|Type of Object||
Bronze Container, Bronze Figure
|Country of Origin||
“Kingdom of Benin” Nigeria, Nigeria
Bronze, Copper Alloy
About the Benin People
“The Benin kingdom was founded by the son of an Ife king in around 1300, but it was not until the 15th and 16th centuries that the kingdom reached its maximum size and attained its highest artistic standards. Towards the end of the 15th century the Benin made contact with Portuguese traders living along the coast and it is likely that these traders introduced previously unknown techniques such as brass gilting to Benin craftsman. Following the British punitive expedition to Nigeria in 1897, about three thousand brass and wooden objects were consigned to the Western world. They were later sold to underwrite the expenses of the expedition and to provide payments for the widows of soldiers killed in the war with Nigeria. At the time, Western scholars were stunned by the quality and magnificence of these objects.
Benin art is best described as court art since it was associated with the king, known as Oba. He held the monopoly on elephant tusks and coral beads within the kingdom, and the brass, elephant tusks and wooden objects referred to above were usually displayed during parades or were placed on top of ancestor altars.
Benin figures are rare. The majority date from the 17th to the 18th century and were carved to represent court officials, equestrian figures, queens (recognized by their high coiffure) and roosters. The latter two were seen on the altar of the queen mother.
Benin brass, terracotta and wooden heads are relatively more common and were placed respectively on the altars of kings, of brass caster corporation chiefs and dignitaries. Occasionally, a brass head was surmounted by a carved elephant tusk engraved with the procession of different Obas. For the longest time these heads were thought to represent an Oba, but today some Western scholars believe that a number of the 16th-century heads may be representations of prisoners.
The style of Benin brass heads evolved from thin casts with prominent chins dating from the 16th century to thicker casts showing a high collar extending to the mouth and a coiffure formed by two vertical ‘wings’.
At least two other styles of brass head dating from the 16th century can be distinguished. The first- called the Udo style, from the Udo chiefdom where three of these heads were found – includes eight rougher-looking heads, the backs of which were pierced with rectangular holes. The second style also dates from the end of the 16th century and has a rounded head with semi-circular eyes and a flat coiffure.”
Baquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc. 1998. Print.
About Lost-Wax Casting Method
In-direct lost wax casting is the most basic form of metal casting seen in African cultures. Scholars have yet to establish exactly how it was introduced and developed in West African regions, but it is known that it was being used prior to Portuguese explorers’ arrival in the late 1400’s.
To use this method, the artist must begin with a low melting point material that can retain its shape but is soft enough to carve intricate details into, such as beeswax. Once the artist finishes carving the details, layers of clay are applied to the outside and then left to dry. The first layer of clay applied takes on the details, while the additional layers of coarser clay provide strength to the entirety of the mold. Once fired, the wax is then melted, leaving only the baked clay shell. Liquid metal is then poured into the empty clay mold. Once the metal has hardened and cooled, the clay exterior is then broken. This process reveals the finished metal object, which is always unique due to the mold being destroyed during the final process.
Many West African sculptors have altered this method by using multiple castings, which can be used to create hollowed and thin metal figures. One of the ways to achieve the hollowed result is creating the wax sculptures over a formed clay core. Iron spikes are used to attach the solid clay core to the clay layers of the mold. The metal is then poured inside and left to cool and hardened. At the end of the process, the clay core is then broken up and removed and the final brass work is finished. These hollowed pieces can then be united to create larger figures or vessels.
Apley, Alice. (2001, October) African Lost-Wax Casting Essay. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wax/hd_wax.htm