LOOTED BENIN BRONZES
A selection of Benin Bronzes and the story behind them
Examples can be found in the National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museum of the Five Ccontinents, the former Museum Fur Volkerkunde in Munich, the Museum Pitt Rivers in Oxford, Etnografiska Museet in Stockholm and the Museum of African Art Belgrade
The Cockerel is a recurring subject amongst the Benin Bronzes. The skill used to produce these artefacts were exceptional and unique for their time.
The roosters that appear on the royal ancestral altars refer to the crown prince of Benin, the Edaiken of Uselu. He occupies a domain outside the capital itself (separated from his biological mother, who, as long as she is still alive, stays in the palace harem). And, if the Iyoba, his grandmother, is alive, he lives in another palace, in a separate domain in Uselu. The Crown Prince will reside in Uselu until the time has come for him to begin annual rituals for his father, before ascending the throne in the city of Benin. Like the young rooster, the Edaiken wins over the others as crown prince, and he acts in the name of the Oba during his lifetime. As a result, the cock in precious bronze naturally illustrates his pride and self-confidence. The use of this long-lived metal was traditionally reserved for the royal family. For family altars, the chiefs of the Oba were entitled to carved wood fowl and ancestral wooden heads. The bronze cocks like this adorn only the ancestral altars of the Oba and his mother.
Reference : Collectif (2007). Bénin cinq siècles d'art royal. Editions snoeck, 398-399 pp.
Photograph: Chris Loades/AFP via Getty Images
PORTRAIT OF IYOBA
Found in the Metropolitan Museum New York
This ivory pendant mask is one of a pair of nearly identical works; its counterpart is in the British Museum in London. Although images of women are rare in Benin's courtly tradition, these two works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day. The pendant mask is believed to have been produced in the early sixteenth century for the King or ObaEsigie, the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The oba may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification.
In Benin, ivory is related to the color white, a symbol of ritual purity that is associated with Olokun, god of the sea. As the source of extraordinary wealth and fertility, Olokun is the spiritual counterpart of the oba. Ivory is central to the constellation of symbols surrounding Olokun and the oba. Not only is it white, but it is itself Benin's principle commercial commodity and it helped attract the Portuguese traders who also brought wealth to Benin.
The mask is a sensitive, idealized portrait, depicting its subject with softly modeled features, bearing inlaid metal and carved scarification marks on the forehead, and wearing bands of coral beads below the chin. In the openwork tiara and collar are carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese. Because they live both on land and in the water, mudfish represent the king's dual nature as human and divine. Having come from across the seas, the Portuguese were considered denizens of the spirit realm who brought wealth and power to the oba.
TWO COURT DWARFS
Found in the Welt Museum Vienna
The two worldwide unparalleled figures are among the earliest artworks from the Benin Kingdom. Thanks to their true-to-life naturalism, they are considered exquisite examples of the early style of court art. They were probably once placed on a royal ancestral altar. As court dwarfs are not part of the standard inventory of such shrines, we may assume that these examples depict two historic individuals who had played an important role during the reign of a 15th century ruler. Dwarfs have been recorded at the royal court in Benin ever since this time. Their local name translates as “trumpet”, a reference to their seminal role as the voice of the king. Their attribute, a fan, is still used by a court dwarf to initiate palace ceremonies with a formal salutation of the king.