The complexity of the Benin art was a testament to the creativity, craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail by the ancestors of the present Edo people. In fact, the Europeans who first came in contact with the Edos were simply amazed by the dexterity and advancement of the bronze casters and their works. Up until this present time, the art and creativity of the Edos continue to manifest in various aspect of the life of the people, even expanding to other areas beyond Benin traditional art, like performing arts, music and more.
The Royal Arts
Benin Art were originally produced for the court of the Oba of Benin, and the beautification of the royal palace (some of the artifacts made for the palace included ceremonially significant objects and other symbols of authority). The art of Benin is without a doubt predominantly a royal art. Fashioned almost exclusively from cast bronze and carved ivory, Benin art also served as a symbol of the Oba’s imperial power. It not only affirms the Oba as the center of dominion and portrays his divine nature; the art also serves as a means to record significant historical events and the Oba’s involvement in them. It is believed that the materials used in Benin’s Royal Arts – Bronze, Brass, Ivory, and Coral – are endowed with seraphic powers. The innate value of these materials as well as the time and skill invested in creating them, reflect the earthly and ethereal influence of the Oba and the great wealth of the Benin kingdom.
The ‘Obas’ held a monopoly of sculptures in brass and also gold and elephant tusks – Chiefs were only allowed ancestral figures in terra cotta and metalworkers were the servants of the ‘Oba’. Again, the Benin art was closely tied to the rituals used in service of divine kingship.
The Benin Royal Arts favours convention but also promote creativity and invention, especially as royal prerogative.
Benin kingdom court style Bell. This type of bell, identified by its distinctive four-sided, flat-topped shape, was once placed on an ancestral altar in the royal palace. Its shape is thought to resemble the palace roof turrets. Benin warriors wore smaller versions of these bells on their chests, as can be seen on the plaques that formerly covered the piers in the palace courtyard. The sound of the bells identified Benin warriors in battle, served as a sign of the spiritual protection of the king, and spread terror among the enemy.
Bronze Works, Casting
When I see a Benin Bronze I immediately think of the mastery of technology and art – the welding of the two. I think immediately of a cohesive ancient civilisation. It increases a sense of self esteem because it makes you understand that African society actually produced some great civilisations, established some great cultures– – Famous Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, 2009
The Benin bronze works are more naturalistic than most African art of the period. The bronze surfaces are designed to highlight contrasts between light and metal. The features of many of the heads are exaggerated from natural proportions, with large ears, noses and lips, which are shaped with great care.
The most notable aspect of the Benin bronze works is the high level of great metal working skill using an ancient wax process -the cire perdue process (lost wax), Benin’s bronze casters transform tarnished scrap – pipe joints and spigots – into gleaming objects of African royal art, particularly the heads of Kings (Obas) and Queen Mother’s Heads which were made as altar pieces. The royal altars would normally have bronze Oba heads which would support a carved ivory tusk, a aseberia or altar tableau which depicts the Oba and his attendants and rattle staffs, ukhurhe. Altars were also constructed, dedicated to past Iyobas, or queen mothers and adorned with brass commemorative heads.
Benin kingdom court style plaque. Musicians and a court page holding a fanlike sword (eben) flank a high-ranking warrior, possibly a war chief or the oba. The half figures depict Portuguese soldiers or traders.
Another recurring theme in Benin bronze works are reliefs which represents important battle of the sixteenth-century wars of expansion. Majority, however depict noble dignitaries wearing splendid ceremonial dress. Most of the plaques portray static figures either alone, in pairs or in small groups arranged hierarchically around a central figure. Many of the figures could be identified according to their roles in the court.
The Benin’s brass-casting is a rejuvenating art and the tradition is still in practice today, but mostly aimed at the venturesome tourist.
The Benin masks are one of the most notable and visible figures of the Benin art. Made from ivory or bronze, the masks were used as pendant, tied around the waist or neck.
One of the most popular masks was that of Queen Idia, who was the powerful mother of Oba Esigie. Two almost identical masks are extant: One at the British Museum in London and the other at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Both pendants denote a powerful image of monarchal elegance, having a crown composed of a series of minute heads thought to represent bearded Portuguese men,  who were significant traders with the Benin Empire at the time. The foreheads of both masks were inlaid with a pair of metal strips to denote scarification marks. The band below the chin is slightly different in the two surviving examples.
Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba, 16th Century. Among the most celebrated masterpieces of African art, this pendant is at once a prestige object worn by the king on ceremonial occasions and the portrait of an important historical figure at the court of Benin. The preciousness of the material and the refinement of the carving indicate that it was created by the exclusive guild of royal ivory carvers for the king.
The title of Iyoba and queen mother commemorative heads was started in the early sixteenth century by Oba Esigie to honor his mother Idia, who assisted in averting two serious threats to his rule and the integrity of the Benin Kingdom. The head of the queen mother casting shows a forward pointing coral-bead crown which is an elongated version of an elaborate coiffure worn by high ranking Edo women.
A version of the bronze mask is usually worn by the Oba during the Igue celebrations.
The Plunder & Reclamation
February 18, 1897, brought a huge decline of Benin art as it marked the punitive expedition by the British to Benin. Ostensibly reacting to a ‘massacre’ of a British trading mission and to other trivial political issues, British troops invaded the city; deposed the Oba; looted the palaces of the Oba, his chiefs, ancestral shrines as well as other secret places; and hauled off thousands of bronze, brass and ivory artifacts that now command premium auction prices worldwide. The objects were rounded up with little regard for their associated meaning, and no systematic record kept of their grouping or placement. Many of the ‘Benin Bronzes,’ portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in bronze, were later on auctioned off to private collectors and many are displayed in museums around the world.
Ever since the invasion, series of appeals have gone to the British government to return looted artifacts. Around 1936, late Oba Akenzua II began a campaign (which continues today) to return to Benin the stolen Benin Bronzes domiciled in different locations around the world and restate them in their rightful home. The campaign has seen stints of successfrom one period to another.
However, one of the most prominent of these artifacts, the famous Queen Idia mask, was used as a mascot and the symbol of the Second Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) held in Nigeria in 1977 now known as ‘Festac Mask.’
A new one was made in Benin after the British authorities refused the release of the original which was one of the priceless items carted away during the 1897 invasion of Benin and which now rests in the British Museum in London.
Despite the setback in 1897, Benin art has survived and regained leadership in the production of artwork across Africa, also acquiring more modern sophistication, making the Benin brass one of the world most valued and coveted artwork around the world.
The key to the survival of bronze art in Benin, however, is the transfer of knowledge from father to every male child born in different guilds. Bronze-casting, as well as wood carving in the kingdom, has always been hereditary; and although there are a few changes introduced to the handling techniques over the years, the traditional technique of smelting and sculpting by hand is still used to produce amazing works.
To ensure the art knowledge would be protected and passed on from each generation to the next, professional guilds & societies were set up. Some of these guilds, including the Bronze casters (Igun eronmwon) – the highest-ranking craft guild within the hierarchical structure of the Iwebo society, the blacksmiths (Igun ematon) and Ivory and wood carvers (Igbesanwan) receive royal patronage and are still operational today.
Bronze casters with their works in Igun Street, Benin City.
Members of these art guilds are easily found on Igun Street, a two-and-a-half-kilometer long street, off Sakponba road in Benin City, which houses a large swathe of bronze castings with unique and distinctive looks. Visitors to the street are free to witness the bronze-casters at work; from the casting of the clay to the smelting of the bronze.
In 1999, UNESCO declared the street a Cultural Heritage Site and funded its paving as well as the construction of an entrance arch.