Fine Art in Benin

Fine Art in Benin

Nestled quietly among the countries of Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Niger, Benin is a small country with a predominantly ethnic population. Also known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, Benin is famous for its culture and tradition and its rich heritage of fine art. Constant turmoil and disturbance have robbed the country of its glorious past but presence of numerous items of the bygone eras speaks of those times which have been since chronicled in detail by numerous historians.

The earliest forms of fine art discovered in Benin were the brass sculptures of the heads of the rulers of varied era. Each of these sculptures was then passed on to his successor to commemorate his memory. However, these head sculptures did not necessarily represent the facial similarities of the kings of the era. Experts attribute this to the fixation of the craftsmen towards depicting the beaded ensemble rather than the intricacies of the face. Historians were however left flummoxed by the varying sizes of heads of the rulers which uncannily became larger with the advancing of the years.

Benin Plaques, Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria c. 1530-1570, Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Video: How to impress your courtiers: a lesson from the Kingdom of Benin

Having failed to unravel this myth they correlated the rise in the size of these heads coupled with the usage of expensive stones and imported materials to be coincident with the rise in opulence and clout of the kings of the eras. Greater the size of the head higher was his richness and so on. Coral was also one of the most common items used in the sculptures and was extensively used to depict affluence of the king. These brass sculptures bear tell-tale signs of the Portuguese influence of those times depicted beautifully by the engravings of the Portuguese soldiers and sailors among the findings. 

These sculptures being the first discovery of fine art in Benin bear clear testament to the skill and expertise of the sculptors of the age.  It was also observed that, the discovery of fine art in Benin continues unabated with discoveries being made in recent times as well. However, the level of expertise of the sculptors in the later years left a lot to be desired and distinctively was not of the same level as that in the earlier years. The intricate facial features, hairdo of the Queen Mother etc. were noticeably missing in the sculptures of later years.

Apart from brass, sculptures made of ivory were also discovered which was coincidental with the decline of the Benin art partly due to invasion of foreign rulers as well as reduction in levels of expertise of the craftsman. The unearthing of the fine art in Benin has been restored to museums spread all over the world so that people can view the rich cultural heritage of the country and marvel at the expertise of their hands despite availability of limited means. The discovery of the fine art in Benin is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable and outstanding acclaimed forms of art in the whole continent of Africa and is a true reflection of Benin’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

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