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A voyage around Benin, home of arts, culture

(Last Update May 22, 2021)

Why Art Thrives in Ancient City

Benin Kingdom, located in the thick equatorial rain forest zone of present-day southern Nigeria, with its rich vegetation, which supports agriculture and provides most materials for craft industries, is one of the oldest and powerful kingdoms of the forest region of West Africa, dating back to the 11th century.

Benin City, the metropolitan headquarters of the former Benin Kingdom, is now the administrative headquarters of Edo State of Nigeria. It has now been constituted into seven council areas of Edo State namely: Egor, Ikpoba-Okha, Oredo, Orhionmwon, Ovia East, Ovia West and Uhunmwode.

Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era.

According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.”

Pearce also wrote: These walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet.”

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

When the Portuguese first ‘discovered’ the city, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle.

They called it the ‘Great City of Benin’ at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.

In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain, Lourenco Pinto, observed, “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”

In contrast, London, at the same time, was described by Bruce Holsinger, professor of English at the University of Virginia, as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket.”

At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium — the square basin in the centre of the atrium of an ancient house, which received rainwater from an opening in the roof.

Houses were built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other wrote the 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper.

“Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected,” Dapper said.

The historical city of Benin, Edo State, was widely known for its art — Bronze plaques and sculptures. The Bronzes, which were looted during the British punitive expedition of 1897, are now available in museum collections in Britain, Europe and America. The ‘power-drunk’ invaders pillaged the town, and then exiled the king and finally deposing him.

The British took hundreds—or perhaps thousands—of artworks, though by no means all of them. Some of the seized Benin works were accessioned by the British Museum; many more were sold at public auctions in 1898, in part to pay for the costs of the so-called “punitive expedition” to Benin City. The British had no trouble finding buyers for the bronzes.

Despite this historical tragedy, the Benin Bronzes have played a significant role in developing a greater appreciation for African art and culture across the world.

Due to the collecting habits of museums in Europe and North America, the most common objects associated with the Benin bronzes are plaques and commemorative head sculptures.
When these objects hit the market, people were shocked that there was such incredibly fine, finely made, high-quality bronze and ivory work coming out of Africa.

At the time, the Benin bronzes were unlike any African artworks and artifacts that Europeans were familiar with—such as elaborate Yoruba headdresses, tunics, and other regalia—both aesthetically and as records of a powerful and advanced kingdom.
In the ensuing decades—from Oba Ovonramwen’s exile in 1897 up to the resumption of Benin’s second dynasty with the enthronement of his son, Oba Eweka II, in 1914—works trickled out of Benin and onto the market.

Many of today’s major collections in Europe were assembled from the British auctions of 1898. Other Benin works, including some of those in U.S. museums, come from the 1970s, when the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in England was sold off.

Art, in ancient and present-day Benin, is a way of life, an instrument used in articulating the peoples’ values, vision and voice. There is abundant evidence from literature and historical accounts, which showed remarkable stability of artistic production.

In performing arts, drama group are mostly located in Benin City with the Edo Cultural Groups, Uyi Edo Theater Group, Earth Pot Cultural Group Ova Theatre Group, Inneh Troupe, Ebohon Cultural Troupe featuring prominently.

The Oba Akenzua ll Cultural Centre, Benin City is the hub of cultural activities in the state. A fine architectural masterpiece with beautiful murals of Edo traditional motifs, the centre is complemented by Urhokpota Hall, which is close by on Ring Road. These two theatres have hosted performances symposia and exhibitions. Edo filmmakers are coming out with a more dynamic and interesting home movies both in English and Edo language.

Highly conscious of their heritage, the locals in Benin never miss an opportunity to promote and talk about their art and culture, either in informal conversation — over beer and pepper soup — or through formal expression at workshops, seminars, symposia and interpretations in art forms such as music, drama, visual and literature.

Most of the sculptural pieces showcase the rich visual art of the Benin people from pre-colonial times, when the empire was at its peak, to the contemporary time, works that are executed in diverse media like bronze, brass, wood and concrete.

The Omo N’Oba is seen as a quintessential icon of royalty and splendour.

“Today,” as one cultural/art historian puts it, “even though the ancient glories of Benin kingdom are no more, the Oba still commands tremendous love, awe, reverence, authority, power and influence in Edo land.

At every ceremony, expect people to turn out in large numbers in ceremonial wear and beads showcasing their elegant tradition.

As the custodian of Benin culture, the oba aligned artistic production with cultural values and communal idiosyncrasies.

When Benin City was invaded by a band of invaders, in the guise of protecting the integrity of the British crown, thousands of priceless artefacts were rustled and some others came under threat. What remained were the public art, the sculptures that have become the image of the once glorious kingdom.

At this year’s National Festival for Arts and Culture (NAFEST) held in Edo State, Omo N’Oba N’edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, revealed the royal splendor associated with the Benin culture and people’s love for the arts. It was a fortuitous event, because NAFEST was holding just as the Oba of Benin was celebrating the anniversary of his enthronement.

His Royal Academy of Performing Art was very conspicuous at the event, ushering artistic production that befits a royal signature.

