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The Art Beat of Benin

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BY PATIENCE SADUWA (28-07-2015)

The street looks ordinary at a cursory glance. To the left is a bar with a thatched roof and flashy, neon lights. On both sides of the street are low, squat, nondescript buildings with old, rusted roofs, the type prevalent in the ancient city. The street's unremarkable exterior however belies the fact that it is one of the most famous addresses in the city, with its international repute sealed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In fact, at the street's entrance from the Sapkonba Road axis is a brown painted arch with the sign, ‘Guild of Benin Bronze casters, World Heritage Site' which proclaims to all, its international status and uniqueness.

This street, known as Igun is the hub of bronze casting in Benin City, Edo State (which has as its slogan Heart beat of the Nation). It is run by an ancient guild that is so secretive and exclusive that outsiders have found virtually impossible to penetrate in the hundreds of years it has existed. All members of the guild are related by a common ancestry and descended from one Chief Inneh, the custodian of the street and the bronze casters.

The buildings here might look old and even rundown on the outside but inside is a different story entirely. Filled with artistic treasures of priceless value, they beckon on all, art connoisseurs especially to savour all the beauties on offer and possibly buy some for keeps. The street attracts visitors from far and wide, who come not only to view the works on display but also see the famous street generally regarded as the art centre of the city.

So, how did this unique street, devoted entirely to bronze casting and the arts come into existence?

Old Igun

There are different versions as to the origins of the street and the art of bronze casting in the old Benin Kingdom. While many historians trace its beginning to the reign of Oba Ozolua at about 1270 AD, some art experts believe it was Oba Eweka 1 who introduced bronze casting to Benin. Among these is Felix Ohenhen, manager of Idubor Gallery, Benin City.

"It was when Oba Eweka went to Portugal that he learnt bronze casting," Ohenhen said. "On the Oba's return, he began casting bronze but it was restricted to the palace. "Later, when the white men started visiting the kingdom, they loved the bronze artworks they saw and started buying them. When the Oba saw how popular the bronze was, he now looked for someone he could entrust the work to and that was how he gave it to Chief Inneh, restricting it to his family alone."

But to Mike Eholor, the financial secretary of the guild, bronze casting started in Benin much earlier. He said, "Bronze casting was in existence during the reign of the Ogisos, the first royal dynasty. It was after the Ogisos that we now have the Obas." He also debunked the view that the Binis learnt the craft from the Yorubas. "It's not true that the Binis learnt bronze casting from the Yorubas. It's obvious that they were more educated, they had more Western education than us so they were writing all sorts of things on it. If they are saying that they taught us, then let them bring their work," he said

Whatever its origins, bronze casting has brought the Binis plenty of prestige and recognition. "There is no doubt about it, bronze casting has helped to keep our heritage and it's the pride of the Binis. This is what we are known for so it's a way of preserving our heritage," said John Emuze, another artisan on the street.

Aladin's cave

Going round some of the galleries on the street, one can understand the importance of this art form to the people. Most are stocked with intricately crafted artworks of varying shapes and sizes. Looking at the bronze carvings with their distinctive soft, yellowish colour, one could not help but feel that one has stepped into the mythical Aladin's cave. At the Emuze Gallery owned by Emuze, the shelves are filled with all kinds of bronze art pieces that show the craftsmanship of the artist as well as his attention to the minutest detail.

Many are of royal personages both of the past and the present with interesting stories about their lives and exploits. On the verandah outside was the figure of Oba Ozolua the Great (who reigned in the Middle Ages) in full royal regalia. A warlord and a very great warrior, this Oba was said to have fought so many dukes around the kingdom who tried to wage war against Benin. "Every morning, he will pray and pray that there should be war, a very big war so that he will fight and fight and fight. He loved to fight so much," Eholor said.

Taking pride of place is the image of Queen Idia, a female warrior and the mother of Oba Esigie who became famous when an ivory mask of her face was adopted as the symbol of FESTAC 77. The original artwork was taken away by the British during the invasion of Benin in 1897. There is also the figure of one of the wives of Oba Ewakpe who reigned at about 1700. Hers is a sad but inspiring story of sacrifice, love and redemption.

Photography of the ancients

On the preponderance of artworks on royalty, Emuze said: "In those days, these bronze artworks were done to mark or commemorate an event in the palace. When an important event is happening in the palace, we will be invited and we will go and cover it.

"In those days, there were no photographers or journalists to record what is happening. So, it was the artworks that were used to mark such events for posterity. Besides, the truth of the matter is that before this time, we were all workers for the Oba. He owns us, the bronze and everything we are doing and he is in fact our patron. In the past, the casters worked exclusively for the Oba and no-one else. It's now that we are free to work for other people besides the palace."

Threat to a great heritage

Though this ancient craft passed from father to son, from generation to generation continues today, there are fears for its future. A source close to the guild said, "Some of the artists are no longer working because of the hard nature of the job and also the difficulty in sourcing raw materials."

Eholor agrees: "The work is very tedious. Any work that involves fire, you have to be very careful and alert. For you to melt iron to liquid, you know the fire must be very, very hot. There are people who source for the materials like scraps that we use for our work. They sell it to us at a very high price and it's affecting us badly."

For Emuze who is over 60 and has been casting since childhood, he's ready to continue casting till his dying day. "The work is a nice work, I enjoy it. The only thing is that, the job takes time to do. It's not a day's job; from melting the bronze to blowing the bellows and the casting, it's a long process. This job has taken me to so many countries like Turkey, South Africa and Austria among others."

Besides the joy he derives from the work, despite the problems, Eholor is also happy about the prestige attached to the street and by extension the guild.

"Those of us on this street can beat our chest and say that there is no top personality that comes to Benin City that doesn't visit Igun Street. It has become a tourist centre. It's a thing of joy and pride to us. We have shaken hands with so many VIPs who have visited this street. One thing about this street is that no matter how educated you are or your status in the society, you will always want to do this work. You will always find time, maybe in your spare time to come and do the work. It's part of our lives," said the Fine and Applied Arts graduate of the Auchi Polytechnic.

With artisans like Eholor, perhaps this old craft might survive for many centuries to come and help this street retain its reputation as the art beat of Benin.

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