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HOME : Decorative Arts : African Sculptures : Benin Style Bronze Plaque
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Benin Style Bronze Plaque - LSO.563
Origin: Nigeria
Circa: 20 th Century AD
Dimensions: 20" (50.8cm) high x 15.5" (39.4cm) wide
Collection: African Art
Medium: bronze
Condition: Very Fine

Location: United States
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The vast majority of Benin’s artworks are designed to honour the achievements and/or memory of the Obas, the divine rulers of the Benin polities. Until the late 19th century, the Benin centres were a ruling power in Nigeria, dominating trade routes and amassing enormous wealth as the military and economic leaders of their ancient empire. This changed with the appearance of the British forces, which coveted the wealth of the royal palaces and found a series of excuses to mount a punitive expedition against the Oba’s forces in 1897. It was only at this point, the moment of its’ destruction, that the true achievements of the Benin polities became apparent to western scholars.

The palaces were a sprawling series of compounds, comprising accommodation, workshops and public buildings. As it grew, the buildings pertaining to previous Obas were either partially refurbished or left in favour of newer constructions; this led to a long history of royal rule written in sculptural works that rank among the finest that African cultures have ever produced. The technology of bronze and copper smelting, ironworking and sculpting in a range of materials that particularly included ivory was extremely refined and effective; indeed, smelting, forging and cire perdue (lost wax) metalworking methods exceeded any seen in Europe until the 19th century.

Perhaps the most valuable and remarkable objects made by the Benin craftsmen are the bronze/copper plaques that were cast in sections, assembled, and nailed to the walls to mark the achievements of the Obas. These are a perfect history of the palace system, dating from the early 16th to the 19th centuries, containing reference to all aspects of courtly life and events such as the arrival of Portuguese troops. There were once thousands of these objects, but the majority were taken as booty by British soldiers and were even auctioned off in Southampton docks after their return to England. As a result, many have vanished and the remaining examples are very rare (about 900 are known). There is stylistic drift between the earliest and the latest examples.

The current example is believed to date to the very end of the 19th century, and is therefore contemporary with the European invasion and enormous social changes wrought in the Benin polity. The figures are in comparatively low relief, with relatively little addenda after the original casting. The plaque is slightly convex, and was probably designed to be mounted on one of the pillars supporting the roof of the palace. There are 5 intact and one damaged nail holes for attaching it to the pillar. The Oba is depicted centrally, astride a horse. Unusually, he is depicted in three-quarters view, as is the horse. In his left hand he holds a ceremonial sword, in his right a short sword or sceptre. Unusually, he is depicted as being smaller than the accompanying soldiers – in most multi- individual plaques the sculptors express the characters’ importance in terms of size. Therefore the Oba would be larger and in higher relief than his attendees. His apparel is more European than indigenous in design, with a long coat and a hat modelled along the lines of a studded helmet, not dissimilar from some of the Portuguese headwear sometimes depicted in 17th century examples. The two guards seemingly belong to different regiments or divisions, as indicated by their different headwear. The fact that the figure to the right of the panel appears to be holding the bridle of the horse hints at a distinct role for this individual. They are wearing identical leopard-branded tunics, which were designed to intimidate their enemies in battles.

The background is covered in low relief scrollwork swirls. This is a well-executed piece of Benin history, all the more significant for date of its manufacture and the bloodshed that preceded it. - (LSO.563)


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