantities of textiles whose production was less centrally controlled, allowing for the decentralization of wealth into the hands of the lower bureaucracy. This shift in power eventually devolved into a civil war pitting some of the Oba's higher ranking officers against his allies, beginning In 1689 and ending around 1720s, resulting in the shattering of the hierarchically organized bureaucratic associations and the establishment of a multi-centered, autonomous associations. while Benin was restored in the 18th century and a lot of art was commissioned , it gradually went into decline such that by the late 19th century it had been reduced from a regional power to a minor kingdom.49
The British invasion, sacking and looting of the Benin plaques, debating African art.
The brutal expedition of 1897 in which the British sacked the city of Benin, killed tens of thousands of edo civilians and soldiers, and looted the palace of approximately 10,000 bronzes, ivories and other objects; including around 1,000 plaques, resulted in many of the artworks being sold to several western museums and collectors50. When the looted Benin artworks arrived in western institutions, they caused a sensation, the “remarkable old bronze castings” were considered "the most interesting ethnographic discovery since the discovery of the ruins in Zimbabwe" and came at a time when theories of scientific racism were at their height in popularity, among these theories was the Hamitic race theory which posited that all forms of civilization in Africa were derived from a "Caucasoid"/"Semitic” race of immigrant Hamites. Colonial scholars such as the then British Museum curators Charles Read and Maddock Dalton, wrestled with how to fit these excellent works of African art into the Hamitic theory, questioning how could a “highly developed” art, comparable in quality with Italian Renaissance art, be found amongst the members of an “entirely barbarous race”, they thus attributed the bronze-works to Portuguese, and to the ancient Egyptians whom they claimed introduced this form of art to the Benin sculptors, but even then, some of their peers such as Henry Roth disagreed with them saying that questioning the “expressed opinion of Messrs Read and Dalton,” that the Benin art “was an imported one” from Europe, observing that Benin was discovered by the Portuguese in 1486 and by the middle of the 16th century “native artists” produced art of a “high pitch of excellence" and that the artistic skills of the natives could not have developed so rapidly, because “I do not think the most enthusiastic defender of the African will credit him with such ability for making progress.”51 Over time however, these racist studies of Benin art were discredited and they gave way to more professional analysis of the famous artworks that recognize them as African artistic accomplishments, proving that the technique of lost-wax bronze casting was ancient in the region, that Benin's art tradition predated the Portuguese arrival and is one of several art traditions in the region. 52
The Benin plaques were iconographic symbols of the Oba Esigie's triumph that depicted Benin’s courtly life in the 16th century; the last vestige of a glorious era in Benin’s past.
Looters in the Oba’s palace, february 1897. the plaques are shown in the foreground.
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Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689-1721 by Paula Ben-Amos Girshick and John Thornton 358-359)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 115, 28)
the military system of benin kingdom c.1440 - 1897 by OB Osadolor pg 50-83)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 29)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 30-33)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 29
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 30-35)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 36-37)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 38-41)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 35
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 120)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 48-51)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 18
Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba by Suzanne Preston Blier pg 281
The Lower Niger Bronzes: Beyond Igbo-Ukwu, Ife, and Benin By Philip M. Peek
Royal Art of Benin by Kate Ezra pg 121
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 106-110)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 45)
Royal Art of Benin by Kate Ezra pg 118
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 60-62)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 123)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 65-67)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 88)
Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689-1721 by Paula Ben-Amos Girshick and John Thornton pg 359-362)
the military system of benin kingdom c.1440 - 1897 by OB Osadolor pg 82-83)
the military system of benin kingdom c.1440 - 1897 by OB Osadolor pg 94)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 132)
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 253-254)
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 70)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 82,121
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 84, 87)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 62)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 65,67
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 128-129)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 47, 86)
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 33)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 90,93)
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 20-34, 156)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 16
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 93)
Royal Art of Benin By Kate Ezra pg 200),
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 147
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 115)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 64)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 67)
Divine Kingship in Africa by William Buller Fagg pg 42
Two Thousand Years of Nigerian Art pg 235
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 50)
Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689-1721 by Paula Ben-Amos Girshick and John Thornton pg 369-375)
The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks pg 137-151)
Displaying Loot: The Benin Objects and the British Museum by Staffan Lundén pg 281-303)
The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument By Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch pg 198)