A Bariba, Benin terracota pot 40cm
According to tradition, the Kingdom of Benin was
founded from Ife, whence, in the late 14th century, knowledge of Brass casting
may have been introduced into Benin City for the manufacture of commemorative
heads for royal altars.
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These heads have been grouped in stylistic sequence from
moderate naturalism through increasing stylization. The brasses also include
figures in the round, groups on a common base, and plaques. The rectangular
shape of the plaques, their narrative content, and in some cases their attempt
at perspective have been attributed to the influence of illustrations in books
carried by the Portuguese, who were in contact with Benin from the late 15th
century. The technique of brass casting, however, had been introduced at least a
century earlier. Bronze bars had been imported, probably from the interior, as
early as the 13th century, but these were made into bracelets in Benin City only
by smithing and chasing techniques, not by casting. There were certain
limitations on the use of brass, and also ivory. Cult objects (such as memorial
beads) were made of wood when intended for non-royal purposes but of brass for
the king. Regalia, if made for the king, were of ivory, but otherwise of brass.
The regalia of king and chiefs also included coral
beads and red cloth, the colour red signifying a mystical threat to the enemies
of the kingdom. Wood was used for staffs commemorating ancestors, and these were
placed on their altars. Pottery heads were made for shrines in the brass
casters' quarter; and life-size groups of royal figures in mud are still made
for the cult of Olokun, divinity of the sea and of wealth.
Outside Benin City, the Edo peoples live in villages
that have many localized cults of nearby topographical features and founder
heroes. The Ekpo masquerade, occurring to the south and east of Benin, is
performed by the warrior age group in ceremonies to purify the village ritually
and to maintain health. At Ughoton, to the southwest of Benin, a different type
of mask is used, in the cult of the water spirit Igbile. Both the cult and the
sculptural style seem to have derived from the Ijo.
A number of bronze castings found in Benin have been
classified tentatively as the Lower Niger bronze industries. They include pieces
from Tada and Jebba in the region now inhabited by the Nupe people, who regard
them as relics associated with their own mythical ancestor, and other pieces
from various parts of the delta of the Niger River.
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READ ALSO on Benin art bronzes sold at auction Benin
Bronzes from Ife and Benin Exhibition
from February 3 to April 14, 2007
African masks from Known Collections
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Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
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