Throughout history trade and exploration have had a significant impact on the arts throughout the world, and African art is no exception. The Kingdom Empire, also referred to as the Edo Empire, developed an advanced artistic culture that was greatly influenced by the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries and traders in the 15th century. Due to the strength of the Benin military the European visitors were not able to enslave the people of Benin as they had in other parts of Africa. So instead the Benin and Portuguese developed a trade system.
As trade between the two grew the cultural influence became apparent on the artworks of the Benin Empire. The Portuguese explorers arrived in the last years of the control of Oba Ewuare the Great, around 1472, trying to demand slaves from the empire. Because Benin had such a strong military and developed economy, the Portuguese were unable to enslave them as they had with the other African empires such as Ouidah and Calabar. This resulted in the development of a strong trading partnership between The Benin Empire and European countries. The Portuguese would trade items such as coral beads, brass bracelets they called manillas, muskets and cannons for the Edo peoples spices, textiles and artworks.
The trading would continue from 1468 up until late 19th century when the kingdom was attacked and defeated by British military in the Punitive Expedition of 1897. (Plankenstenier, Barbara 77) The works produced by the Benin Empire at this time included religious objects, masks, figurines, plagues among other artifacts. These artists worked in bronze, brass, iron, clay, ivory and wood but were most famous for their bronze, iron and ivory works. For the most part the works of art were created for the court of Oba (king) of Benin. The artifacts promoted the Benin religion and beliefs as well as told stories of their ancestors and their achievements. It is said that Oba Esigie was the first to commission bronze plagues to record Benin’s history and achievements at the time that trade with the Portuguese was booming.
Artist would take the brass manilas melt them down and recast them into the Benin Bronzes that were displayed in the courtyard of the palace. As trade expanded these brass plagues began to incorporate European imagery and designs as well as narrated the relationship the Benin had with the Portuguese at the time. (Plankenstenier, Barbara 77) Benin’s fortune came to an end with the rise of imperialism in the 19th century. Five years after the Empire had signed a treaty with Great Britain, Benin forces made the mistake of killing members of a British delegation that was en route to the Benin City. In response to the betrayal, Britain launched the Punitive Expedition to the capital. The British removed 4,000 works from the palace in the attack and sold them to private collectors and museums in Europe and the United States.
(Plankenstenier, Barbara 77) The cultural influence of the trade market and Portuguese can clearly be seen in the study of the Benin artworks. The Robert Lehman collection located at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is a collection of 36 pieces dating from the 15th century to the 19th centuries. “The dynamic installation sets the works into their artistic and historical contexts, highlighting a period when Benin traded spices, textiles and slaves for Portuguese muskets, cannons and brass bracelets. (MFA) The collection includes Six ivory pieces among 30 bronze pieces.
The collection is held in a room with gray walls with many glass boxes and low lighting. Each work is held in its own glass box, pointing to the importance of the work and makes for a very easy viewing experience. The gallery held 15 of the bronze plaques that “portray a range of scenes involving kings, war chiefs, warriors and other prominent individuals in splendid attire, indicating their high rank in the kingdom’s complex social and political order. Other meaningful motifs include leopards, crocodiles, mudfish, river leaves and rosettes. (MFA) Relief plaque showing a Portuguese is a bronze plaque of a Portuguese trader solider that is a direct representation of the Portuguese influence on the benin artist.
The plaque is dated from the 16th – 17th century being 45. 7 cm by 33 cm in dimension. It is displayed on a gray wall among the other plaques that once decorated the Oba Palace. Next to each plaque is a glass wall with a description of each. Another Plaque that shows the European influence on the artworks of the time is one of a War chief and two attendants. While the subject matter of the plaque is not European the floral background is reflective of the influence the Portuguese had and can be seen in the Relief plaque showing a Portuguese and a few others.
(Plankenstenier, Barbara 77) Another piece that represents the relationship between the two cultures is a sculpture of a Portuguese musketeer that stands alone on a pillar in the gallery. Titled Portuguese soldier, the sculpture is a great depiction of a musketeer at the time. Standing barefoot on its base, the soldier has armor, a musket, powder horn and its facial features are extremely detailed. Being displayed all by itself on a pillar really gives significance to the piece and the importance of the Portuguese and its trade to the Benin Empire and its history.
