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The Art of Benin
Read Reading 2.3 ‘On the British loss of antique works of art from Benin’ in AA100 Book 3, Chapter 2 and look closely at Plate 3.2.25 ‘Display for Benin bronzes at the Horniman Museum, London, 2007’ and Plate 3.2.26 ‘Display of Benin bronzes at the Horniman Museum, detail, 2007’ in the Illustration Book. Drawing on your understanding of these sources, discuss the ways in which European attitudes to the Benin bronzes have changed over time.
To discuss the ways, in which Europeans attitudes to the Benin bronzes have changed over time, we need first to go back to the period when they first were discovered, in 1897, following the British invasion of the Benin kingdom. We will also look into how the Victorian viewed the bronzes, and their craftsmen. Since the discovery of the artefacts, the bronzes have caused lots of debates and different opinions. It has been debates who produced the bronzes, when and for whom, and as a consequence museums and anthropologists have debated how they should be displayed.
The Benin bronzes were discovered in 1897, during the time period, when the great interest in the British empire was flourishing, and stories of the imperial adventures around the world were very popular by the people in Britain. In the 1880s and 1890s, when Africa was heavily and brutally colonised by the Europeans, a new trend developed back in Europe. The deeper the colonists expanded into Africa, missionaries, civil servants, capitalists were not far behind. Letters, pictures and unusual objects were sent home to Britain, to later be shared and reproduced in books, newspaper and museums. Tales of estranged encounters and experiences with the natives, in particular primitive rituals, involving sacrifices and cannibalism, were very much on the agenda at the time.
When the Kingdom of Benin was conquered by the British in 1897, it resulted in a traumatic end of the centuries-old kingdom and their ruler, Oba, the ‘god-king’. The news travelled fast about the British invasion, and the frontline journalists arrived just a few days later after the conquest. The weekly illustrated newspaper The Illustrated London News (ILN) was particularly interested in reporting stories that created a sense of drama. Artists along with journalists were at the frontline to convey in pictures about the events within the British empire. There were lots of eyewitness accounts of the events around the conquest. However, it needs to take into consideration, that they are somewhat biased as they were written by the British for the British, which resulted in a style of reporting that portrayed scenes of savagery and brutality by the natives.
In the extract from the ILN, written in March 1897, for example, Benin is described as a ‘city of blood having its pit full of dead and dying; human sacrifices were strewn about on every hand (Reading 2.1 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 79). Taking those eyewitness accounts into consideration, with the findings of the artefacts, it is not strange the bronzes were described as ‘having the most grotesque appearance’ (Reading 2.1 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 79), and that the Africans were seen as ‘dark and dangerous people’ (Loftus and Wood, 2008, p.45), a stark contrast to the white ‘civilised’ Europeans.
As a result, the significance of the bronzes was somewhat tainted by the preconceptions of the primitive and uncivilised African culture that little attention was given how the bronzes had been displayed or used before they were removed from the scene as the photograph shows (Figure 2.2 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 50). Afterwards, the artworks and objects were brought to Britain, to the frustration of Henry Ling Roth, anthropologist who wrote in his book; ‘and sold for a few hundred pounds a large number of castings which had cost thousands to obtain, as well as much blood of our fellow countrymen.’ (Reading 2.3 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 80).
But, it did not take long for collectors, scholars and art historians in Europe and America to realise the pure craftsmanship and the value of the Benin bronzes, thus tried to obtain the finest pieces. Roth points out; ‘From what I can ascertain, the bulk of these bronzes has been secured by the Germans’ (Reading 2.3 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 81) suggesting if the British government have had the proper knowledge of the study of anthropology, the Bini articles would be represented at British Museum, instead of the Royal Museum for Ethnography, in Berlin where the largest collection of 580 Benin artworks was acquired.
Art historians and scholars were at first somewhat dubious that the bronzes had been produced by the craftsmen of Benin. Instead they were looking for other explanations, even so far as whether there was a possible link between Benin and ancient lost civilisations such as the Gnostics. The British Museum had to rush and to produce research about the Benin artworks as the popular interest in the African culture corresponded with the growing debates about the history of the human race. The debate about the origin of the Benin bronzes was considerable. Questions were raised about how the aesthetic qualities shown in the bronzes could possibly been created by a society such as Benin, which was perceived backwards and primitive, with stories of human sacrifices and brutality.