The academy presented a dance performance entitled, Idia N’Iyesigie, the Benin warrior queen written and choreographed by Abbé Josephine Ebiuwa.

Moving around the city, you’ll be struck by its widely known sculptures, many of which were placed on major roads, in beautifully designed gates, and in homes and hotels. The integration of these art-objects into the city’s visual-scape reaffirmed the strong sense of Benin identity expressed by its people.

From John Danford’s bronze of Emotan (1954) to Greg Agbonkonkon’s Heritage, concrete (1993), the history of the kingdom resonates in colourful images. The pieces tell the story of Benin.

Oba Akenzua II, fibreglass, 2000, by Victor Uwaifo finds the oba in his royal stool at the Oba Akenzua II Cultural Centre. There is also the image of oba in session by David Omonhimin, concrete, which is located at the Edo State House of Assembly.

Consul Phillips, fibreglass, a Benin centenary collection, 1997, also reminds a visitor to the bitter history of the kingdom, when there was a punitive expedition.

Chief Obaseki, fibreglass, 1997, by Omodiamwen, which is part of the Benin Centenary Collection also, stands striking at the stand. The Benin massacre of 1897 also resonate in Asoro — the chief, who refused to reveal the secret of Benin to the British — concrete, 1988, by Belli Kuranga, that is located on Sakponba junction.

Also is Chief Ologbosere, fibreglass, 1997 by Leo Oransanye, which is located in Benin Centenary. Harry Galwell, fibreglass, 1997, is equally located in Benin Centenary. Leo Oransanye also has Oba Ozolua with his Emuada and (sword bearer), concrete.

Oba Square ‘N’ Ogidigan with Ossan and Osuan, concrete by Leo Oransanye, Oba isigie receiving Alphonso D’ Avienro, concrete, 2009, by Leo Oransanye, and Muen Muen,concrete, by Lawrence Omoregie, in Third Junction. Lawrence Omoregie also has Oba’s daughter, fibreglass, 1997, a part of Centenary collection.

Oba Ovonramwen, brass, is equally on the show, as well as his trial by Victor Uwaifo, titled, Trial of Oba Ovonramwen, fibreglass, 1997.

Art in Benin, for Prof. Peju Layiwola, an artist and teacher, is a habit both at home and in school. The visual art teacher says her childhood in Benin City stoke the fire of being an artist.

The artist once told the media that she spent time there as a young girl, and was fortunate to see the city as a gallery: “People producing arts, all along the roads, on the streets; everywhere and you begin to know that this is a city of Art. On Mission Road, in all the streets we passed while on our way to school every day, you saw arts everywhere. So, that was much etched in my consciousness as a young girl growing up in the city. Having grown up in the city under the influence of my mother who is also an artist, it became easier for me.”

Professor Efemena Ononome of the University of Benin said, “People didn’t relate with the public sculptures,”adding, “but they’re now relatable. NCAC decided to display them for ease of identification for posterity. All these sculptures were public sculptures in Benin City.”
Ring Road, Benin City, otherwise referred to as Kings Square or Oba Ovoranmen Square, located in the heart of the capital, is where you will get a feel of ‘art in Benin’.

All roads leading to Benin City from the east, west, north or south terminated on the road. Some of the roads were part of the nine ancient roads that led to Benin when it was capital of the ancient Benin Kingdom.

Right at the middle of the location is the Benin City National Museum. The Edo State Assembly is also located on Ring Road. The Palace of the Oba of Benin is just a stone throw from Ring Road.

Igun Street, a stone throw from Ring road roundabout where the Benin National Museum is located, has well-established bronze and artefact shops that boast the best of Bini culture.

The area also referred to as ‘Benin Heritage site’, plays host to hundreds of locals and foreign customers. The street is known for bronze casting with a combination of other forms of art ranging from sculpture to fibre pieces.

The street from afar looks like any other street with clay houses with their signature rusted zinc roofs, which is quintessential Benin City. The arch at the entrance way has ‘Guild Of Benin Bronze Casters World Heritage Site’, written on it.

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.

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.

But 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.

When I Emuze Art Gallery, I discovered a craft lineage spanning up to the fourth generation. Abieyuwa, one of Pa Emuze, the managing director of the gallery’s children, said he learnt the trade from his father, whom, he said, also learnt it from his. “It is handed down from generation to generation,” Abieyuwa said.

“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.’’

The craft guilds (otu) enhanced the wellbeing of the Oba by ensuring that some of his specific needs; materials or otherwise, were met in return for monopoly rights in their respective trades.

The craft guilds developed to the extent that its products and activities adequately responded to all aspects of the Oba’s needs. There is, therefore, no aspect of the Oba’s needs that was not effectively catered for by the craft guilds; being it social, political and economic.

In all, there were about 68 guilds that existed in Benin. However, about 12 of these guilds produced works of arts and were, therefore, the most prominent and lucrative.