(MFA) While these artworks narrate the kingdom’s history they also play a role in the Oba and its interactions with the supernatural and his ancestors. The materials that are used are “endowed with sacred power. ” The material embodies the influence of the Oba and the great wealth of his kingdom. The Oba’s use the arts to orient them with the past and connect with the kingdom’s history.
The experience of art is assumed to be a strictly visual experience, but in reality is far more complex and actually a multi-sensory experience. These works, for example, could be multi-senor objects because you can see, touch and taste them. After reading more into this concept, it could be argued that African artwork may not be meant to be in museums. Suzanne Preston Beiler’s essay Ways of Experiencing African Art: The Role of Patina describes the importance of Multi-sensory in African art. Her ideas are that there are “four key attributes of African art that address questions of Patina. .
. These four qualities are the sensory dimensions of art, the symbolic and aesthetic importance of artistic materials, the role of performance, and the significance of each work’s collection or display history. ” (Belier, Suzanne Preston, 11. ) She continues to describe, “Multi-sensory attributes distinguish nearly all artistic forms. But in African art, as with so many other forms, Westerners have historically privileged the visual attributes, which encouraged a rather limited appreciation of the experiential power that these works hold. ” (Belier, Suzanne Preston, 11.
)To limit African art to simply visual seems ridiculous once you look deeper into the culture and the original intent of the object. Without further information of the history of an object, we are simply looking at the object through a “Western Eye. ” Belier gives some important history about the bronze plaques in her essay, “Brass, Bronze and other copper alloys carry additional important visual and iconic prosperities. Copper is expensive and often imported, thus is generally used in objects of high status. ” (Belier, Suzanne Preston, 11. ) This gives significance to the material used.
The Bronzes are defined by not only material and sensory but by their placement or “stage” as well. As Belier describes “ The stage on which the art is presented determines to a large extent who will be able to view a work, under what conditions, and what circumstances. ” In the case of the Bronzes being in the Oba palace and courtyard gives them their historical and spiritual significance. She states, “ The circumstances of viewing in a small private shrine or temple can enhance a sense of contemplation and individual engagement. ” (Belier, Suzanne Preston, 11. )To go one step further and really understand the relationship between the bronzes and their sacred powers, more research is necessary.
In African Art In Motion, Robert Farris Thompson goes into the concept of Ancestorism, “Ancestorism, the belief that the highest experience reflects the closest harmony with the ancient way, shapes stance, attitude, and gesture in the art of Africa. ‘Stance’ refers to standing. ‘Attitude’ refers to stylized positions of the body or self-carriage, indicative of mood and status. ‘Gesture’ refers to motions of the body and the limbs, communicating though or emphasis. ” (Thompson, Robert Farris, 23.
The Bronzes without a doubt show Ancestorism’s belief “that highest experience reflects the closest harmony with the ancient way. ” Artist created them to celebrate the Oba and the empires history and achievements. They were hung on pillars in the court and palace, which was known as “political, spiritual, and ceremonial heart of the kingdom. ” Yes, The Trade relationship that the Benin Empire shared with the European’s did influence the arts created at the time without a doubt, but the reason they were created and spiritual importance to the Oba never strayed, materials to create them were just more accessible.
The Robert Lehman collection, while beautiful lacks historical information that is key to understanding the true history of these artworks. The museum atmosphere allows for a great viewing experience, but only further research can show the viewer its true meaning and connection to its culture. The history of the Bronze Plaques and the palace of the Oba show that the works were truly created for the spiritual powers of the Oba and not the “trade” relationship of the time period as some may argue.
Thompson, Robert Farris.
African Art in Motion; Icon and Act in the Collection of Katherine Coryton White. Los Angeles: U of California, 1974. Print. Blier, Suzanne Preston. “Ways Of Experiencing African Art: The Role Of Patina”. Art Of The Senses: Masterpieces From The William And Bertha Teel Collection.
Ed. Suzanne Preston Blier. Boston: Boston Museum of Fine Arts. , 2004. Print.
Plankensteiner, Barbara. “Benin-Kings And Rituals: Court Arts From Nigeria. “African Arts 40. 4 (2007): 74-87. Art Full Text (H.
W. Wilson). Web. 1 Dec.
2014“Benin Kingdom Gallery” Museum of Fine Arts. Avenue of the Arts465 Huntington Avenue Boston, Massachusetts 02115. 12 November, 2014.