Why The Benin Bronze Head Remains a Sacred Art – Paulski Art

Why The Benin Bronze Head Remains a Sacred Art

They speak about a very sophisticated and complex court system.”

- Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg.

Throughout life, school… we face a complex shift in perception as different courses are introduced to us, that widen our scope of what we thought the world to be, and awaken our souls to what it actually is. The deepest connection and intrigue encountered so far, and still being rediscovered day by day is that of Africa’s Culture and Heritage… And where better to start, than at the roots of one of the oldest kingdoms in West Africa that started in the 900s. The mighty medieval capital. 

The Benin Dynasty ,started by Oba Oranmiyan, who was from the Kingdom of Ife, in 900 CE. It was led by Oba- a powerful ruler, who lived in palaces decorated with shining brass. It is here that the Benin Bronzes came alive. A collection of more than 3,000 figures and other decorative pieces.

This brass figure above is believed to be Prince Oranmiyan. Edo legend says that no one in Benin had ever seen a horse before Oranmiyan arrived!

These aesthetically rich records of life that existed in the thriving Benin kingdom, creates an imagery of an ancient civilization located in the tropical forests of what is now south-central Nigeria. How vast was it? Well, According to estimates by the New Scientist's Fred Pearce, Benin City's walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. 

What are the Benin Bronzes?

The BENIN BRONZES have gained fame for years all over the world since they were looted from their original home. The year was 1897… and since, they have often been cited as a prime example of African heritage that usually housed in the museums in Europe and America.

They were named bronzes for a reason. They made a cluster of fine works defined simply as group of sculptures which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments.

According to one ancient account, the original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Bini (or Edo people), were initially ruled by the Ogisos (Kings of the Sky). The city of Ibinu (later called Benin City) was founded in 1180 C.E. These sculptures of deep mystery and rich history were created for royalty, to honor their powerful leaders who represented the traditional rulers and custodians of the culture of the Edoid people. A highly organized state.

Did you know that they’re made of brass and not bronze as the name denotes? Well, aside from brass they also carved ivory and  wood. The brass casts were made using the lost-wax casting technique. This is simply a method of metal casting in which a molten metal is poured into a mold that has been created by means of a wax model. 

In this case, it was specially made for the ones that held the throne. There are examples dating back to the 14th century, and a similar process was used in the production of brass heads in the nearby Kingdom of Ife, dating back around 500 B.C. Imagine having a piece of this history in your home… a sense of connection to the greats that lived before us, powerful and intelligent.


The Bronze Head

This brilliant piece of history not only recorded the kingdom's significant historical events and the Oba's involvement with them, they also initiated the Oba's interactions with the supernatural and honor his deified ancestors, forging a continuity that is vital to the kingdom's well-being. This meant that they never forgot where they came from, and all those who came before them. Tight knit kinship tied to belonging to a people, to a place… to a kingdom.

The royal favored convention/ a common purpose, as it promoted creativity and innovation, especially as a reflection of royal prerogative. Through time, rulers have used the arts to interpret the history of the kingdom and to merge themselves with the traditions of the past in an effort to support their own initiatives and define their images for posterity. 

As they evolved, the state developed an advanced artistic culture especially in its famous artifacts of bronzeiron, and ivory. Just as we believe that every man was born for a reason and has a purpose, the same applied to this kingdom. Brass casters (igun eronmwon) were the highest-ranking craft guild within the hierarchical structure of the Iwebo society, followed by blacksmiths (igun ematon) and ivory and wood carvers (igbesanwan). People believed that brass had the power to drive away evil. It was so special that it could only be used in the royal court. The palace walls as well were covered with plaques made from brass and that was also used to make figures and heads for the royal altars.

The Edo people have a saying, “The head leads one through life’s journey.” Just as all our bodily functions are connected to us as individual beings, the head symbolizes the powers of a successful leader. This bronze head cannot be recognized as any particular oba; it was meant to represent the oba’s powers. Also, in the Edo language, the phrase "to commemorate" (sa-e-y-ama) means literally to cast a form in brass

Usually, this leader’s formal dress draws attention to his head. As their sculptures show, they wear a tall collar of coral beads around the neck and a coral cap with dangling strands of coral beads. Coral was a precious material in Benin, coming to the kingdom from the Mediterranean Sea across the Sahara Desert. According to Edo tradition, an early oba stole the first coral from the god of water, and coral has protective powers.

The Oba is referred to metaphorically as “the leopard of the house,” and images of the impressively elegant and sly feline appear frequently in Benin's royal arts. Before the invasion in 1897, domesticated leopards were kept in the palace to demonstrate the Oba's mastery over the wilderness. Leopard imagery is also frequently linked to the Oba's military might. He was a sacred monarch, a living link to the powerful realm of ancestors and deities. He is considered to be beyond the needs and restraints that limit humankind, such as eating, sleeping, illness, and even death.

The bronze heads were reserved for ancestral altars. Kind of the way we keep trinkets of our past relatives or family as a reminder their life... a way to keep them alive. They were also used as a base for engraved elephant tusks, which were placed in openings in the heads. Benin sculptors made heads of former kings and queens, which were used in elaborate rituals.

These heads were displayed on altars to honor the ancestors of the Oba, who, like the Ife kings, were believed to be gods.  The commemorative heads of the king or the queen mother were not individual portraits, although they show a stylized naturalism. This is depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, as observed by the artists. 

Contemporary Use

Today, the world is awakening and raising their frequency to the beauty of natural life. They are being inducted in homes, commemorated in hotels, kept as monuments in social places, and some are cherished in the most private and natural of spaces such as in bedrooms, living rooms, offices and basically where the heart desires; so as to keep the aesthetics natural, beautiful and with a piece of intense history. These collections preserve a heritage, a memory, and are in itself, an item of pre-eminent value.

Craftsman finishing polishing the last details of a bronze statuette made using the technique of lost wax casting, used in the kingdom of Benin before the European colonizers arrived. Photo by Jorge Fernández/LightRocket via Getty Images.


The art still continues to date, with more freedoms... seeing as the King controlled who got to use these important and precious materials. That's why it was for royalty. Having this piece is like remembering a way of life of a highly organized people that respected art and treated it sacredly. Back then, it was a way of remembering an oba’s accomplishments. But more important, it forms a connection between the new oba and the spirits of his ancestors, necessary for the health and prosperity of the people. A reminder of your prosperity. The cycle of life.

"Achieving [and expressing] mature historical thought depends precisely on our ability to navigate the uneven landscape of history, to traverse the rugged terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity and distance from the past."

-Richard White~ Historian

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