11 Facts You Need to Know About Benin Art

Explore more about the Benin people and the collection of bronzes at the Yemisi Shyllon Museum.

Altar Grouping with Oba (1500/1599) by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

#1: Home of the Edo speaking people

The Benin Kingdom, home of the Edo speaking people, was located in the tropical rain forest region of what is now Nigeria. It was formerly Edo, a name given to it by Oba Eweka I. The Benin Kingdom was active between the 11th century AD and 1897. 

#2: Discovering Benin Art

Through the Benin punitive expedition of 1897, the first bronze works from Africa were recorded. The Benin bronze casters started creating bronze figures before the 13th century. The bronze works are known collectively as Benin art and an extraordinary example of African art. 

Commemorative Altar Head by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

#3: Art fit for a King

The King called the Oba was the ceremonial as well as stately head of the Kingdom. Guilds of bronze casters and ivory carvers were formed to facilitate the making of art for the royal court. 

#4: A vessel of power

The bronze shown here represents the head of a dead King or Oba. In the ideal Benin Altar setting, an ivory tusk would be inserted in a hole on this bronze head of an Oba. The head represented a vessel through which power was transferred from the late king to the new king. 

#5: Honoring the decreased

Bronze heads were done to honor the deceased. The occupational and political status of the deceased determined the material that was used in making it. The medium used varied from wood, terracotta to bronze which was introduced in the second dynasty. There is no generally accepted origin of bronze casting in Benin. Bronze is an alloy of copper and zinc.

Portuguese Soldier (1700/1899) by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

#6: The Portuguese connection

Benin traded with the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries, and it could be the source of the bronze and copper which the Benin people used to make their famous sculptures. The Portuguese were also depicted in Benin art.

#7: The lost wax method

The lost wax method was used to create the bronzes. The wax from bees or latex was carved, coated with clay and the coated mold was left to dry. It was then fired, leaving only a baked clay shell. Into this void space left by the melted wax, molten metal was poured through a narrow hole then left to cool and harden. Afterwards, the clay exterior was broken revealing the casted metal underneath.

Altar Grouping with Oba (1500/1599) by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

#8: Benin was ruled by the Ogisos

From myths and archeological discoveries, it is gathered that from the earliest times, the Benin kingdom was ruled by the Ogisos, the kings from the Sky who were 'warrior kings' as well. The dynasty had up to 31 kings. 

#9: The end of the warrior kings

The dynasty of the warrior kings came to an end with the banishment of the only son of the last warrior king. Consequently, the Uzama (the village Elder) turned to the Oni of Ife in the 13th century for a new king. He sent his son Oranmiyan who begot a son with the daughter of a village chief and this marked the beginning of the second dynasty.

#10: The king of the second dynasty

The son Oba Eweka I became the first king of the second dynasty. In another account that favours the Benin authority, the banished prince went to Ife and in time became King. At the bidding of the Benin people, he sent his son Oranmiyan who established a new dynasty. 

Commemorative Altar Head by UnknownOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

#11: Nigeria's royal kingdom of Benin

The art of the royal kingdom of Benin is an unravelling of untold stories. Today, Benin exists as a state in Southern Nigeria and the role of the Oba is more ceremonial than political. 

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