My first encounter with Benin was during university days spent in Northern England. Those were halcyon days. My Nigerian room- mate and I would exchange stories about Africa and Southeast Asia. Over cups of tea, sweetened with condensed milk, tucked under a fluffy duvet that kept us warm in wintry months, we would share stories of our countries’ various dishes; food is a great way to connect and bond. I would discover that rice, ginger, garlic, yams and okra (ladies’ fingers) also form part of the Nigerian diet. We also shared stories of our love for the art forms of our diverse regions – Africa and Southeast Asia. She was the one who told me about Benin and the kingdom’s art. Visits to the British Museum would confirm that the people of Benin were not only skilled craftsmen, they were artists too.
My subsequent encounter with Benin would be at the National Museum of Singapore. The British Museum Treasures of the World exhibition would bring back memories of my Nigerian room-mate and our shared histories of colonialism and then, amongst other things, of personal post-colonial experiences in our respective countries that have diverse art forms and sub-cultures. I told her about Prince Sang Nila Utama who saw a lion when he came ashore on a little island in 1299 and how that island came to be known as Singapura. I told her how in 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with a Malay sultan that led to the founding of Singapore. In exchange, she told me stories of Ogiso kings and of the Obas, the name for Benin’s second dynasty, which begun around the 11th century and was vanquished by 1897.
The ancient Kingdom of Benin was situated in today’s modern Nigeria. The kingdom was ruled by a line of divine kings whom the people called Oba. The people were the Edo who spoke a language by the same name. The Oba lived in a palace in Benin City that was filled mainly with brass, ivory and wooden art works made on commission by the Oba. Edo artisans skilled in carving, lost wax casting, and beading produced these works of finery. These artefacts are indicative of the wealth of the Benin Kingdom and formed a figurative narrative of the lives of the Benin royalties.
It was through trade that the Obas accumulated wealth. As they were powerful warriors who waged war on neighbouring tribes, war booty also formed part of this wealth. Trade with the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to sail to Africa, begun in the 15th century. Trade links were quickly set up from 1498 for Benin to purchase coral beads, brass and other European goods while the Portuguese wanted slaves as well as pepper, ivory and leopard skins. Trading exchanges were relatively peaceful although the Obas were known for their warrior like activities.
One brass plaque on display at the National Museum of Singapore shows the Oba wearing a leopard skin denoting his status; only royalty are draped with such finery. Bracelets adorn his right wrist and anklets wrap both ankles. Jewellery is always a good indicator of wealth and this Oba is one rich king. He holds a spear and a shield showcasing his might. He wears a mitre-like helmet with an opening allowing us a view of his features. His eyes are bulging with power, his nose is regally set and he has a set of fleshy lips. The tall helmet could be once more indicative of his status, signifying his position as a warrior king. Oba takes up substantial amount of space on the plaque indicating his importance; our beholder’s eye is immediately drawn to this central figure.
We see four other figures flanking him. At the top are two Portuguese traders bearing gifts; they are identified by what they are wearing and their long hair. Clothing and hairstyles are often good time keepers; historians date such plaques to around the 16th and 17th centuries.
The two figures below are attendants who are wearing helmets made from pangolin hides. Pangolins are known for their durable shell like hides, hence make very good protective head gear. These helmets also help situate the attendants as those chosen to serve the inner court of the Oba; they were leopard hunters. Looking closer, we detect floral patterns in the background that are linked to the water god Olokun; this indicates the power that the Oba has over water.
The Benin Empire was eventually destroyed by the British in a punitive act of revenge known as ‘The Benin Expedition of 1897’. The Oba’s decision to assassinate one British General led to his palace being captured, burnt and looted. The last Oba of Benin was imprisoned and died in exile. A 19th century British newspaper reported this event as the “Benin Disaster”. As a result, ancient treasures collectively known as the Benin Bronzes came into Western consciousness and hence begun the collection of these pieces by museums and private collectors as art. It is from such booty that the Western world began to learn about the Edo people and the ancient Kingdom of Benin. Debates have risen about whether these pieces of artwork should be returned to their rightful owners.
Restitution is always a controversial topic because ancient artefacts require optimum museum conditions for their conservation and survival. Subsumed into the restitution debate is the sense of superiority amongst many Western art institutions centred on their argument that their museums are the optimum repositories for ancient artefacts like these Benin Bronzes. The British Museum has always claimed that it is the best place to house and showcase the Benin Bronzes because it has the funding and the expertise. On the one hand that is accurate, on the other, it seems such a shame that many Nigerians are deprived of experiencing the beauty of their heritage because conditions in their museums are not deemed optimal for exhibiting ancient artefacts. The power relations between colonial and post-colonial nations continue to fuel this debate. Emotions run high among individual Nigerian historians and scholars but to date, the British have yet to repatriate these Bronzes.
Benin Brass Plaque, Benin City, Nigeria, Edo People, 16th century AD, brass, (h) 48.3 cm x 39.9 cm x (d) 7 cm, in The National Museum of Singapore, Treasures of the World, 05 December, 2015 – 29 May, 2016, cat. no. Af1898,0115.21
Image: © The British Museum
Would you believe that when the Europeans first set eyes on the Benin Plaques, they were bowled over by their artisanal craftsmanship and beauty, and thought that the Africans must have learnt their craft from the Europeans?
The Benin Brass plaques displayed in several museums in the Western world tell only part of the the kingdom’s history. Plaques, like the one in the essay, tell the story of trading relations between Portugal and Benin which started from 1498 and were to continue for 400 years before other European powers arrived.
It is good to remember that the way these plaques are displayed in museum settings are not indicative of how they were used within the context of the Oba’s palace; these plaques which are documents of the Oba’s business relations, war and ceremonies were found on the walls of the royal palace. Another little tidbit to take away is that brass belonged solely to the Oba; it is a royal material.
Conn, S (2010) Whose Objects? Whose Culture? The Contexts of Repatriation in Do Museums still need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp 58-86.
MacGregor, N, (2012), ‘Benin Plaque: The Oba with Europeans’ in A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin Books Ltd, pp 424 – 428.
Moore, B (2015), Treasures of the World from the British Museum. (exhibition catalogue). Singapore: National Museum of Singapore.
Woods, P (2012) ‘Display, Restitution and World Art History: The Case of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ in Visual Culture in Britain, volume 13, Issue 1.