Special Report

April 10, 2010

Benin Bronze casting: The story of power and royalty…

….An insight into the great bronze casting works of Benin Kingdom

Mask head of the Queen Mother, Idia

By McPhilips Nwachukwu
One of the greatest defining characteristics of the historic Kingdom of Benin, now the capital of Edo State, is the bronze casting tradition. Established in the 14th century by Oba Oguola and placed under the hereditary leadership of the IneN’Igun Eronmwon, the art of bronze casting helped the ancient kingdom to produce some of the finest bronze heads, many of which were allegedly carted away by the invading British colonial forces during the Benin expedition of 1897.

Following that tragic  incidence that resulted in  the exiling of Oba Ovoramnwem to Calabar, the invading British forces were said to have looted the wealthy treasury of the Kingdom of Benin and carted away historic bronze heads including the original mask head of the Queen Mother, Idia, whose face was used by Nigeria during World Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC, in 1977.

The alleged looted works from the royal treasury of Benin are today found in many museums of the world and in many private homes; especially in Britain, Germany and America. And sadly, in 2007, a group in Europe held the first bronze traveling exhibition titled,  Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, which started in Vienna in Australia and moved on to France, Germany and finally berthed at the Art Institute of Chicago in the United States of America.

The origin of bronze casting – There appears to be no definitive origin of the Benin Bronze Casting tradition as Sunday Vanguard’s checks revealed the existence of a number of schools of thought that provide explanations to the origin of bronze art. To a school of thought, the art of bronze wax casting was introduced from outside Africa. This school of thought premises its argument on the fact of the technological sophistication of the art.

But another school of thought upholds that bronze casting in Benin came  from the Kingdom of Oyo, and Ife  in the Yoruba country. In a paper presented at the 2008 Edo Bronze Festival in Benin, retired permanent secretary and one-time palace secretary to Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin, Daniel Inneh, gave an account which recalled how  the Ooni of Ife sent his son, Ezohe, at the request of Oba Oguola, to help with bronze casting in Benin Kingdom. This emissary, according to Inne’s source, avoiding to stay permanently in Benin, decided to leave behind his own son, Igueghae, who was born in Benin, to continue to teach and produce  bronze for the Oba. Possibly, it was from  this man, Igueghae, that the present hereditary producers clan of the art got their name, the Igue clan.

But how true is this story of origin? Inne, who himself is a bronze caster by birth , his forebears coming from Igun Eronmwon, explained, “Benin Bronze is unique in its own very different way from other bronze traditions in the world. The Benin Bronze is an urban art form associated with power and royalty and far removed from the commoner.”

Adding his voice of support to this claim of uniqueness,  Omorege Obaseki of the Igun Ematon Guild argues that even the name of the supposedly hereditary father of the bronze tradition in Benin, Igueghae,   does not in any way sound like a Yoruba name neither does that of his father, Ezohe.  In Obaseki’s view, the  Ife Bronze heads are entirely different in their form and contents and do not  share any functional or aesthetic relativity with the Benin Bronze heads.

Bronze casting as  an art of duty to Oba- Unlike  in many other cultures, the Benin Bronze art is a tradition established to serve the royal stool in very many and important ways. Our findings revealed that the bronze casters are commissioned by the Oba himself, and serve the royal stool  in the capacity of what is known in modern governance as palace photographers and historians.

According to  Louis Enobakare, the organizer of Edo Bronze Festival, “ Bronze casters in those days served the Oba as palace photographers by being available to document through their arts all the important events in the life of every Oba.” There are other activities, according to Enobakare, included in the coverage of all important ceremonies in the kingdom like festivals, rituals and visitations to the kingdom.

During the  stay in exile of Oba Ovonranmwen in Calabar, another source who would not want to be named, said  every  written message sent to the exiled king was being intercepted and screened, the palace minders resorted to the use of  the bronze casters in passing messages across as they would then inscribe messages meant for the Oba in their bronze works as symbols and images since it was  only the Oba, who could decipher such texts.

In essence, the bronze art of Benin was not  strictly aspired to the aesthetic sensibility, but was rather more committed to content functionality and social relevance as a coda of history and social aesthetics.

Benin Bronze as a restricted guild practice – Because of the power and social functions empowered by the Oba at the establishment of bronze casting tradition, Sunday Vanguard findings further revealed that the casting profession remained a very preserved tradition only practised by the Igun clan of casters by the official approval of the Oba.

This royal control over the practice of bronze casting remained so,  according to our source, until about 1914, when the grand father of the present Oba, Oba Eweka 11, following depletion of the  royal treasury as a result of  colonial intrusion, gracefully, allowed members of the casters family to commercialize their services.

By this royal permission, the casters, now under a guild could, apart from their commissioned works for the Oba, also engaged in the production of bronze artefacts for sale.

But, according to our source, the restriction of the practice of this art form was not only on membership,  but also had and continues to have gender implications . According to Emmanuel Ikponmwosa Inneh, the public relations officer of the Igun Bronze Casters Guild,” Women and young girls are not allowed to practise bronze casting. But all the boys born into the Igun clan, as they grow  up, are formally and informally  trained in the art of casting. But the women  and the girls, we do not allow to practise because of the fear of taking the art to their husbands homes.”

This practice of limited admittance, according to Dr Kaye Johnson, a visiting research scholar of art history from the University of West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, goes to reduce the commercial chances of the Benin brand in creating a strong revenue front for Edo State.

“ If the culture of liberalism is allowed at all levels in bronze casting, you will be amazed at the depth of the commercial and technological resource  being under utilized in this important culture form.

“When the art is engaged with a new sense of commercial interest, you will begin to see new dynamism both in the production, marketing and content dimensions of the brand”, he said.

