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IVORY CARVING IN BENIN

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(Last update 30-08-2018)

In Ogiso Dynasty, Elephants played a leading role, both in economy, political and warfare. So much so that Ere about (16 A.D-66 A.D.) established a camp and called it Oregbeni, and lgbesanmwan Quarters in Benin Carvers. They carved tusk, wood and other things for the Ogiso and the recent Obas Ore-Ogbeni means elephant killer’s ‘village.

It was only in 1897 when the British Government sent a punitive expedition to Benin for military retaliation for the ambush of Philips party on trade mission to Benin City, that the arts of the ancient kingdom was made known to the whole world.

Numerous art objects including thousands of carved elephant tusks were taken to Britain and eventually dispersed throughout the World This art has sold Benin to the world as one of the greatest artistic race in the universe. Today, these art works are found in museums in Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Russian, Austria, Switzerland and many other nations which were fashioned by Edo artists living along lgbesanmwan Street, Benin City.
The high degree of technical control on carving and casting and the sensitivity of Benin designers have brought their international recognition to Nigeria. Paradoxically therefore, the loss of these treasure has made the whole world to focus attention on the study of the Benin’s artistic excellence and her culture.

Some of the ivories found in the museum of the world today are more than 120 of them. There are the side blown horns (Oko) for the native doctors and some others as musical instruments, double bells for Emobo ceremony, ivory horsemen for Ugioro, Ivory waist plagues. and armlets, bangles, rings , etc. The tusk varies in sizes shape, colour condition age and in patterns on their surfaces.

Hunting elephants in Benin forests was under the strict control of the Oba of Benin since the period of Ere 16 A.D, the second Ogiso. Ogiso Ere so loved the tusk that he made the people in Oregbeni - elephant killer’s village to train young elephants tht were used for carrying heavy logs, lroko that were used in carving doors for the Oba or Ogiso in those days. We also remember that Ogiso Odoligie (712 - 767 A.D.) used elephants to Cross River Ovia on raft to defeat the city of Udo Ethnographers are now studying most of the motifs in theĀ  tusks so as to know the phonetic meanings of the designer whether it is a form of pictographic writing which one thinks they are, and to know when they might have been carved.

Among those who have attempted this study, foreign writer of course are Annemerie Schweeger - Hefel. D.O Olderogge Kathleen Nau and Philip Dark. Other writers on Benin materials are Professor Frank Willet, Anold Rubin, Merrick Posnansky, William Fag, Paula Ben Amos, R.L. Bradbury, and Ekpo Eyo. They have done much about the ivories of Benin. However, Prof. Bahara Blackmun funded by the Dickson History of Art Travel Grants on tusks, has written much than others. I was her interpreter during the period of her studies here in Benin in 1978

The designer or motifs found in the tusks were all complex. They contained figures with mudfish legs, Probably Oba Ohen (1334) foreign figures, warriors, musicians, women, animals, birds, and fish. and inanimate objects. No doubt, the motifs explained so far showed details about rituals, songs regalia of the Oba and the chiefs,

The study has shown that almost every tusk was made during the reign of a particular Oba those that were made during the reign of Oba Akenzua II were easily read because some of the artists were still available. But those made during Oba Eweka I or during Ogisa era are not yet discernible.

They are difficult to read and we cannot assign any Ogiso to them. It may be difficult to found any of the tusks used by the Ogiso. All we are saying is that tusk carving started during Ogiso periods and that elephants were trained and used by the Binis in olden days even for war than labour.

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