Read carefully Reading 2.6, ‘Works of Art from Benin City’, in Book 3 Chapter 2 and look closely at Plate 3.2.27, Plate showing four sixteenth century brass plaques from Benin’, in the illustration book. With close attention to both, discuss reasons why the ownership and location of the art of Benin have been controversial and continue to be so.
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The Places which home the artwork of Benin have and continue to cause controversy. They did not always as they did in the late nineteenth century languish in cramped displays set up by museums around the world, or in sitting rooms of private collectors but were originally preserved in Benin’s royal place, Benin City. The debate over who should own them is also controversial. They never used to be referred to as ‘belonging to the humankind’ ( Chris Spring DVD ROM, 2008) or owned by the museums of the world, including current day African museums but to the Royal palace of the king or the Oba, who, currently, still owns some. However, the last century has seen the displacement of many valuable pieces of Benin sculpture from the Royal palace which has not came to the west of its own free accord but arrived through the determined efforts of colonial powers to subjugate Benin. There has been much debate in the past over what to do with the art works and in more recent times as to who and where the art belongs and whether or not the concerned parties who do hold and own the art works are the right people and places to do so.
When anthropologists at the British museum first saw the artworks their initial reactions, drawing from contemporary ideas of Africa’s savage brutality, was astonishment. Certain views, like that of Blythe, a nineteenth century African writer and supporter of African rights challenged the common perceptions of the era but they did not change them. Blythe talks about scientific Europeans ‘giving academic study to the Negro’ but his overall suggestion is that there is a general ‘opinion of some God is everywhere except in Africa.’ (Blythe 1903 in Brown, 2008) Read and Dalton They described both their perception of Benin society and the objects they were studying in a very ambivalent way at the first sight of these remarkable works of art were at once astounded….and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art amongst a race so entirely barbarous as the Bini’ (Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008).This negative and perception of Benin was a common perception of the whole of Africa at this time . Anthropologists in general struggled to fit explanations of such sophisticated works of art into these commoner held opinions which circulated throughout all major establishments of newspapers, museums and Encyclopaedias. This meant that stereotypical notions were gaining credibility over real facts.
Read and Dalton were unfazed and presented their historical version as a prejudiced one, shaped by the society in which they lived, hence they form the conclusion that ‘no hope that a clue to their origin or use may be found in Benin itself’(Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008). They were influenced in a time when these institutions justified imperialism. So, Benin artwork was initially misunderstood due to western misconceptions of Africa. However, with detailed study of the artworks revealed more partial than ever views towards Benin and the artwork fitted into rather than challenged these views. Read and Dalton compared the \artworks to some of the finest ever produced in the Italian Renaissance saying that they ‘satisfied the most fastidious eye of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance’(Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008). Read and Dalton are quick to assume that Galley’s account for the finding of the art works was accurate and jump from what ‘seemed to point to them originally having been buried’ to the conclusion of ‘’it seems certain that they were not buried’ (Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008) Rather than taking the analytical approach they simply accommodated previously widespread ideas into their academic studies.
The objects did not fit into museums very easily because they looked so sophisticated yet came from a society which the west was shocked by for its brutality and savagery. On most occasions, Ethnographers in museums were swayed by their own society’s stereotypes rather than the actual art’s evidence of modernity and a society capable of high levels of artwork. Encyclopaedia Britannica disseminated the idea that Benin did not possess the intellectual ability to produce such a sophisticated level of art. It prided its research as being unquestionable and it accommodated the Benin artwork into the racist stereotypes of the era ‘the native craftsman was raised for a moment above his normal level by direct foreign inspiration’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910-1911, p.82 in Brown, 2008). This damning assessment accommodated the contemporary evidence which was accepted at the time, many years after Reads and Dalton had first suggested it: ’The method by which the tablets were produced can only be by the ‘cire perdue process’ (Read and Dalton 1897, p84 in Brown, 2008).
