CULTUREby MCPHILLIPS NWACHUKWU
BENIN BRONZE CASTING: THE STORY OF POWER AND ROYALTY
One of the greatest defining characteristics of the historic kingdom of Benin, now, the capital city of Edo State is its bronze casting tradition.
Established in the 14th century by Oba Oguola and placed under the hereditary leadership of the Inen’Igun Eronmwon, the art of bronze casting helped the ancient kingdom produce some of the finest bronze heads, many of which were “taken” by the invading British colonial force during the 1897 Benin expedition.
Following that tragic incidence that resulted in the exiling of Oba Ovoramnwem to Calabar, the invading British forces looted the wealthy treasury of the Benin Kingdom and carted away historic bronze heads including the original mask head of the Queen Mother, Idia, whose face was used by Nigeria during the World Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977.
The stolen works from the Royal Treasury of Benin are today found in many museums and private collections all over the world. In 2007, the first bronze exhibition was held titled “Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria.” The exhibition spanned Vienna, Australia, France, Germany and finally ended at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The origin of bronze casting
There appears to be no definitive origin of the Benin bronze casting tradition. Sunday Vanguard’sresearch has revealed the existence of a number of schools of thought that provide explanations to the origin of bronze art. For some schools of thought, the art of the bronze casting was introduced from outside Africa. This school of thought premises its argument on the technological sophistication of the art which it is believed didn’t exist in Africa.
But another school of thought upholds that bronze casting in Benin came from the neighbouring kingdom of Oyo and Ife. In a paper presented at the 2008 Edo Bronze Festival in Benin, Daniel Inneh, the former palace Secretary to Omo N’Oba Erediauwa (the present Oba of Benin) gave an account, which recalled how at the request of Oba Oguola, the Oni of Ife sent his son, Ezohe, to help cultivate bronze casting in the Benin Kingdom. According to Inneh’s source, Ezohe after many years in Ife, left his own son, Igueghae, to continue to teach and produce bronze art for the Oba. Possibly, it was from this man, Igueghae, that the present hereditary producers’ clan of the art got their name, the Igue clan.
But how true is this story of origin? Mr. Inneh, who himself is a bronze caster by birth; his forebears coming from Igun Eronmwon explained that “Benin bronze is unique in its own very different way from other bronze traditions in the world. The Benin bronze is an urban art form associated with power and royalty and far removed from the commoner.”
Adding his voice of support to this claim of uniqueness, Omorege Obaseke of the Igun Ematon Guild argues that even the name of the supposedly hereditary father of the Bronze tradition in Benin, Igueghae does not sound like a Yoruba name neither does that of his father, Ezohe. In Obaseki’s view, the Ife Bronze heads are entirely different in their form and contents and do not share any functional or aesthetic relativity with the Benin Bronze heads.
Bronze casting as an art of duty to the Oba
Unlike in many other cultures, the Benin bronze art is a tradition established to serve the royal stool in various important ways. Our finding reveals that the Bronze casters are commissioned by the Oba himself; serve the royal stool in the capacity of what is known in modern governance as palace photographers and historians.
According to Louis Enobakare, the organizer of Edo Bronze Festival, “Bronze casters in those days served the Oba as palace photographer by being available to document through their arts all the important events in the life of every Oba.” Their other activities according to Enobakare included the coverage of all important ceremonies in the kingdom like festivals, rituals and visitations to the Kingdom.
Another source explained that while Oba Ovonranmwen was in exile in Calabar, palace minders resorted to bronze casters in passing encrypted messages to the Oba on their pieces by inscribing symbols and images. In essence, the bronze art of Benin was not strictly for aesthetics, but was more committed to content functionality and social relevance.
Benin bronze as a restricted guild practice
Due to the power and social functions empowered by the Oba at the establishment of Bronze casting tradition, Sunday Vanguard’s findings revealed that the casting profession remained a very preserved tradition only practiced by the Igun clan of casters on official approval of the Oba.
