In the early 14th century AD, the son of an Ife king founded the powerful ancient Benin Kingdom, located in the forest area of Southern Nigeria which is about 106 miles Southeast of Ife.
Following the introduction of Bronze-casting in the year 1280, the ancient Benin kingdom reached its maximum size and artistic impression within the 15th and 16th centuries respectively.
Several centuries ago in the history of West Africa, the Benin Bronze sculptures were the only historical evidence found in West Africa. Here, both the technical accomplishment attained in Bronze casting and the monumental vigour of the figures which the art represented attracted great admiration from the public.
They were more recognized and attracted more glory from its admirers than its counterpart artworks from Ife or Owo since they have been in Western Museums since 1890s.
Prior to that, in the 13th century, Benin City was made up of a jumbled collection of farms, sheltered by walls and a trench. Every tribe then had a king (Oba) whom they were subject to.
There were also the “Benin Style”- A Court Art which emanated from the palace of the Oba (King), and was properly distinguished from the tribal art. In this also, he engaged a union of Artisans living in the same locality.
He (the King), ordered the Bronze statistics to be collected and kept in the palace. The kingdom flourished until 1897, when the palace was sacked by the English in retaliation for an ambush that had cost the British Vice-consul his life.
On the contrary, the various memorial Brass heads, Unconnected figures and groups, Plaques in relief, Carillon and rattle-staffs, small expressive masks worn on the belt as emblem of offices; chests in the shape of palaces, Animals, Cult stands, Jewellery, etc. cast by Benin metalworkers were created for the Royal palace.
They also put in place altars for kings, Brass Caster Corporation Chiefs, and Dignitaries. The altar functioned as a tribute to the deceased and a point of contact with his spirit. Using the bells and rattle stuffs to call the ancestor’s spirit, the King (Oba) offered sacrifices to him and to the earth on the altar.
Sporadically, a brass head was surmounted by a carved ivory tusk imprinted with a procession of different Kings (Obas).
They show the Oba in full regalia along with his Nobility, Warriors and Portuguese traders. The most elaborate ones display a procession of up to nine people, while others depict only fish or birds.
The popular figures used here represented Court officials, Equestrian figures, Queens, and Roosters. There were also objects in Ivory, most of which were highly decorated Human masks, Animals, Beakers, Spoons, Gongs, Trumpets, Arm ornaments, and large Elephant tusks covered with bands in figured assistance.
These objects served above all to exalt the King, the Queen mother, the Princes and Royal household, Army commanders (shown with their arms and armour and their retainers), Huntsmen, Musicians, etc. On the other hand, it depicted significant events.
Pectorals, hip and waist ornaments in the shape of Human or Animal heads were worn either by the Oba or by major dignitaries. Brass staffs and clippers surmounted by birds appeared during commemorating ceremonies.
Subsequently, within the 16th and 17th centuries, these inscriptions were concealed in a storage room. It is thought that they were nailed to palace walls and pillars as a form of beautification or as references to modus operandi.
Nevertheless, the bloody British retaliatory expedition to Nigeria resulted in about three thousand brass, ivory and wooden objects being consigned to the Western world. At that time, Western scholars and artists were astounded by the quality and magnificence of these objects, more than 1,000 brass plaques were appropriated from the Oba’s palace.
However, the scientific complexity and the irresistible naturalism of these pieces contradicted many 19th century Western assumptions about Africa in general and Benin in particular, who is regarded as the home of ‘Spiritism’ and human sacrifice. Explanations were swiftly generated to cover the epistemological misinformation and awkwardness attached to it.
Facts surrounding the objects suggested that it is, or was supposed to have been made by Ancient Egyptians, the Portuguese, even the lost tribe of Israel. Subsequent research has tended to stress the indigenous origins of West African metallurgy, which proved decisive following its naturalism. Their status was marked by the establishment of the term ‘Benin Bronzes’, regardless of their being basically of brass.
The majority of everyday Benin objects were made for and associated with court ceremonies. The figures of a Leopard were the exclusive property of the Oba, since they considered the Leopard as the royal animal.
Today, although the Benin Kingdom and its Art seems to be on the disappearing end, their Yoruba neighbours are striving to revive and maintain its glory as they continue to produce artistic impressions inspired by the Benin Art Culture.