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The art of Benin 

Spoils of war

is elegant, fiery - and mostly locked in the British Museum. Jonathan Jones begins a new series on the legacy of empire


Looted treasure: part of the British Museum's Benin collection. Photo: Frank Baron

Jonathan Jones
Thursday September 11, 2003. The Guardian

We set fire to the Queen Mother's house and those of several chiefs; the fire spread uncontrollably and destroyed a large part of the city. The royal palace was also burnt, although we claimed this was accidental. The royal palace of Benin was one of the great cultural complexes of Africa, a continent that, according to Victorians, wasn't supposed to have anything like it. It was a court as big as a European town.

"It is divided into many palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers," reads Olfert Dapper's enthusiastic 1668 account, "and comprises beautiful and long square galleries... resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles... Every roof is decorated with a small turret ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings."

An engraving shows the soaring spires with their metal birds. These may have represented the Bird of Prophecy that Esigie, the 17th-century oba, or king, of Benin is said to have killed after the bird squawked of disaster as he set out to war. And then it was no more. The palace was gone, the city wrecked, a culture halted overnight. It was, after all, a punitive expedition.

The European "discovery" of African art began with the British punitive expedition against Benin in 1897. This series of articles about art and the British empire begins there, too. The empire for a long time was shoved out of historical memory, an embarrassment that, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Britain wanted to forget. Perhaps it is because it's safely in the dust that people now find the story complex, interesting and full of ambiguities.

None of that purported complexity was apparent in 1897 when Benin was crushed, its treasures stolen as if its people had produced nothing and knew nothing. The destruction of Benin City happened at the most irrational period in the history of the empire, when Britain competed with the French, Germans and Belgians to grab as much of the African continent as possible. Between 1880 and 1902 Britain seized Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, the Sudan and Rhodesia; it established possession of South Africa and controlled eastern Africa from the Cape to the Suez Canal, fulfilling - partly - the megalomaniac dreams of imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain. The attack on Benin took place in the year of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Empress of India. The Daily Mail, voice of popular imperialism, had been founded the year before. A year later Rudyard Kipling published The White Man's Burden: "Take up the White Man's Burden/Send forth the best ye breed."

The best ye breed. Ralph Moor, governor of Britain's west African Niger Coast Protectorate, had a problem. British traders were outraged that Oba Ovoranmwen, ruler of the still-independent Benin, demanded customs duties from them. A British officer, Lt James Phillips, set out under Moor's authority to lay down the law to the oba. As Phillips approached Benin City - with eight British officers, 200 porters and a band - he was ambushed. The British officers were killed. Moor now had a casus belli for the annexation of another bit of Africa. The punitive expedition set out two months later, led by Sir Harry Rawson with 1,200 British troops. Oba Ovoranmwen was put on trial and exiled.

It resembles one of those episodes of cultural misunderstanding that anthropologists love to tell. In fact, Benin had been dealing successfully with Europeans since the 15th century, when the Portuguese began to trade in west Africa. Oba Ovoranmwen had every reason to think he could maintain favourable trading terms with the British. He reckoned without the hysteria of late-Victorian empire-building.

The Victorians were decent people, moral people. They were even moral about art - so much so that they missed out on the revolutionary art of the avant-garde being created in wicked Paris. Most of all, the Victorians were moral about their empire. The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin made one of the most passionate encomia of the morality of empire in his inaugural lecture as Slade professor of art at Oxford in 1870. The event was so sensational that it had to be transferred to the Sheldonian Theatre to accommodate the crowd. "This is what England must do," Ruskin declared, "or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men."

A photograph taken in 1897 shows these very best men sitting among the ruins of Benin, smoking, smiling. On the ground in front of them are treasures of 16th-century art: brass plaques that decorated the pillars of the oba's palace. Nine hundred of these plaques were found in a storehouse, having been removed during redecoration of the palace. Along with these powerful pictorial reliefs, the punitive expedition discovered the rich artistic culture of Benin going back well before Portuguese contact: heads of Queen Mothers and other ancestors - such as the elegant, stately and vigorously alive 16th-century head of a Queen Mother, now in the British Museum - and snakes and hunters, all cast in brass by the lost wax process. Some of these treasures were privately looted. But many were taken back to Britain officially as "reparations".

The language of empire degenerated so easily. The brutality of the punitive expedition was the foaming consequence of Ruskin's fervent idea, the moralism supposed to be the British Empire's character. The killing of Lt Phillips and his officers was slavered over in Britain as an atrocity committed by a blood-soaked sacrificial culture. And so the classic art of Benin was brought to London to be sold to provide compensation for the families of the British victims.

Ruskin, as far as I know, never commented on the art of Benin. Doubtless he would have found it, as he did a lot of things, disgusting and repellent. But in truth, there never was a better embodiment of all he thought best in art. Ruskin's brilliance was to argue for the rough, the rugged, the organic in art, which he saw as an expression of a flowing, holy communal life. The art of Benin was made, as Ruskin said art should be made, in a spirit of community and faith, by anonymous craftsmen.

It shows. The Benin plaques and sculptures in the British Museum are at once imaginative and classical, with a compelling mixture of smoothness and sharpness, natural observation and unforced fantasy. Brass was the preferred medium of the royal art of Benin because its redness was beautiful and menacing, with an authority and a fiery presence that makes this art live. It has lived longer, anyway, than the British empire.

It was the looting of Benin that made African art visible to Europeans. When the seized artefacts were sold, entering the collections of museums, there was a sense of surprise and mystification. Although travellers had written descriptions of Benin City, this was the first time anyone outside Africa comprehended the scale of Benin's artistic achievement. So the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius set out to study and collect African sculpture, while in Britain, serious publications - including, in 1899, the British Museum's catalogue of its Benin acquisitions - laid the foundations for the history of the art of Benin and that of Africa.

There were plenty of ambiguities. Frobenius could not believe that the 12th- to 15th-century brass heads of Ife, which are earlier than the art of Benin, were of African origin; he speculated that they were the work of ancient Greeks from the lost city of Atlantis. And in 1903 Henry Ling Roth published a pioneering book on Benin called Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors.

Within a few years, the European "discovery" of African art that began with the Benin punitive expedition bore strange progeny. In 1905 or 06, the Parisian artist Maurice Vlaminck acquired a mask made by the Fang people of west Africa. Matisse and Picasso probably saw it. The distinctive, long face of this particular mask - now in the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris - is to my eye related to the mask-faces of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).

Modernism was born partly out of the encounter at the end of the 19th century between Europe and Africa. But we in Britain were too pious ever to capitalise on this. While Picasso leapt into the "darkness", Victorians preferred to keep the light on. There was no British Picasso, no British Matisse lingering in the British Museum, wondering at the massive aesthetic power and life of African art.

· Benin Sculpture is at the British Museum, London WC1. Details: 020-7323 8000.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

Found at:,11710,1039565,00.html


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