Long in Exile, the Looted Benin Bronzes Tell the Story of a Mighty African Kingdom

Benjamin Sutton
Feb 21, 2019 10:22PM

Head of an Oba, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, ca. 1550. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Head, Guinea Coast, Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, possibly mid 16th or early 17th century. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The famous Benin bronzes are going home—at least some of them, some of the time. In October, a group of representatives from Nigeria and officials from European museums met in the Netherlands to broker a deal that will create a permanent display of artifacts from European institutions at the forthcoming Benin Royal Museum in Benin City, Nigeria, through a rotating loan system.

The agreement came more than a century after the Benin bronzes were taken, nearly a half-century after Nigeria started calling for their return, and more than a decade after the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) was formed specifically to advocate for their restitution. It coincided with broader conversations, fueled in part by French president Emmanuel Macron, about restituting or arranging long-term loans of African artifacts in European museum collections to institutions in Africa.

Figure: Leopard, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, 1550–1680. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


In the recent discussions about repatriation, the Benin bronzes have often been cited as a prime example of African heritage that is housed chiefly in European and North American museums. This is partially due to the circumstances under which the artworks were seized, during a retaliatory invasion and ransacking of Benin City by British troops in February 1897. Not coincidentally, the British Museum ended up with one of the world’s richest collection of Benin bronzes; it has agreed to lend some of them as part of the BDG agreement. In exile, these artworks have come to exemplify African nations’ alienation from their respective cultural heritages, an effect that is amplified by their incredible number, formal refinement, and historic significance.

“They speak about a very sophisticated and complex court system,” said Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg, which participated in the BDG talks and will lend some of its 180 Benin objects as part of the agreement. “Through the study of these objects and their oral tradition, we are able to access knowledge about how the works relate to the history of the kingdom and how they developed stylistically.” The long-term stability of the kingdom—and the durability of its thousands of surviving metal artifacts—makes this abundance of information “quite rare for African art,” Plankensteiner said.

Casts in context

Produced over the course of roughly 500 years, the Benin bronzes provide an aesthetically rich record of life in the thriving Benin kingdom, located in the tropical forests of what is now south-central Nigeria. They show the evolution of the empire’s second dynasty, which is believed to have begun in the 13th century and continues to this day.

After the dynasty’s founding, successive obas, or kings, built up the capital, known today as Benin City, through measures such as digging a moat and erecting inner and outer walls to protect the enormous royal palace. The result was an urban center and court complex that would have rivaled the largest contemporaneous European cities. “[The palace] is indeed so large as the city of Harlem [sp], and is completely surrounded with a special wall,” a Dutch visitor wrote in an account published around 1600. “It is divided into many magnificent apartments, and has beautiful and long square galleries, which are about as large as the Exchange in Amsterdam.”

Because much of Benin’s history has been passed down orally over centuries, scholars offer differing accounts of when and how certain events and changes occurred, including the development of metal sculpture into an integral part of Benin’s royal culture. Some attribute the rise of bronze casting to the rule of Oba Oguola in the late 13th century. Others suggest that the flourishing of artistic production took place under Oba Ewuare; enthroned around 1440, Ewuare is largely credited with ushering in what is regarded as the golden age of Benin. The effort to make Benin one of the region’s most powerful and influential kingdoms was furthered by Ewuare’s successors—most notably Oba Ozolua, nicknamed “The Conqueror,” who took the throne around 1481, and Oba Esigie, who was enthroned around 1504 and ruled for nearly half a century.

Rattle Staff: Oba Akenzua I Standing on an Elephant (Ukhurhe), Edo, Nigeria, 1725–50. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rattle Staff: Oba Akenzua I Standing on an Elephant (Ukhurhe) (detail), Edo, Nigeria, 1725–50. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“When Benin was at its most ascendant, around 1480 to 1620, it was the power in the region,” said Kathryn Gunsch, curator and department head for the arts of Africa and Oceania at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Through trade with allies near and far, as well as military conquests, the kingdom of Benin became extremely rich and influential. One marker of the kingdom’s power and cosmopolitanism at the time was its close ties to Portugal, then a global trading powerhouse. There were Portuguese members of the Benin court, and the oba’s children were taught Portuguese (several of the Benin bronzes even depict Portuguese soldiers).

At the same time, the flourishing empire developed a sophisticated and hierarchical social system around the royal palace in Benin City. Many of the court’s daily operations were formalized and delegated to specialized guilds. These included a guild that managed the oba’s wives and regalia; another solely concerned with the transmission of oral histories; and craft guilds that oversaw the production of all the court’s art, such as the brass casters guild, the ivory and wood carvers guild, and the bead makers guild.

“All arts at court were organized within these royal guilds and the royal materials were controlled by the oba, so not everybody could have copper or ivory or coral regalia,” said Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, author of Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom (2008), and former curator of African art at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Only the oba could distribute materials so certain people at different ranks had the right to wear or have objects in their households made out of these materials.”

The brass casters guild, which still exists and remains active, is hereditary and strictly male. In addition to their function as artists, members of the guild hold an important position in the royal court. “Around the 1530s, because of a particularly daring act of allegiance to the king by the head of the brass casting guild, Oba Esigie decided that that position would henceforth be on the Uzama N’Ibie, part of the king’s privy council,” Gunsch said. “So the bronze casting guild has a really senior role at court. Even today, they’re very high-ranking: The head of the bronze casters guild is the highest ranking courtier among the palace guilds.”

