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Benin: Citadel Of Bronze Casting

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By George Okojie (11-07-2016)

With its rich cultural heritage widely acknowledged to be fascinating, glamorous and attractive, the ancient city of Benin stands out as an epitome of beautiful bronze making. GEORGE OKOJIE reports. 

Long before the roar of commuter traffic begins and thousands of workers start trudging from different parts of the city to offices, factories and markets in the commercial zones of Benin, the Edo State Capital, normal daily activities have started in Igun Street, Benin City, a bastion of history where bronze casters throw open the doors to their galleries.

Any visitor to the ancient town of Benin, that fails to visit Igun Street, made popular by masterpieces of various shapes and sizes of artifacts, made from bronze, may have to repeat such a visit to the hub of bronze casting in Edo and beyond, to truly be abreast of the town’s cultural heritage.

The art is so important that both nationally and internationally, there is no museum or exhibition of Art Work that one will not find their Bronze artifact.

As one moves down the paved road, the bronze casters display their creations for sale in galleries that line both sides of the street. Obviously, it is a place of business where craftsmen and artists create art and make a living from it.

Though there are different versions on the origin of the famous street and the art of bronze casting in Benin, what cannot be disputed is the fact that the cultural heritage has been transferred from generation to generation and the society has continued to cherish the culture.

History has it that Igun, the traditional name for metal fabrication, is historically believed to have originated from an ancient immigrant bronze smith called, Ugiokha, in the palace of the Oba of Benin.

Historians, in their various accounts of the Benin Kingdom, claimed that Ugiokha was of Egyptian origin, while some simply argued that he was a Sudanese.

The paramount ruler of the ancient city at that time was said to have granted him refuge, following his display of craftsmanship in sculpturing, which later became a method of documentation for the Benin Empire.

As a reward for meritorious service in the palace that spanned for decades, the then Oba was said to have rewarded Ugiokha with a location within the reach of the palace to settle down and preserve the art of bronze casting for the palace and posterity.

Though it is neither here nor there, historians at one point or the other, wrote that the art started during the reign of Oba Ozolua, around 1270 AD, while others link it to the reign of Oba Eweka I.

Whichever way, what cannot be taken away is the fact that the location became what is today known as Igun Street, in Benin City.

Osahon Uzzi, a bronze caster, told LEADERSHIP FRIDAY in his workshop that the knowledge and gift of bronze casting is given by God to their fathers and is usually transferred to their sons as the trade was the only school under gone by the male children in those days, affirming the gift cannot be transferred to non-members of the generation.

“The greatest threat to this trade, I must tell you, is the fact that the efforts committed to producing the artifacts are not commensurate to the money one makes from it. That is why as soon as these younger ones, who are well educated, get better jobs or have the means to travel overseas for greener pastures, they leave us in Igun Street.’’

“Poverty is gradually discouraging people from the art of bronze casting. This is one of the reasons why bronze casting is no longer appealing and you cannot force anybody that wants to move to other climes, where he feels he can prosper, to stay in a trade not meeting his dream of better life.

“But for some of us, we don’t look at the art like that. It goes beyond money, that is why we are still here doing the work. I have travelled so many times, I only visit and come back. Bronze casting is my first love and that is why we are doing everything to protect the art which our forefathers handed down to us. It will not be lost in my generation. We will try our best to pass it to the next generation.”

Taking his time to explain the process of bronze casting that attracts teeming tourists to the town, he said what it entails to make a bronze or brass art work is for the bronze casters to get red sand, as a primary component, and turn it into mud, mixing with it the right amount of water.

He said red sand, which is then shaped into the image intended to be cast and this initial mould is called the coil, abounds in Benin, adding that the coil is left to dry and bees wax is used to cover the coil.

“This wax is shaped into what is intended to be cast. Red mud is used to cover the wax form, a runner, through which the liquid hot bronze will pass, is attached and left to dry. By the time the outside covering of mud dries, a copper wire it wrapped around it to keep it firm through the firing process.

“What we do next is to cover the wire up with more mud so that it will not melt when in the fire and therefore lose its purpose of keeping the contraption firm. We allow it to get dry one more time, after which it is put in the fire that gets to be heated a for long period of time because the wax must be melted totally to make firm the mould that will receive the bronze. It also enables the wax to melt out and leave the mould hollow for the ongoing process.”

Uzzi added that the brass or bronze is further melted to a very light liquid like kerosene, over charcoal heat, before the red mud mould is taken out of the fire and the melted brass or bronze is poured in through the runner. It will take the shape of the wax.

“By the time it cools down we then break the mould, remove the work, dress and clean it. First of all, the mould will be taken off, followed by the coil, which is removed. That is why you see that art works, made of bronze are hollow, it is due to the processing,” he said.

Owen Osazuwa , another bronze caster, who claimed to have put in over twenty five years in bronze casting, said, the Benin bronze cast is unique, saying the cast community is regulated by a body known as the Guild of Benin Bronze Casters , saying the art and trade of bronze is not open to outsiders because it is their birth right.

“Our forefathers passed down the skill to us and we can only teach our offspring, not outsiders at all. We don’t take them as our apprentice, they can be art collectors but the bronze casters originally own the trade and those are people from our lineage.’’

He said their business thrives on special requests and patronage, saying the prices vary with the buyers.

“Some people come and request for a special art work for a special purpose and we charge them high for that. The size of sculptor needed also determines what we charge. Most of the time, we make a lot of designs for our galleries, for people who want to buy on the chef.”

Osazuwa lamented that the neglect of both State and Federal Governments, may dampen the attention and economic prosperity of the trade.

According to him, nothing is being done by the government to help them promote the trade to attract more tourists to the location and in turn boost the economy of the country, adding that their art workshops and galleries are housed in dilapidated mud houses and rickety rooftops.

He urged the Edo State government to help them promote the art of bronze casting, doing that will further help to project the image of the state and enhance the dwindling fortunes of their trade.

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