Benin bronze casters as losers- Sadly, while  Benin artefacts and bronze are yielding  billions of pounds and dollars for their host countries and collectors in Europe and America, even as these countries and citizens provide the only reliable resource bases of  conducting any important scholarly researches on these material culture products, the home based casters suffer in abject penury.

Sunday Vanguard checks at the Igun Street, home of casters, showed a very discouraging picture of a people, who practise their art in the most difficult conditions. Apart from the fact that the activities of the casters are controlled by a guild, the association has not  gained desired interventions as to improve the lots of the casters.

Practitioners of the art still resort to the difficult  wax method and still  make use of locally built ovens in the firing of  the bronze.  Sadly too,  the source of scrap bronze metals used in the casting and fire woods for firing are difficult to come by.” We go as far as Okene and Abuja to buy charcoals and firewood that we use in firing the bronze”, Ikponmwosa said,”  while  urging government through National Museum and Monument to come to the aid of casters by building a foundry for them. “ We have a guild. If government can come to build a foundry where we can fire the bronze, we will know how to alternate the use of it  for the constituting families”, he added.

The road to a new bronze casting culture-Considering the global significance, which the bronze tradition has brought to the historic Kingdom of Benin; and the new surge of commercial interest in the acquisition of historic artefacts in the world today, bronze and culture stakeholders are beginning to engineer a renewed campaign towards the evolvement of new commercial lifeline for bronze casting.

Enobakare of the Edo Bronze Festival  is of the opinion that the present Oba of Benin can improve on what his grandfather did in 1914 by further  expanding the commercial right of the practice of the art.” There is nothing wrong in having University of Benin Guild of Bronze Casters, Yaba College of Education Guild, University of Lagos Guild etc. The essence of this would be to allow the Igun casters to serve as resource persons to these centers.

“ If this is done, you will see that the practice will be given a new  scholarly face. Research will go into the teaching and production  of bronze and new interpretations that will command both commercial and global attention will emerge”, he stated.

On how to improve the commercial relevance of bronze casting, Enobakare explained that both the Nigerian Export Promotion Council and National Museum and Monument have important  roles to play.

According to him, “in the past, Benin lost out from commercial profits of bronze following the looting of British invading forces, but it is now high time for Nigerian Export Promotion Council to ensure that the trader and producer of bronze lives comfortably.

“The National Museum and Monument, apart from reminding government through its budget of the need to providing the casters with work aiding facilities, can also help  by giving professional exhibitions to these artefacts nationally and globally.”

By Benin tradition, bronze casting is strictly by royal commission or omission-Inneh

Daniel E. Inneh, a retired permanent secretary and holder of Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Archeology was secretary to Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, Oba of Benin from 1984 to 1990.

A member of the Bronze Casters Guild , having been born into the IneN’Igun Eronmwon hereditary clan of bronze casters, during his time as Oba’s chief scribe, he was opportuned to come close and relate with other palace guilds, whose hierarchy of control he understood.

As a scholar, he has published many papers on the bronze casting tradition, delivered at important conferences and meetings in Nigeria and abroad. His deep knowledge of the royal institution and bronze tradition , therefore, confers on him the right to make insightful statements on the age-long tradition. And this is what he frankly did when Sunday Vanguard visited him in his home in Benin City.

Tell us about yourself

I am a direct descendant of the Igun Eronmwom Royal Guild of the brass casters, the family that produced the many works of Benin bronzes now scattered in museums all over the world.

Like   my  other   brothers, and in line with tradition, I learnt to cast bronzes early in life and still finds time to participate in bronze production.

I hold  a position in the age grade arrangement in the guild of brass casters having been placed in the Urho n’ukpogieva following the death of  my  father  in 1976  in  line  with guild’s  practice. It is a family tradition that every member through seasoning  is expected to participate in brass casting. By training, I am a graduate of history and archeology, a course that took me through the whole broad of  not only bronze casting, but also helped me to understand how this traditional form succeeded in shaping the material culture of Benin through time.

I have written many papers on both bronze casting and the Igun  Guild of Bronze Casters, the guild that is assigned to produce bronze for the Oba by commission.

I was coming to that issue. What is the relation between the Guild of Bronze Casters and the royal stool of Benin?

The guild is a creation of the palace. The palace saw the need for it since Oba Oguola; and, of course, the practice of the art has been improved upon  over time by succeeding Obas, who went on to organize the guild as a body of crafts men conscious of their assigned responsibilities  to produce those works for the Oba and not for any other persons.

It is only in recent times that the production is made open so  that  those who are not members of the royalty could have possession of bronze crafts. But, strictly speaking, by Benin tradition, bronze casting is by royal commission or omission.

Does entry into the guild require any kind of initiation?

No.  In the guild, we don’t have any kind of initiation. You are born into it by right of birth to the casters family. Any son born into the casters family is seasoned in early age to develop the capability and the skills of the art.

Initiation can only come in when non-members of the casters family are directed to come and be taught the art of casting. It is then that such right may be demanded of such a trainee in order to put him through the rudiments of casting tradition.

How many guilds are available?

This  is a vary giant question because, there are three royal societies in the palace: the Iwebo society, who are responsible for the Oba’s ward robe, the private apartment of the Oba, the people there are in charge of the Oba’s personal life, among them also , you have the medicine men, who look after the Oba’s health demands. Then , you have the Ibiwe society, the people who look after the Oba’s harem and children.

When you talk of guild, each royal society has got about fifteen to twenty five guilds associated with it. The guild of broadcasters , that is, the focus of our discourse, is one of the guilds under the  Iwebo society.

What are supposed to be the functional range of the bronze casters?

Bronze casters produced for the Oba in the early times memorial heads of departed Obas. These heads were put in the shrine  for the purpose of propitiation and worship.