The Art of Benin: PART 1
Carefully read the following piece of text. What can it tell us about cross cultural encounters?
In the passage Bacon’s view of the culture and civilisation of Benin is that of a conqueror eyeing the spoils of his conquest for value to pay for the expedition and profit; for gold and silver – “Silver there was none, and gold there was none” (Bacon 1897).
He appears unable to accept that an African civilisation had been capable of producing high quality artefacts and he seems indifferent to the possibility that, for example, the cast bronzes and carves tusks could be of religious or ceremonial value and he eyes much of the contents of the storehouses as “chiefly cheap rubbish” (Bacon, 1897), “the usual cheap finery that traders use” (Bacon, 1897), and he wishes the reader back in Britain to view Benin society as naive and backward, the old uniforms and glass walking sticks stored there given by traders to “tickle the fancy of the native” (Bacon, 1897) in a supposedly simple and uncomplicated society.
This reference to cheap trade goods says much about the expectations of those European traders who brought them in anticipation that they would be attractive and of value to their prospective trading partners. Yet Bacon and his compatriots discover the trade gifts in the storehouses of the compound, not in the Kings House or the Palava House, so perhaps they did not have the value to the inhabitants of Benin that the Europeans expected.
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In the passage Bacon writes with the superiority and certainty of an English naval officer (Woods & Mackie, 2008, p38), confident in the Imperial tradition viewing a culture that he believes is decaying, well past its peak and which has allowed “several hundred unique bronze plaques” . . .” of really superb casting” (Bacon , 1897) to be left in the storerooms “buried in the dirt of ages” (Bacon, 1897).
Bacon sees the religious or ceremonial aspects of Benin culture as “Juju” (Bacon, 1897) or witchcraft, defined as “a charm or fetish; supernatural power” (OED, 2008), and, after describing the larger buildings in the compound states “[It] straggled away into ruined and uninhabited houses” (Bacon, 1897).
Again, Bacon gives us a view of what he believes is general decay or disintegration.
Overall, therefore, the impression given is that of a victor, while looking for gold and silver – “silver there was none, gold there was none” (Bacon, 1897) – who finds only savagery and decay with the surprising highlight of “castings of wonderful delicacy of detail, and some magnificently carved tusks” in a culture which he sees as inferior and he can only explain this discrepancy by suggesting they were influenced by cultures with which he was already familiar – Egypt and China. It was impossible for this man with his own previous cultural encounters and personal preconceptions to consider that the bronzes, carved tusks and bracelets of Benin could be the product of a vibrant and successful African culture.
Bacon, R.H. (1897) Benin, The City of Blood, London, Edward Arnold
Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th Edition. Ed. Catherine Soames, Angus Stevenson, Oxford University Press, 2008
Wood, K and Mackie, R. The Art of Benin: Changing Relations between Europe and Africa 1, 2008, The Open University
The Art of Benin: PART 2
What artistic and cultural challenges did the art of Benin present to the West from 1897 to the present day?
The Benin artworks were brought back and sold to a variety of museums and private collectors across Europe and America (The Art of Benin, 2008, p45).
In Britain these included the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Liverpool’s Mayer Museum, the Horniman Free Museum in London and the British Museum (Ibid, p45).
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Competition to acquire these exotic objects, to debate their significance and to produce research about them was intense (Ibid, p45).
The Victorian view of the societies from which they had been wrested was that they were simple, unruly savages “ … the brutal savages of Benin” (The Times, 25 September 1897, p12) yet it was accepted that the quality of the Benin bronzes and the level of technical ability and craftsmanship was exceptional. Thus The Times reported: “. . . both by the novelty of the subjects and the technical perfection of the work, are surprising evidences of the skill of the Benin native in the casting of metal” (Ibid, p12).
The objects could be appreciated by their new colonial owners for their craftsmanship, for the technical prowess involved in their production, but not for their significance to the culture which had produced them.
