Art history – Benin Art and the change in the European attitude of art display

Cross cultural encounters

Source –

The bronze plaques made by craftsmen in Kingdom of Benin, a strong and military and economic power in the fifteenth century, are considered as stunning and unique form of African art by many anthropologists, art historians and museum curators. It is a form of sculpture, called bas relief, which is otherwise unknown in African art. It is an artifact glorifying Oba, a ruler which had the power of life and death over the kingdom, and his chiefs. As there is no written record about rituals and actions of people of the kingdom it also complements the oral record.  The first appearance of the Portuguese in the African art points on the significant historical point in the history of the Kingdom of Benin, the first cultural and economic encounter between Europeans and the people of Benin – the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century.

As they colonized the coastal regions of Africa, the Kingdom of Benin was a natural attraction. In many parts of Africa, the Portuguese were identified with the gods of the sea since the Europeans arrived by boat and practiced baptizing. The Portuguese developed a mutually advantageous relationship with the Oba based on national mythology. According to a legend held in the kingdom, the Oba drew his power from the sea of god. The Portuguese brought great wealth to Benin, trading brass, copper manillas, cowry shells, coral and glass beads in exchange for slaves, pepper, ivory, stone beads and African cloth. Brass and copper rings called manillas, which we can see on the plate, were brought to Benin by the Portuguese and were used as a form of currency from the late fifteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The Europeans were forced to trade directly with the Oba and therefore paradoxically increased wealth of the Oba and helped him to consolidate his power to form a stronger centralized state. Portuguese presence on the decorations of the king’s palace shows how they were regarded as symbols of the king’s wealth and power, to which their trade contributed so much.

The figure on the plate wears a typical 16th century European costume, with steel helmet, manilla, and he probably carries a flintlock gun. Guns were new to the people of West Africa when the Portuguese arrived. So, Africans traded them from Europeans and learnt to make them for themselves, to help them in their wars against other peoples who still only had hand weapons or bows and arrows.

It is likely, that the art and items from Europe and other parts of the world, e.g. India, influenced the designs and images on the plaques too. For example, the fourfold leaf motive, seen on the plate as a background, reflect a style common in the west at the time. We can not be sure about this as this motive might symbolize the river leaves symbolic of the African sea god Olokun.

Although the art of brass casting in Benin likely originated before the fifteenth century, the influx of the copper and brass manillas brought by the Portuguese fueled a creative outburst of artistry in the sixteenth century. Not only were more plaques made for the Oba and for the export to Europe, but the traditional heads of Obas which decorated the ancestral altar of the ruling Oba became bigger and heavier. The impact of the wealth brought by the Portuguese is evident in the depiction of Portuguese heads straddling a series of extremely large manillas, reflecting the power of the manilla on many plates.

This time is called by many as the ‘Golden age of Benin’ which came to a sudden end when the British conquered Benin in 1897. But that is another story.

Benin Art display in Europe

When I was visiting Paris in summer 2009 I could not resist and had to see an African art collection in the Musée du Quai Branly. This collection includes Benin art amongst the others and to see such an exhibition in flesh was an extraordinary experience.

We know, how Benin art was perceived in Europe when thinking about the timeline. A significant number of artifacts was acquired during the period between the first visit of European in Benin (1485 Joao Afonso d’Aveiro) and mid-19th century – the end of the slave trade period. Another important year – 1897. The year when British soldiers conquered Benin and acquired Benin art displayed in the British Museum. In 1935, there was a first exhibition in New York, showing ‘African Negro Art’. To put it simple, people worldwide started to understand that the ‘African Negro Art’ is not unique just from historical or ethnological point of view bud from the aesthetic point of view.

When thinking about the European attitudes towards the display of Benin art I realised that the current discussion about the non-european art which is undergoing worldwide is the most actual and interesting. Should European countries return artifacts to countries of origin?

