Sunrise on a run

Sunrise on a run

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Benin Bronzes

So, this weekend saw us take a trip to the British Museum. This was to tie in with a trip which my OU tutor had organised to see the Benin Bronzes: the topic of the current assignment.

I've saved the 2012-02-11">photos in an online album which can be found here.

As is clear from the first few shots, I had mixed success to start with - trying to fiddle about with camera settings to get shots in focus, I'd have been better off using iPhone! Got there in the end...

We saw two styles of bronze: the plaques which went in the Oba's palace and the figures. The plaques were a form of decoration and when the British invaded, he was having his palace renovated/ decorated which is why the plaques were all found heaped in a room by the invaders. There are various designs on the plaques: some which record battles and successes in battle of the Oba and some which depict the interaction between Benin and the Portugese in the 15th/16th Century. It is quite clear from the style of dress and facial hair which figures are the Portugese.

Other points of note from the plaques: there were over 50, how many would have been in the palace? Probably more. Important people are larger in the plaques. There were one or two plaques which seem to depict priests providing offerings. Many plaques had a round pattern in the four corners, depicting what: the sun? Since posting this, I have re-read chapter 2 and the readings from O.J. Eboreime at the Horniman museum. These describe them as: "‘the sun never misses a day’ and water leaf motifs".

One of the most striking figure-heads was of the Oba's mother. She, apparently, went into battle with the Oba and with her own army. The head looked much more like it was a portrait of a real person than a stylized head, which is how many of the other figureheads looked. Heads and hands were important to the Bini. It was thought that all of a person's power (soul?) was in their head which is why bronzes of heads were made. As well as the scarification marks above the eyebrows, the central rectangular marks were made to indicate wisdom. These were originally outlined in iron.

There was also a "hand altar," a round, ornate cylinders. It was not clear whether a cast of a hand was intended to be placed in the top of this.
One of the other figures showed the Oba holding leopards and a type of river fish. This was to demonstrate his power, the Bini were apparently fearful/ in awe of water: they saw it as another kingdom.

There were figures of leopards: these were also quite stylized - rather like cats but simply with big canine teeth. One of the cats was also designed to be used as a water carrier. There was also a big cockerel - I wasn't sure whether these would have been indigenous animals or whether these would have been brought from Portugal.

As well as the bronzes, we saw examples of the ivory work, particularly the spice-cellars. The designs demonstrate that they were made for export, perhaps carrying the pepper which was a key export from that region.

A trip to the Horniman museum would also be beneficial, it depends whether I can fit it in between now and the first Friday in March...

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