Originally, as in the Pitt Rivers Museum, artifacts from cultures like Benin were displayed in an almost chaotic fashion, piled up in a cross-cultural jumble in poorly lit glass cabinets, without reference to cultural, religious context or the positions in which they had been discovered (The Art of Benin, Figure 2.9, p 72).
In the British Museum the Benin plaques were originally displayed in an area known as the Assyrian basement, apparently not an area well known to the general public where “the bronzes from Benin now shown have little in common with the rest of the contents of the room” (The Times, 25 September 1897, p12).
This was hardly a prominent position within the museum and suggests an uncertainty as to how to categorise these works and their relevant place within a world collection.
Today, as in the newly constructed Quai Branly (Quai Branly, Video), the Benin plaques are now displayed as individual works of art and are viewed as keys to the fostering of cross-cultural appreciation and understanding. We can see this aesthetic reverence again in the Sainsbury African Galleries (Illustrations, Plate 3.2.24, p55).
In the Quai Branly exhibits attempts are made to widen the viewers experience from that of simple appreciation of artworks carefully displayed and lit to highlight the aesthetic appeal by including panels on each exhibit giving anthropological information, for example “a eulogy to the Oba Chief, a historical record of the rituals and actions, there was not oral record” (Yves Le Fur, Musee du Quai Branly, DVD, 2009).
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At the Horniman Museum the African Worlds gallery now attempts “to shift the display of its seven Benin plaques out of the traditional anthropological encounter but also, significantly beyond the modernist art exhibition” (The Art of Benin, 2008,p 75).
So, moving from a carefully coordinated and lit display (Plates, 3.2.25-6) the visitor is presented with a variety of texts and photographs while new information based on contemporary research by Jospeh Eboreime “seeks to read the meaning of the plaques through ceremonies in present-day Benin, supplemented by the oral traditions in which they have their resonance” (The Art of Benin, 2008,p 75).
Despite the less cluttered, more reverential aesthetic methods of display and increasing attempts to explain and educate at the anthropological level, today there is criticism that we still ignore the cultural and religious significance of these objects (Kevin Dalton-Johnson, DVD) and that the real value and significance of the Benin bronzes can only be truly appreciated once they are returned and restored to the setting from which they originated and developed. The fact is that the Benin culture relied upon an oral tradition which was supplemented by the bronzes in every day and ceremonial life.
Who decides on ownership? How best to display the works? What about religious, cultural, sociological issues? Where should they be displayed – in Europe or Africa? If in Africa where? Will as many people be able to view them in Africa as can now where millions have the opportunity at the British Museum?
These argument have some logic, even a moral case, though whether the exact setting and all the original social and cultural environment can be recreated is debatable. The counter argument – that these objects belong in major European collections where they benefit from being placed in a world context with objects from other cultures (Chris Spring, DVD) – does have a resonance. Today there is also the possibility of display in situ where they were actually found in Benin via the internet or other technological solutions.
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After all we are studying the art of Benin using prepared materials in book and DVD form. True, actual physical encounters with the bronze and ivory pieces would be preferable, but we are coming to an understanding that we cannot all travel everywhere we wish; we understand the impact of mass travel and may have to accept technological answers to our understanding of other cultures.
The African diaspora argument also falls flat when it is suggested that these works of art can be loaned after return to Africa when surely this could happen right now?
In conclusion we can see the cultural challenges posed by the discovery of the Benin plaques, sculptures and carved ivory changing over the last 100 years from the grudging acceptance of the exceptional craftsmanship of what were considered to be inferior cultures by the colonial society of Victorian Britain, in sometimes crowded, unsympathetic galleries, to the appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the artefacts; now, an interest in understanding of their cultural and ceremonial context; finally an emerging debate as to the correct ownership and control over their display and correct location and interpretation.
AA100 The Arts Past and Present – Book 3 Cultural Encounters, The Art of Benin, DVD Rom, The Open University, 2009
Donna Loftus, The Art of Benin: Changing Relations Between Europe and Africa II, The Open University, 2008
Illustration Book, Plates for Books 3 and 4, AA100, The Arts Past and Present, The Open University, 2008)