This royal control over the practice of bronze casting remained until about 1914, when the grandfather of the present Oba, Oba Eweka II, following depletion of the royal treasury as a result of colonial intrusion gracefully allowed members of the casters family to commercialize their services.
By this royal permission, the casters now under a guild could apart from their commissioned works for the Oba, also engage in the production of bronze artefacts for sale.
However, the restriction of the practice of this art form was not only by membership, but also had and continues to have gender implications. According to Emmanuel Ikponmwosa Inneh, the Public Relations Officer of the Igun Bronze Casters Guild,” women and young girls are not allowed to practice bronze casting. But all the boys born into the Igun clan, as they grow up are formally and informally trained in the art of casting. But the women and the girls, we do not allow to practice because of the fear of taking the art to their husbands’ home.”
According to Dr. Kaye Johnson, a visiting research scholar of Art History from the University of West Indies, this practice of limited admittance goes to reduce the commercial chances of the Benin brand in creating a strong revenue front for Edo State.
“If the culture of liberalism is allowed at all levels in bronze casting, you will be amazed at the depth of the commercial and technological resource being under utilized in this important culture form.”
Dr. Johnson further stated that “when the art is engaged with a new sense of commercial interest, you will begin to see new dynamism both in the production, marketing and content dimensions of the brand.”
Benin bronze casters as losers
Sadly, while Benin artefacts and bronze are yielding billions of pounds and dollars for collectors in Europe and America, even as these countries provide the only reliable research and data on these artefacts, the home based bronze casters suffer in abject penury.
Vanguard Newpaper’s checks at the Igun Street home of casters, revealed a very discouraging picture of a people who practice their art in the most difficult conditions. Apart from the fact that the activities of the casters are controlled by a guild, the association has not gained desired interventions to improve the life and workstyle of the casters.
Practitioners of the art still resort to the difficult wax method and utilize locally built ovens in the firing of the bronze. Sadly too, the source of scrap bronze metals used in the casting and fire wood for firing are difficult to come by. While they’re urging the Nigerian government through the National Museum and Monument to assist casters by building a foundry for them, Emmanuel Ikponmwosa Inneh, explains ”we go as far as Okene and Abuja to buy charcoal and firewood that we use in firing the bronze.”
“We have a guild. If the government can come to build a foundry where we can fire the bronze, we will know how to alternate the use of it for the constituting families.”
The road to a new bronze casting culture
Considering the global significance the bronze tradition has brought to the historic kingdom of Benin; and the new surge of commercial interest in historic artefacts today, bronze and culture stakeholders are beginning to engineer a renewed campaign towards the evolvement of a new commercial life-line for bronze casting.
Enobakare of the Edo Bronze festival is of the opinion that the present Oba of Benin can improve on what his grandfather did in 1914 by further expanding the commercial right of the practice of the art. “There is nothing wrong in having a University of Benin guild of bronze casters, Yaba College of Education Guild, and a University of Lagos Guild. The essence of this would be to allow the Igun casters to serve as resource persons to these centres.”
“If this is done, you will see that the practice will be given a new scholarly face. Research will go into the teaching and production of Bronze and new interpretations that will command both commercial and global attention will emerge,” Enobakare explained.
On how to improve the commercial relevance of bronze casting, Enobakare further averred that both the Nigerian Export Promotion Council and National Museum and Monument have important roles to play.
According to him, “in the past Benin lost out on commercial profits of bronze following the illegal looting of British invading forces, but it is now high time that the Nigerian Export Promotion Council ensured the trader and producer of bronze lives comfortably.”
The National Museum and Monument, apart from reminding government through its budget of the need to providing the casters with work aiding facilities, can also help by giving professional exhibitions to these artefacts nationally and globally.”
McPhilips Nwachukwu is the Art Editor for Vanguard Newspapers, one of the leading news media in Nigeria. He will be a regular contributor to Ayaka.