When the British Museum held an exhibition of the Benin bronzes in September of 1897, the Times wrote a report, that no evidence or links, between Benin and lost ancient civilisation had been found, and the report concludes unexpectedly, with a surprise, that the magnificence bronze work was made ‘by negro craftsmanship’ (Reading 2.2 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 79) and not by any ancient lost civilisations. Subsequently, this new information caused somehow confusion for the British Museum, as the Benin plaques did not fit into the chronology of events as first presumed, and therefore the choice to display the Benin bronzes in the Assyrian basement can only be seen as an alternative option, given the difficulty of placing them among already existing artefacts with established chronological narrative. The Times describes the choice of display; ‘An exhibition of a remarkable kind has been arranged in the Assyrian basement in such uncongenial surroundings’ (Reading 2.2 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 79). Consequently, when the Benin bronzes entered museum collections, both anthropologists and museum curators had difficulty to explain how these uncivilised primitives could produce something equivalent, in technical mastery, like the sculptures from the Italian renaissance for example.
The way the artefacts and objects are displayed and described in museums are important for communicating the skilled knowledge about history and art to the general public. However, it is always difficult for the historian to know how the material has been interpreted by the viewer. Even tough, the facts about the new knowledge of the Benin artworks had been presented, it did little to change the racists ideas. Artworks were seen as evidence of civilisation, something Africa did not demonstrate in terms of progress, and therefore was seen as ‘backward’ by the Europeans. The ethnographic museums, were likely to put together the display of what we regard today as artworks, together with functional items; like tools and weapons and utensils, which used to represent ideas how the ‘primitives’ lived. Non-western objects were seen as scientific evidence and provided cultural knowledge, but not as art.
One of the biggest changes that the modern movement brought, was the way art was displayed. One can probably say for certain, that the change evolved naturally, as art is always receptive to outside influence. Ann-Christine Taylor says in the interview about the exhibition in Paris; ‘French museums with large ethnographic collections, were deserted by the public. Nobody knew what to do with these collections anymore.’ (Taylor, A. speaking in The Art of Benin, 2008). The problem they had on their hand, developed into the idea, to create a brand new cultural institution. Their aim was to try to capture people’s attention and interest by using visually spectacular objects.
Their idea resulted in the exhibition, Benin, Five Centuries of Royal Art, shown in Musee de Quai Branly, in Paris. The museum made use of space and lightning, to emphasise each of the object’s artistic quality in its own rightful way. There is some anthropological information about the plaques, to not solely adopt an aesthetic route. Nevertheless, many anthropologists were angry, as the exhibition was presented as works of art, emphasising on the visual impact rather than ‘testimonies of cultural diversity’ (Taylor, A. speaking in The Art of Benin, 2008)
While the debate how to best display the Benin bronzes continues, many museums were adopting the cross-referencing, bonding the gap between art and anthropology. However, some museums, such as The Pitt River Museum in oxford for example, has resisted and deliberately kept the traditional way of displaying objects with explanatory labels in glass cases. (Figure 2.9 in Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 72).
The Horniman Museum on the other hand, decided to take a step further and changed their display of its Benin bronzes, and incorporated both anthropological and aesthetic aspects. (Illustration Book, Plate 3.2.25 and Plate 3.2.26) Most significantly, it does not stop at the moment of aesthetic contemplation, it continues deeper into the entire culture of Benin, in the past and present. Making use of a variety of texts and photographs with new information based on contemporary research by Joseph Eboreime, a Nigerian historian. (Loftus and Wood, 2008, p. 75)
The controversial views of the Benin bronzes have undergone a natural evolution since the discovery in 1897. But it is not only the bronzes, it is the whole transformation of western views towards Africa that has taken place. The Benin bronzes were mystifying for the Victorian anthropologists, and not easy to fit into a racist representation of ‘primitive’ ways of life. Later throughout the twentieth century, the works of art started to become almost solely of aesthetic admiration rather than as a kind of historical evidence. There are signs, like those, that can be seen in The Horniman Museum, that the world of art is in for a new movement. Primitive art has become world culture, and the Benin bronzes stands as evidence of a shared human history.
(word count 1633)
AA100 Illustration Book: Plates for Books 3 and 4
Loftus, D. and Wood, P. (2008) ‘The Art of Benin: Changing Relations Between Europe and Africa II, AA100 Book 3, Chapter 2.
‘The Art of Benin’ (2008) AA100 DVD ROM
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