Consequently, there emerged the guild of wood workers (Owina), ivory and woodcarvers (Igbesanmwan), weavers (Owina N’do), pot makers (Emakhe), the leather workers (Isohian), elephant hunters (Ogbeni). Also there were guilds of cattle keepers (Iriamila), bronze casters (Igun Eromwon), physicians/diviners (Ebo/Ewaise), dancers (Ogbelaka), town criers (Avbigbe), priests and keepers of the shrines of the royal ancestors, court chroniclers (Ihogbe) collectors of river taxes (Iwowa), bodyguard of the Oba (Isienwenro), among others.

The blacksmiths were organised into four wards in Benin namely; Igunekhua, Eyanugie, Ugboha and Iguniwegie also known as Iguadaha. The Igunekhua blacksmith were specifically responsible for the production of the famous “ Ada and Eben ” and other symbol of royalty and authority for the Oba.

The guild of wood workers (owina), carvers (Igbesanmwan) and leather workers (Isohian and Isekpokin) were responsible for the production of different symbolic objects that helped to enhance the dignity, royalty and the authority of the Oba. For example, the royal throne (ekete) and the rectangular stool (egba) produced by the guild of carvers, remained the exclusive use or preserve of the Oba.

The famous leather fan (ezuzu) and the round box (ekpokin) made of bark and leather, produced by the leather workers (isohian) were exclusively for the use of the Oba’s household.

The vital role played by craft guilds in the sustenance of Benin monarchy is not measurable. The guilds were involved in the production of variety of
products and other items of utilities. In order to maximise the benefits from their products, the various Oba ensured that the craftsmen were organised into associations to supply every need of the monarch and the palace. The guilds were affiliated into the three main palace societies: Iwebo, Iweguae and Ibiwe. These societies were responsible for every need of the palace. As the basic need of the monarchy was adequately met by the various guilds, the Oba had enough time and resources to devote to the effective administration of the kingdom.

The sculptor, writer and music impresario, Prof. Victor Efosa Uwaifo, who also served as commissioner for arts and culture in Edo State under the government of Lucky Igbinedion, said, “ It is a structure. It is from past obas. I also belong to a part of that hierarchical structure.”

Uwaifo is famous for his joromi music. His best-known songs, Guitar Boy and Mami Water, were a huge hit in 1966. Mami Water was inspired by an encounter with a “mami water” (mermaid) while lounging on Bar Beach, Lagos.

Uwaifo, who has a total of 12 golden records to date, and has travelled to many countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, France, Hungary, Rome, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin Republic, Spain and Canada, said, “with us we don’t even know art is there. But other people enjoy the art more than we do. There must be art in one family or the other — Either by upbringing or family ties.”

Barbara Plankenstein, director, Museum am Rothenbaum (MARRK), Hamburg, says there is a renaissance of deep interest by locals to interrogate the Benin artistic heritage.

The regaly tradition of Benin art was captured recently by Princess Theresa Oghogho Iyase-Odozi.

In her travelling historical royal art show titled, Uhunmwen Vbe Ehinmwen, Master of the Circled Cross in Benin Kingdom, she reminds visitors to the ongoing exhibition at the Crowne Art Gallery, Benin City, that art in Benin expresses the people’s rich cultural heritage. She told The Guardian art is an ancestral passion for every Benin person. “It is inborn and with time you manifest that gift.”

She said, “I have come to recognise and admire the richness of Benin culture — This appreciation has been reinforced by my beloved father (Iyase N’Udo of Udo) of blessed memory. I have thus developed the yearning to create awareness of our culture and the history that sustains it, a quest that has propelled my research into Benin art history. Since then, I have been completely absorbed in this endeavour. The outcomes, both in terms of the works I have produced so far and my personal experiencing, have been highly fulfilling.”

She noted, “the works of art produced for this exhibition amply demonstrate the intricacies of the icons found on these Benin artefacts that are more than five hundred years old. I visualise Benin art works as going beyond mere sculptural creativity to encompass the esoteric, since the people adore their works of art as ‘worship’ and the royal court art is identified with ‘Osanobua, the Almighty Father.”

Princess Elizabeth Olowu, one of Oba Akenzua II’s daughters and mother of the artist-teacher, Prof. Peju Layiwola, in an earlier interview with the media, said, “as a child, I saw sculptures, shrines, bronzes, everywhere in the palace.”

She recalls, “art was part of the life of the people, through singing, dancing… I started with mud but I always wanted to cast bronze.”

According to her, “one of the things that motivated me in the palace when I was very young, maybe about nine or ten years old, was the Olokun shrine.

So, I will make my own and gather my younger ones and I will go to my father and tell him, I’ve made my own ako bie (sculpture) which is believed to bring prosperity and children. He will then give us money and other things to pacify the ako bie and we will be happy. That was how I started.”

At a group exhibition titled, [Re:]Entanglements, featuring 15 emerging Edo-based artists, the fast-rising, Benin-based Osaru Obaseki, known for her alternative technique of combining sand and acrylic, said: “Living in Benin and surrounded by the rich culture has greatly influenced my art and empowered my creativity. Globally, Benin is admired for its unique art and craftsmanship. We pride ourselves on our incredible bronze casters, terracotta, coral beading, goldsmiths and much more. With this solid foundation, I have been able to take traces from my ancestors and heritage, which is the medium of sand, and infuse it with modern-age acrylic to make contemporary works.”

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