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The Royal Art of Benin

When the royal palace of Benin was sacked by British forces in 1897, the marauders were surprised to find a huge quantity of elaborate works of art, the sophistication of which surpassed any notion of what they were expecting to find in the forested area of southern Nigeria. The vast majority of Benin art was representative of the courtly life of this African kingdom rather than the life of its common tribe members and it differed significantly from other art in the region in quality, complexity and style.

It is believed that the kingdom of Benin dates back to prehistoric times, however it wasnít until around the 14th century that its monarchy was established. In the late 13th century, the Portuguese made contact with the costal regions of the kingdom as they sought a way around inland routes in search of gold. This contact was the beginning of a trade relationship with the Portuguese that lasted nearly 400 years. The Benin people traded pepper, ivory, leopard skins, slaves and works of art in exchange for military protection, coral, cloth and brass ingots, the last of which are believed to have encouraged the development of brass casting that was a primary medium of Benin artistic expression. The kingdom reached its artistic splendor in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Despite wars with neighboring tribes, the Benin kingdom enjoyed a powerful existence in the region for nearly 600 years until it was seized by the British in retribution for the ambush of a delegation of envoys who were attempting to expand trade in the region. Close to three thousand splendid works of art were confiscated and found their way to museums and personal collections throughout Europe.

The royal art of Benin consists primarily of objects made for court ceremonies. The king or oba was the head of Benin society and he employed a guild of artisans to produce art to exalt himself, the queen mother, the royal household and army commanders as well as to commemorate important events. Most objects were made of brass, cast using the lost wax technique. About a third of the objects were rectangular brass plaques that were most likely used for decoration or as reminders of court protocol. Ceremonial objects included a large assortment of sculptural heads but also included figures, plaques, bells, rattle staffs, masks and chests. Brass heads were often placed on altars to honor the deceased and served as a means to contact the spirit of the deceased. The bells and rattle staffs were used to call forth the spirit of the deceased. Bells were typically shaped like four-sided pyramids and were often decorated with detailed scenes in relief.

A variety of symbols characterized the art of Benin. Most significant of these symbols was the leopard; it was a symbol of the oba and could only be used by him. The cockerel symbolized the queen mother who occupied a special place in the court. Leaf-shaped weapons, called eben, symbolized royal authority. Mudfish, found in Benin coastal waters, and the python symbolized the kingís authority over land and sea because of their ability to survive both in and out of water. Crocodiles symbolized the ability of the king to punish wrong-doers and a native type of eagle was a symbol of prophesy. Since an oba was considered to be more closely associated with the gods than other humans, he was often portrayed as being taller than other figures. Europeans were easily distinguishable since they were typically portrayed with pointed noses, shoulder-length hair, short beards and rounded hats.

Brass, ivory, wood and coral objects were also used as clothing accessories by court officials. Among them were brass ornaments worn on the hip, chest or waist to indicate the wearerís status. Elaborately decorated armlets were also worn as a symbol of status. Scenes shown on some of the art objects indicate that tunics made of coral beads were also worn by the oba and high-ranking officials. Warriors hung small bells from their necks to intimidate the enemy and to call forth the protection of deceased ancestors.

Perhaps the most striking of the objects of Benin royal art were the brass sculptural heads. Sculptural elements of the heads show symmetrical features, deeply ridged eyelids, sensual lips and carefully modeled facial structure. It is believed that the first brass head was created to honor the great Queen Mother Idia who played a key role in her sonís military endeavors.

Since the Benin believed ivory to be a symbol of purity, prosperity and peace, it was also used extensively in the production of royal art. The oba controlled all trade in ivory and demanded that at least one tusk of all elephants killed by his hunters be surrendered to him. Ivory masks created by the Benin exhibit naturalistic features similar to those seen in the brass heads and are highly detailed. Other objects made of ivory were beakers, spoons, gongs and trumpets. Elephant tusks were sometimes used to adorn brass figures and ivory containers were used to hold small gifts offered to dignitaries and gods.

Although many museums throughout the world have acquired Benin royal art objects, the British Museum in London and the Museum fur Volkerkunde Museum in Vienna house two of the most significant collections today. Although the Benin empire no longer exists, the people currently living in this territory continue to be inspired by the royal art of this kingdom which has become famous the world over.

To see a gallery of some of the works of art of Benin, please click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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