From Primitive Art To World Heritage: The Bronzes of Benin
On 2nd January 1897, following the course of the Benin River, the British Acting Consul-General of the Protectorate, James Phillips, led his lightly armed trade delegation into the killing area of a pre-sited ambush. Most of the party, including Phillips, were killed almost immediately. This incident sparked a chain of events resulting in the destruction of Benin City, the dissolution of the ancient Benin Kingdom, and the acquisition of vast stores of African bronze and ivory artefacts.
During this later period of colonial expansion, or the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ as it is often referred to, Africans were considered to live in constant fear of the spirit world. For many Westerners, African cultures seemed to be full of darkness, savagery and brutality, with any violations of their taboos dealt with harshly. Indeed, the British discovered crucified victims at Benin, not realising in their ignorance that it was fear of their approach which had triggered these sacrifices.
Yet contrary to these considerations, and unlike the tribal masks they usually encountered, the Benin bronzes seemed to represent the art of a highly sophisticated civilisation. They have been compared with the best of their kind produced in Renaissance Europe, such as the East Baptistery doors, Florence, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Members of the 10 expeditionary force assumed them to be of European origin, believing them to have quite probably been sold to the Benin Kingdom by Portuguese traders with whom they traded gold for copper, zinc, tin and sometimes lead, the raw materials used for making bronze and brass for their castings, along with traders in the city of Timbuktu. It was only later ascertained that the people of Benin were in fact the masters of this particular art form.
The bronzes, many of which are actually brass, are an example of what is known as the ‘lost wax’ technique, which involves objects being sculpted in wax and then sealed in a layer of clay. Once the clay has hardened it is heated and the wax melts away, exiting through small vents and leaving the clay as a mould. Molten metal is then poured into the mould and once cooled and hardened, it is broken apart revealing a bronze or brass sculpture. It is then finished by cleaning and polishing to a high standard.
To many western observers, it seemed strange that this seemingly brutal and primitive culture had produced such sophisticated, elevated art, although Benin culture would influence European artists, including Pablo Picasso, who painted his early Cubist work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, featuring five naked prostitutes, three of whom are wearing tribal masks. Other artists soon followed Picasso, including Pechstein, Brancusi and Gauguin. The avant-garde artists came to embrace what was celebrated as ‘Primitivism’. Tired and frustrated by the trappings and failings of modernity, urbanisation, overcrowded slums and disease, experienced a false sense of nostalgia for a more natural way of life, and the artefacts excavated in Africa became a stimulus for their creative fancies.
Not that masks were considered significant works of art in their own right; rather, they were objects to stimulate the Western senses into producing art forms that reflected their inner emotions, pointing to the collective, Western European idea of Africa at the time, which in many ways still resonates today. Somewhere in all of this, the Benin Bronzes were overlooked. This includes works such as the bust of Queen Idia, the Queen Mother of Benin, dated circa 1500 A.D., adorned with coral accessories, a precious commodity in the kingdom; and the superbly carved ivory face mask of an unknown queen (possibly Idia again). There are also dozens of wall plaques, mainly made of brass, which were found in the Oba’s (King’s) palace, representing a pictorial record of the history, religious myths and rituals of the Benin people including Gods, past rulers and neighbouring conquered kings.
In recent times, the concept of ‘primitive art’ has come under scrutiny. Globalisation and its resulting cultural encounters have encouraged the world to develop a greater respect for African art and to consider connections between culture and art as expressions of common humanity. In this sense, in more enlightened minds at least, the magnificent Benin Bronzes have been raised from the category of ‘primitive art’ to that of ‘world culture.’