Bronzes of Benin: Interesting Facts about the Benin Bronzes

Ever wondered why Benin art pieces are called Benin Bronzes? Do you wish to know how and when the Benin Bronzes were carted away to Europe? Read on. This articles explains these and more.

Benin bronzes

What are Benin Bronzes?

Benin was unarguably the center of African civilizations before the Portuguese exploration of the continent that resulted in the discovery of African riches, not excluding its Bronze arts. What is known as Bronzes of Benin is a collection of iron plaques, sculptures, and masks used mainly to decorate the palace of Oba, the king of Bini, and its ancestral altars. 

The Benin Bronze sculptures, plaques, and masks serve different purposes. Some have an artistic, religious, and political undertone.

The Bronzes of Benin are in different shapes; some date back to the 13th century, while the rest date back to the 15th century. The Benin arts are generally referred to as the “Bronzes of Benin” even though they are made of different materials. A few are made from a mixture of brass and bronze, whereas some are carved from wood, ceramic, and ivory.

The Benin Bronze arts are made to elevate the Oba and the kingdom’s titleholders. Every new Oba orders the craftsmen to make a Bronze head for the deceased Oba and the Queen’s mother. The arts are hung on the walls of Oba’s palace for beautification and the ancestral altars for ritual purposes. Due to the scarcity of raw art materials, Oba — the divine king of the Bini Kingdom — monopolized the trade of materials.

Bini Kingdom

The Benin Kingdom was a strong city-state in the lower Niger area before the incursion of European traders into Sub-Saharan Africa. The Benin Kingdom thrived and was a cradle of African civilization before their contact with the Portuguese traders in the 15th century. Their contact with the Portuguese had a huge effect on their arts to the extent that some scholars argue that they learned metallurgy from the Europeans, which is false. 

Before the coming of the Portuguese, metal work had been ongoing in Igbo land, which later spread to other parts of the lower Niger area.

The Bini Kingdom is present-day Edo State, Nigeria. The Oba of Bini wielded much power in the riverine area before the 1897 Expedition by the British forces. The 1897 Expedition saw the Oba’s divine power reduced and eventually exiled to Calabar.

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What led to the Benin Expedition 1897

The Oba of Bini was a powerful king before the punitive expedition of 1897. He was exiled and reduced to a figurehead afterward. 

The European powers set to colonize Africa after the 1884-85 Berlin Conference. Nigeria was assigned to Britain, but several independent kingdoms like the Benin Kingdom were making it hard to colonize. So to smoothen the British’s road to Nigeria, these ancient organized kingdoms had to be reduced to nothing. Their kings and system of government had to be destroyed. 

In 1897, some British soldiers left Warri for Benin in the hope to dethrone the divine Oba. Before then, they had already informed the Oba about their coming, but he told them to postpone the visit because rituals were ongoing and strangers would not be entertained in the palace. However, they ignored the warning and went ahead with their secret plan to invade the Oba’s palace.

The soldiers were ambushed close to the Oba’s palace. Only two out of the six gun-wielding soldiers survived the ambush, so they reported the incident to London.

Consequently, the British soldiers returned prepared and bombarded the Bini’s palace. 

Several of the Bronzes of Benin were stolen as they were declared war booty. The Benin Bronzes in different shapes like Ọkụkọ, Leopard figurines, bells, King heads, and sculptures of Benin’s queen mother were all stolen and stored in the British museums and other museums in Europe.

British Museums are the major holders of the Benin Bronze, although a handful of them are scattered in other museums across Europe. Moreover, the Benin artworks were looted by soldiers who declared them “war booty”, so several of the Benin art pieces ended up in private houses. 

There had been a movement right from the time the arts were stolen from the Oba’s palace, demanding the return of the stolen Benin Bronzes and other Bronzes of African origin. The holders have shown resistance by saying the arts are safer in Europe. However, a museum for the storage of the art has been erected in Benin City, Edo State. The demand for the repatriation of the stolen Bronzes of Benin is seemingly gaining ground as many research centers are considering returning the arts to the original owners. In 2021, a university in Scotland returned an art of Benin origin.

What arts Influenced Benin’s art?

Bronzes of Benin are no doubt the most naturalistic of African Bronzes. African arts having high value in the international market is a result of the discovery of Benin arts. However, Benin art has an external Influence. Before the Benin arts, metal artworks had been going on in the Igbo Ukwu area, where they spread to Benin and Ile Ife. 

The Igbo Ukwu arts date back to the 9th century, far other than the Benin arts. According to archeological research, the Kingdom of Benin learned the skill of metallurgy from Igbo Ukwu and not from the Portuguese traders.

The Benin Bronze Head is the sculptural representation of the Oba of Benin. Every new Oba orders his artistic guilds to make sculptures for the deceased Oba and mother queen.

What’s the significance of the Bronzes of Benin?

Benin arts changed how Africans are viewed by outsiders. Before the discovery of Benin Bronzes, there was a widespread belief that Africans were primitive and had no art or organized system of government. The Benin Bronze arts helped to change the narrative. They couldn’t believe such perceived primitive people would make such stunning structures.

How much is Bronze of Benin worth?

Much attention wasn’t paid to African arts until the middle of the 20th century. The way African art was perceived began to witness a change after the Pompidou Exhibition. In 1957, a Benin Bronze Head was sold in auction for €5,500. At the time, no one had an interest in arts of African origin, but that changed within five decades. Forward to 2007, the same Benin Bronze Head was sold in auction for $4.7 million.


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