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Benin Plaques

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    Af1898,0115.26

  • Title (series)

    • Benin Plaques
  • Description

    Relief plaque made of brass cast using the 'cire perdue' (lost wax) technique. Rectangular in form with side flanges (largely missing). Holes for attachment at top and bottom right. Background surface is decorated with stylised quatrefoil (river leaf) patterns and stippling.

  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 16thC-17thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 45.5 centimetres
    • Width: 38.2 centimetres
    • Depth: 10 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Read & Dalton 1899:
    Seated figure of the King with two kneeling attendants... the ornaments attached to the king's garments are leopard masks, while those of his attendants are in the form of frogs.The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in varius composiitons. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th - 17th centuries.

    In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, possibly made in series, were fixed to these pillars. While belonging to well-established West African tradition of royal palace decoration, the Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters.

    Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund HumphriesPlankensteiner 2007:
    Pyramidal structures of authority reflect Edo values, and the most salient royal image in the Benin art is the triad, which depicts the Oba flanked by two assistants called Enobore. This hierarchical composition is recreated whenever the Oba walks in public with a supporter on either side, and its significance is eloquent and multileveled. One deceptively simple level concerns the obligations of citizenship set forth by Oba Ewuare the Great (c.1444-1473). Stories recount that when Ewuare had reorganized Benin's capital city, he adopted the coral regalia of the god Olokun as his own. However, when he wore Olokun's beaded garments, he discovered the enormous weight of his crown, which symbolizes the burdens of divine kingship. He then asked the Edo people to help him carry the heavy crown. On this level, the triad represents the responsibility of the populace to assist the Oba in governing the Benin kingdom (Blackmun 1984: 275-276).

    On a deeper level, the triad is a warning of the Oba's access to unearthly resources not available to ordinary mortals. Three is an uncanny number and is never used lightly. Moreover when the bronze images are polished, their red colour and reflective surfaces enhanced their otherworldly aspect. At least four other reliefs represent the seated Oba and kneeling attendants, similar to this one. In most Benin triads, however, each figure is frontal and standing. There is also a version with two kneeling attendants, in which the artists have depicted the Oba's legs as mysterious fishlike appendages, and leopards lie down before him.

    The seated Oba triad is among a set of bronzes that can be separated from the majority of Benin's relief’s. During the 16th and early 17th century, many workshops were employed in creating hundreds of bronzes, resulting in style variations that usually follow an accepted norm. In contrast, the shape of the crown and helmets within this set is cylindrical. There are also unusual finials on the oro protrusions that spring from the flattened upper surfaces of these cylinders. The beaded garments are represented as lightly textured surfaces, and distinctive patterns enhance the straight skirts.

    Within this set of triads with cylindrical crown characteristics, there are bronzes produced by another contrasting group of artists. In their work, the figures are not as sturdy as in the reliefs discussed above. They are slender and svelte, with small heads, as is the standing triad illustrated here. This slender style is further differentiated by the use of circles incised with crosses in the background, instead of the usual pattern of leaves. William Fagg has suggested that circle-cross backgrounds identify the earliest reliefs (1963a: 34), and he may have been correct. Nevertheless, it might be possible to locate details that will place these innovative artists elsewhere in Benin's art history.

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • Plankensteiner 2007 164 bibliographic details
    • Read & Dalton 1899 pl XVII.5 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
    1993-1997, London, Museum of Mankind, Great Benin: a West African Kingdom
    2007 May-Sept, Vienna, Museum für Völkerkunde, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
    2007-2008 Oct-Jan, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
    2008 Feb-May, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
    2008 Jun-Sept, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1898

  • Acquisition notes

    Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by the British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms. The British Museum successfully petitioned the Government to safeguard some of these objects and over 300 brass plaques were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. Numerous other objects brought out of the city were sold or exchanged on the coast; many pieces were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction or were retained by soldiers of the expedition. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies on behalf of the Foreign Office agreed with the British Museum a temporary loan of 304 plaques acquired during the Benin Expedition. In September these were placed on public display and attracted considerable attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number

    Af1898,0115.26

Text from Read & Dalton 1899  Plaque made of bronze: Seated figure of the King with two kneeling attendants. The chief variation is that the ornaments attached to the king's garments are leopard masks, while those of his attendants are in the form of frogs.

Text from Read & Dalton 1899 Plaque made of bronze: Seated figure of the King with two kneeling attendants. The chief variation is that the ornaments attached to the king's garments are leopard masks, while those of his attendants are in the form of frogs.

Image description

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