Sculpture in the king’s court

Hand Coil, Guinea Coast, Nigeria, Benin, 19th century. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The umbrella term “Benin bronzes” refers to a huge range of objects produced by members of the casters guild, most of which are actually made of brass or copper alloy. Due to the collecting habits of museums in Europe and North America, the most common objects associated with the Benin bronzes are plaques and commemorative head sculptures. But the Benin bronzes also include elaborate and rare altarpiece sculptures; ornate staffs and other regalia that might have been carried by members of the royal court; and large birds and articulated snakes that adorned the roofs of the palace in Benin City.

The plaques, though, provide an unparalleled visual record of the kingdom’s history and court customs. Most of them date from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and offer clues on everything from clothing and religious rituals to architecture and warfare in the kingdom. They are believed to have adorned the columns, rafters, and even the doors of key palace buildings for centuries. However, by the time more than 1,000 British troops stormed Benin City on February 18, 1897, the plaques had already been taken down; the British found more than 900 plaques in a storage room.

Gunsch believes the plaques were not only intended to complement Benin’s enduring oral history tradition. She contends that the plaques were additionally commissioned by the obas to help shore up their power by reminding members of the court of their place, rank, and proper etiquette. Indeed, they include images of courtiers bringing taxes to the palace, warriors serving the kingdom, and metaphoric depictions of the oba, sometimes with animal attributes.

Head (Uhunmwun Elao), Edo, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 1701–1825. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Plaque, Edo, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 1501–1700. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

“The plaques portray a kind of ritual life that includes not just royal personages, but also servants and omada, who were the king’s servants,” said Berzock. “There are within the corpus things that hint at a kind of cycle of life within the kingdom, not just in the court itself, but beyond court, that’s sort of guided by these rituals.”

If the plaques served in part to guide the daily lives of members of the court, the commemorative brass heads were largely intended as tributes to the dead. “The commemorative heads are commissioned whenever an oba passes away,” Gunsch explained. “His son’s first commission has to be pieces for [his father’s] memorial altar, which include bronze heads that are surmounted by full ivory tusks.” As Gunsch has written, in the Edo language spoken in the kingdom of Benin, the verb sa-e-y-ama means both to make a bronze cast of a motif, and to remember.

To this day, the altars at the royal palace in Benin City are adorned with commemorative head sculptures. Like the plaques, they are produced using the lost-wax casting process, a laborious and technically complex process that members of Benin’s brass casting guild have mastered for centuries. It involves making ceramic mold panels on either side of a finely sculpted layer of wax. The molds are then heated so the wax melts away, leaving the negative space between the ceramic panels, into which molten metal is poured. Once it has cooled, the ceramic molds are removed, leaving the finished brass sculpture.

The immense skill involved in producing these sculptures adds to their historical significance—and their allure to Western collectors. “These Benin works notably stand among the highest heights of European casting,” wrote Felix von Luschan, a curator of the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, in the 1919 book Die Altertümer von Benin (“The Antiquities of Benin”). “Benvenuto Cellini could not have made a better cast himself, and no one has before or since, even to the present day. These bronzes stand even at the summit of what can be technically achieved.”

Bronzes in exile

Altar to the Hand (Ikegobo), Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, late 18th century. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of A

For better and worse, the history of the Benin bronzes is inseparable from their plundering by British troops in 1897. This event coincided with a moment of enormous fracture for Benin’s society, due not only to the loss of so much of its national patrimony, but also because the British forced Oba Ovonramwen into exile. The British took hundreds—or perhaps thousands—of artworks, though by no means all of them. Some of the seized Benin works were accessioned by the British Museum; many more were sold at public auctions in 1898, in part to pay for the costs of the so-called “punitive expedition” to Benin City. The British had no trouble finding buyers for the bronzes.

“When these objects hit the market, people were shocked that there was such incredibly fine, finely made, high-quality bronze and ivory work coming out of Africa,” said Gunsch. “That’s very surprising to Europeans, given their racist assumptions about the continent.”

At the time, the Benin bronzes were unlike any African artworks and artifacts that Europeans were familiar with—such as elaborate Yoruba headdresses, tunics, and other regalia—both aesthetically and as records of a powerful and advanced kingdom. Because they were made through elaborate processes and from rich materials, and because they depict a vibrant cultural life in a refined, naturalistic aesthetic tradition, the Benin bronzes fully met “the European definition of what art is,” Gunsch said. “That really changed the way people responded to them in the market. A lot of other African art objects had a longer road to being recognized as art.”

Plaque, Guinea Coast, Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, possibly mid 16th or 17th century. Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Figure: Male Attendant, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court if Benin, 18th century. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of A

The British auctions sparked a fever for Benin bronzes, and museums in the U.K., Germany, and Austria, in particular, sought them out, as did art dealers. In the ensuing decades—from Oba Ovonramwen’s exile in 1897 up to the resumption of Benin’s second dynasty with the enthronement of his son, Oba Eweka II, in 1914—works trickled out of Benin and onto the market. Many of today’s major collections in Europe were assembled from the British auctions of 1898. Other Benin works, including some of those in U.S. museums, come from the 1970s, when the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in England was sold off.

In modern-day Benin City, the brass casters guild continues to make work. Thanks to a decree by Oba Eweka II, they are free to make sculptures for the market, in addition to the court. “You can go to Igun Street, which is just outside the palace grounds, and see people casting,” Gunsch said.

Though technically refined and part of an unbroken artistic lineage stretching back centuries, contemporary Benin bronzes are not nearly as prized as the works that predate the British invasion. “There’s still the same court art being made today, yet there’s this Western fascination with authenticity and tradition, which is defined in a very odd way,” said Berzock. “I’m not saying these older works aren’t valuable. They’re very, very valuable. But why do we then look at everything that happened after the invasion of Benin and devalue it?”

Benjamin Sutton