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Sculpture: The Bronzes of Benin

3 minute read

One of the great changes in artistic vision of the 20th century was the shift from the classical ideals of Greek and Roman statuary to a larger view that accepted primitive art as no less human and as equally beautiful. Artists, especially the cubists, began collecting African artifacts, were soon exploiting their untrammeled, expressionistic energy in their own painting; gradually sculpture long thought fit only for ethnological institutes began moving into galleries, museums and homes as objects of artistic merit. Yet this eager interest in African art could not have happened without the brief, tragic encounter of two civilizations.

Brilliant Booty. A great center of African art was the ancient kingdom of Benin, located in the south of present-day Nigeria. Its people were notorious for their practice of the black-magic juju; human sacrifices were common. And though the Portuguese navigators who discovered the realm in 1472 tried to convert the natives to Christianity, the only relict that stuck when they left was the concept and practice of crucifixion. Amidst a dark rain forest, Benin became a terrifying, slave-trading, yet advanced civilization centered in a city with 30 broad streets surrounded by ramparts ten feet high.

Eighteen years after the British had destroyed the Zulu nation, they crushed Benin. Objecting to the sale of slaves and human sacrifice, a consul general set out in 1897 with eight men to halt the annual ritual of slaughter; they were massacred. In retaliation, a battalion of British soldiers, 1,200 strong, destroyed Benin a month later and brought out as booty 1,000 bronze plaques, which were sold off in London to benefit dis abled veterans. It was the first major appearance of Africana in Europe.

Oaths on Iron. Benin sculpture is more naturalistic than most African totems, as evidenced in 30 of the original bronze plaques lent by the British Museum and currently on view at the University of Pennsylvania’s museum. The bronze surfaces are intricately designed for the play of light—wound copper bracelets, brazen armor and engraved rosette backgrounds, which set off the bold, stubby torsos of the figures. Most remarkable was the high level of skill displayed in employing the complex craft of casting with the lost-wax process. Descendants of the great smiths of Benin still revere Igue-igha, who introduced the art of casting into their land, possibly learnt from the Arabs in the late 13th century. Benin’s smiths developed casting to the point where plaques as thin as one-eighth of an inch were cast, surpassing even the best that the European Renaissance masters could achieve.

All the art of Benin was wrought to please the despotic king, or Oba, and nearly all the paper-thin plaques bear holes where nails attached them to the columns of his royal palace. Since wood rots, almost no pre-19th century African art remains save Benin’s miraculous bronzes.

Today, many Nigerians of the region practice the deadly juju; some still swear only on hunks of iron in fealty to their blacksmith god, Ogun. But the tradition and skills that created the masterpieces are lost. What remains in Africa is enshrined in Nigeria’s museums, a testament to past perfection and proud accomplishment illuminating what for centuries was considered the very heart of darkness.

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