Benin Bronzes, Lost Plots, and Prime Real Estate

It is always interesting to procure pieces from a personal collection of African Art. One can get some insight into the mindset of the owner, his particular attractions, the efforts he expended in collecting tribal art, and the pieces he considers special. These special pieces typically find pride of place in the living room (prime real estate to the collector), or a special room where one can enjoy the pieces in a peaceful setting. One of my favorite pieces of African tribal art is an old Benin bronze – a casting of a Queen’s head.

Benin - Queen's Head Bronze

What I was clueless about was the level of artistry and complexity that the casting process was capable of producing. One particular piece in Howard’s collection soon clarified the shortcomings of my thinking. I suspect the casting represents a young Oba (King) in Benin regalia. Suffice to say it seemed a logical upgrade.

Benin - Bust of Young Oba (King)

The Benin people still use the Lost Wax process to produce fine bronze castings.

The process begins with a basic clay form over which beeswax is applied and carved. Once the carving of the wax is completed, layers of clay are added and allowed to dry. The entire mold is buried in a heating pit and fired. The wax subsequently melts, leaving behind an empty container with both an inner and outer shell. The liquid brass, or bronze is poured into the shell and allowed to cool. On breaking open the outer shell the casting is revealed. When this method is used the final product is always unique.

Benin - Bust of Young Oba (side)

In 1897 a punitive expedition by a British[1] force of 1,200 looted the city of Benin, and destroyed the West African Kingdom of Benin. Over 2500 (official figures) religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks were taken to England. 

E1 - Oba Akenzua II (1933-1978)

In one instance Nigeria was forced to purchase 5 stolen bronzes from the British museum[2]for £ 800,000. It is easy to understand how valuable these works are to museums when their prices have reached astronomical levels. What is less clear is why these items have not been returned to Nigeria, and show little signs of being returned in the near future. Clearly the British Museum has truly lost the plot in this little tale.


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