The Kingdom of Benin Royal Court Art
The objects in bronze and ivory from the Kingdom of Benin (Nigeria) made the kingdom famous when it comes to African art and culture. They were objects with religious and spiritual value made only under royal command. The Oba (King) commissioned the Igun-Eronmwon (members of the guild of bronze casters) to make a bronze-cast of significant events that took place.
The ancient Kingdom of Benin was raided by a British military expedition in 1897 when most of the priceless works of art were forcibly removed from their context and dispersed to England, continental Europe and United States of America. Their total number being estimated at over 4,000 (Philip J.C. Dark 1982).
A general survey history of the Benin kingdom from the earliest times; the Ogiso period (c. 900-1170); the second is the period of the New Dynasty of kings or Obas (c. 1200-1897), while the third phase is that of colonial rule and its impact on Benin society (after 1897).
The name ‘Benin’ can be found on European maps of Africa from the sixteenth century onward; from that time, the kingdom was an important trading partner. Trading relations was first with the Portuguese, then with the British, Dutch and French. Goods supplied by Benin in 1897 was Guinea pepper and ivory were traded, then cotton and textiles, beads, redwood, rubber and palm oil. Ivory was also exported up to the end of the 19th century. The Europeans exchanged these goods mostly for copper and brass manillas or for cowry shells from the Maldives, as well as for diverse luxury goods such as European and Indian textiles and fine silks, hats, and Mediterranean coral. Later also firearms and munitions were traded, and a great variety of metal goods, spirits, tobacco, as well as bars of iron and lead (Alan F.C . Ryder 1969).
In the end it were economic factors that led to the destruction of the kingdom of Benin. In the late 19th century, the Niger coast was dominated by the British, who increasingly became reluctant to accept the trading conditions dictated by Benin, and aimed at talking control themselves. The gradually brought the areas bordering Benin under their administration, removing or exiling unwilling local rulers. Furthermore, they started to add the areas delineated as their sphere of influence at the Berlin Conference of 1885 to their territory.
Works of Art
The bronze and ivory pieces viewed today as significant works of art had a variety of functions in the court life and ritual in Benin. As court art their primary purpose was to glorify the godlike king and the history of the powerful empire. Benin City, the capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, has become a lively metropolis of more than half a million people and is lead by Oba Erediauwa who has revitalized the arts including brass casting. The Lost Wax method of metal casting or cire perdue dates back over 6,000 years. Artisans of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Han Dynasty of China and the Benin civilization of Africa used this method to cast artifacts and tools. There is still debate as to who was the first to develop the technique.