So, unchallenged perceptions of Benin was a consequence of society’s affinity with the accepted conventional modes of thought which accommodated preconceived ideas about Benin and these caused widespread dissemination of an inferior black race. The Benin art was not a great influence over the modern art movement as They looked back for newer forms of life and rejected the classical forms which they were seeing in the Benin art forms .they were working within the imperial system only for the stimulus that primitive art could give them. Images of the artwork in plate 3.2.27 show rounded modelling and idealized forms, unlike the distorted often jagged forms of the Avant guard artworks. In the 1890s the Benin artworks were robbed of the status of art by societies accepted ‘norms’. This new contemporary thinking gave primitive art hence African culture new credibility although notions of Africa as primitive weren’t challenged strongly until that point. Defining its concept of art with the study of primitive forms from less developed continents drew Benin’s sophisticated art into sharp focus, dividing Benin from the unsophisticated forms of African art that they were studying.
The Benin artwork is not primitive but it is African which draws the collection into the discourse of the rougher less sophisticated subjects from the African continent which the Avant guard were giving merit to. As already mentioned in reading 2.6..Read and Dalton describe the ‘cire perdue’ process which was highly technical for its time and operated on a system of artistic guilds within the royal palace. Wood suggests that we can ‘trace the most important thread in the relation of the Benin bronzes to artistic modernism’ in its contribution to defining art (Woods, p.71) He also notes puts forward the suggestion that by interpreting the objects as art completely separate of other meanings, they can be regarded as merited by their ‘urbanized civilization and ‘technology comparable to anything before the advent of modern industrialization’ (Woods, p.71) So They took on the status of works of art which easily fitted into the ways of life of the Benin and its’ industry.
Contemporary art galleries started to eclipse primitivism and gave the new definition of art a fresher sense of meaning. There is a feeling that proper sense of African history awaits a new generation which is to say, shifting away from primitivism. Stereotypical accounts of savagery are less likely to be foremost in minds of institutions and it is hoped that vivid sense of the true culture behind the making the artwork prevails. How the society lived is now sourced from research to Benin itself as in the Horniman museum in London. Its research gives oral and visual evidence a role in reflecting the plaques from Benin and properly interpreting them. In 1897 Steve and Dalton had very little true insight into what they were looking at. Statements like ‘A God, or king considered a God’ (Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008) is juxtaposed with more detailed descriptions of soldiers interacting with the Oba in the descriptive description on Plaques in the Horniman museum.
How the society lived is now sourced from research to Benin itself and it uses oral and visual evidence to its role in reflecting the plaques and properly interpreting them. Reinterpretation of the art was possible due to accurate research which Steve and Dalton believed impossible due to their affinity with the accepted norms of conventional thought. Present day exhibitions now run the risk of over aestheticizing the Benin sculptures. Many feel it is a risk worth taking, if by aestheticizing it you can win the public’s interest and afford them ‘other ways of seeing the world’ ( Anne-Christine Taylor DVD ROM, 2008) We now know however that the royal artwork depicted in plate 3.2.27 Benin’s history holds particular resonance to everyone who comes to see them . They served very specific roles. But I think what happened is once they were taken out of that context, it was the beauty and the very powerful African aesthetic that gave them value in a western perspective’ Kevin Dalton-Johnson DVD ROM, 2008) .
In summing, the last century has seen the displacement of many valuable pieces of Benin sculpture from the Royal palace which has not came to the west of its own free accord but arrived through the determined efforts of colonial powers to subjugate Benin. There has been much debate in the past over what to do with the art works and in more recent times as to who and where the art belongs and whether or not the concerned parties who do hold and own the art works are the right people and places to do so.
Chambers, E., Northedge, A, (2008) ‘The Arts Good Study Guide’, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp152-223. Spencer, C. (2008) ‘Study Skills’,
in Brown, R. (ed.) AA100 Study Companion, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp18-67. Loftus,D, Mackie,R, Wood,P, Woods,K J. (2008) ‘The Art of Benin; Changing Relations Between Europe and Africa One and Two’, in Brown,R,E (ed.) AA100 Book Cultural Encounters, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp5-87. DVD ROM ‘The Art of Benin, 2008, the Open University
Skills for OU Study Website at http://www.open.ac.uk/skillsforstudy/.