Antique works of art from Benin (1900) by A. Pitt-Rivers | Source:
Fig. 336.–Wooden casket in the form of an ox’s head, coated with thin brass riveted on. From the forehead two human hands rise up holding the horns. Along the forehead and along the sides are three lines of single guilloche pattern in repoussé work. The pupils of the eyes are inlaid with a dark substance. It appears to be a box or casket of some kind. A similar box is shown in the hands of the small figure in plaque No. 18, Plate IV. A precisely similar object from Benin is figured by Mr. Ling Roth in “The Studio,” December, 1898, Fig. 18; and there is also another similar in the British Museum, figured in “Antiquities from Benin in the British Museum,” Plate XI, Fig. 9.
Fig. 337.–Half of a bronze circlet or necklet, similar to Fig. 158, Plate XXV; ornamented with two human forms with attenuated bodies and conventional heads, consisting of circles with five circular punch-marks to represent the features, and two other similar heads without bodies. The arms of these two figures are bound together at the wrists. At the feet of these two extended figures are two human heads of negro type, very well executed, and a leopard’s head. It is ornamented in other places by a broad leaf-shaped sword and spirals. This remarkable work of savage art is shown in greater detail in the annexed woodcut.
Fig. 338.–Bronze sword, perhaps an execution sword, but rather too small for that purpose; with wooden grip and pommel. The blade is ornamented on both sides with incised semicircles and curved lines. The cutting edge is on the convex side.
Fig. 339.–Bronze sword, perhaps an execution sword, but rather too small for that purpose; ornamented with incised semicircles, like Fig. 338, and chevrons filled with parallel incised lines. The grip ornamented with parallel incised bands in imitation of binding. The blade is also ornamented with peculiar incised scrolls and circular punch-marks, and diamond forms.
Fig. 340.–Bronze pin, ornamented with four conventionalized birds. Inlaid in various places with red agate, and ornamented with circular punch-marks.
Fig. 341.–Bronze bell or sistrum, with small bell attached; both ornamented with an incised lozenge-shaped pattern. A similar double bell, from Yoruba, is figured by Mr. Ling Roth in “The Reliquary,” 1898, p. 165.
Fig. 342.–Bronze figure of boy, with the palms of the hands erect and open, as if denying having stolen anything. Serpent, head downwards, on forehead. Three incised tribal marks over each eye. Coral necklace.
Figs. 343 and 344.–Human mask, of bronze. The pupils of the eyes inlaid with iron.
Fig. 345.–Bronze leopard, tail deficient; total height, 15-1/4 inches. One of the hind legs broken off and repaired by natives with a piece of ivory. The leopard is covered with incised spots and small punch-marks all over. The pupils of
the eyes are inlaid with iron.

The general impression I got from the Musée du Quai Branly is the establishment of which had been seen by some as the victory of the French art establishment over the ethnologists and colonial historians. The aesthetic view point prevailed over ethnological presentation and historical depth. To start with, most of the materials and objects relating to life at the Benin Royal court. The videos and pictures which explained the process and creation of bronze objects and the artists at work were not present. The newspaper cuttings and photos showing Oba Ovonramwen under British custody, on a British ship on his way to exile as well as the photo showing British soldiers of the Punitive Expedition with stolen bronze and ivory art objects were not present as well. Most of the material objects relating to rituals and religion, including big altars, were also left out. Some small altars are included.
The Exhibition in Paris, city of light, were fully lighted, in white panels in a room with white walls. The display is just what you will see in any modern art museum or gallery. There is very little reminding the visitor of daily life in an African society. The viewer’s attention is absolutely focused on the beauty of the objects and the craftsmanship that went into their making.
Is the stress on the aesthetic aspects of Benin art a way of avoiding the issue of restitution which could arise when the viewer has more information on the sources and methods of acquisition of these objects as well as their functions and their deeper philosophical, religious or symbolic meaning?
Perhaps the curators did not want to relive some of the birth pangs of the Musée du Quai Branly nor the discussions on restitution that accompanied the similar exhibition of Benin art at Vienna. It is noticeable that there was no discussion in the Musée du Quai Branly about the issue of restitution. One can
understand the director of the Musée du Quai Branly and his staff for not wanting to discuss the issue since this museum has over 350,000 objects most of which are of inferior origin. But that is the paradox. One of the functions President Chirac assigned to the museum on its opening was to be a place of dialogue between the diverse cultures:
“But it is much more than a museum. By multiplying viewpoints, the venue’s ambition is to render the depth and complexity of the arts and civilizations of all those continents. In doing so, it seeks to encourage a different-more open and respectful-view in the broadest possible audience, by dispelling the mists of ignorance, condescension and arrogance that were often found in the past and bred mistrust, scorn and rejection
It does not appear that the objective mentioned above is being fulfilled when the issue of restitution which interests most African States and the people of Benin, is not mentioned or discussed when the Benin artefacts are being shown in the Musée du Quai Branly.

The view will change and will develop even further. It will be interesting to follow the discussion and the results. One example for thoughts at the end. Italy returned Aksum obelisk to Ethiopia. It was stolen from the country by Benito Mussolini during the World War 2.