Volume 10, Issue 4
Kathleen Bickford Berzock. Hesi how BENIN: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom. The Art Institute of Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 35p.
BENIN: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom is a 40-page (inside out) catalogue of the Art Institute of Chicago that accompanied the exhibition Benin- Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria- collection of royal artworks from ancient Benin Kingdom, now Edo State of Nigeria, West Africa. The “Acknowledgments” tells us that the exhibition “was organized by the Museum für Völkerkunde Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum, with the participation of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments, Nigeria, and the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,” [including] “the participation and support of his Majesty Omo n’Oba Ukpolokpolo Erediauwa, the current Oba of Benin.” For its glossy, high-definition color, plastic-texture paper, and most especially the royal status and quality of the collection in the book, the catalogue is a collector’s item, more so for the protective jacket of the same design with the actual book. The color choice, which is black, for the front cover provides an appropriate projecting backdrop template for the brown plaque image of Oba Esiqie cast on brass on the front cover. The red color on the back cover matches the photograph of the royal appearance on the back cover, and it should interest the readers that such colors ‘ododo’ have some significance of royalty in the kingdom.
The content of the book is organized into two parts: The first contains photographs and some historical bits on origin, people and events that seem to define what Benin Kingdom was. In all, there are ten photographs, photographs that document the Obas and Chiefs in their rich royal regalia (figs. 2, 6 and 8), historical photographs of the drawing of old Benin city (fig. 7), Oba Ovonranwen’s capture, looking pitiable on the British yacht Ivy, 1897 (fig. 10), members of the British military expedition sitting amid hundred of looted artworks in a courtyard of Oba’s palace, 1897 (fig. 11) and a group photograph in which Oba Akenzua, his retinue and British colonial officials appeared (fig. 12). This part also features royal cavers/casters at work (figs. 4 and 5) and ancestral alters of Oba Ovonramwen and Oba Eweka II (fig. 9).
In compliment to all the featured photographs is a brief history of the reigns and achievements of few of the Obas of the kingdom. For example, it is noted in the book that “in the ancient past Benin was ruled by the Ogiso, literally ‘Rulers of the Sky’… that the first Ogiso was the son of Osanobua, the High God.” The book also notes another source of Benin origin which claims that following the failure of Ogiso leadership, “the village chiefs of Benin, … uzama, sent a messenger to Ile-Ife asking its divine ruler, Ooni, for a leader to restore order.” The messenger, who happened to be a prince from Ile-Ife conceived a child with the daughter of an Edo chief. The child was later crowned Oba Eweka I. While the book notes that the kingdom became a powerhouse during the reign of Oba Ewuare, it also documents “Benin’s Golden Age” during the reign of Oba Ozolua the Conqueror and Oba Esigie who “carefully regulated trade with the Portuguese and created a guild of commissioned traders to act as his emissaries.” A brief history of the internal conflicts in the kingdom, including the invasion of the kingdom by the British in 1897 which led to the deposition of Oba Ovonramwen and his eventual death in exile is included in this part (pp. 6-7).>
The second part of the catalogue-book highlights 22 objects depicting various motives for their different cultural interpretations. For example, head objects; royal alter head of an Oba and Ife Head linking Benin history to that of ancient city of Ile-Ile (pp.16-17). There are the plaque pieces; those depicting the reverence and mythical being of the Oba (p. 19), plaque depicting authority (p.27), war plaques (pp. 21-22) and a plaque depicting palace interior (p.26). Other pieces include royal alter objects on pages 29-32, objects depicting individuals- a Portuguese (p.20), an Ewue palace official (p.23) and a plaque of three traders from Benin (p.24). Each of the pieces is accompanied with a brief resume which includes size, period or date, present location of the object, motive and interpretation.
To the extent that the book serves as a guideline on an art exhibition, the catalogue provides illuminating information and commentary on these beautifully displayed master pieces of African cultural milieu. The brief history of ancient Benin Kingdom and how the cultural objects depict the semiotics of that culture and time are particularly noticeable.
Another major important information the catalogue documents is how these masterpieces got ruptured from their original home and got scattered all over Europe and United States of America, residing now in both private and public museums, becoming objects of booming tourism in these regions of the world. The plunder of these objects, the book notes, was the aftermath of British invasion of 1897, leading to the looting and carting away of these cultural artifacts by the invading British army. In this regard, one would have expected the curator to inform the reading public efforts being made to return these objects to their place of origin, given the controversy this has generated overtime. In any case, whatever omission that may have been committed, the compact, well-packaged book remains an invaluable source of information for art lovers, historians, tourists and general interest readers.
Yomi Okunowo University of Colorado, Boulder