Benin Bronze Collection

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of over 3,000 artworks and sculptures from the ancient Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria and these sculptures date back to the 16th century.

Overview:

  • The Benin Bronze collection includes cast plaques that are intricately decorated as well as human and animal figurines.
  • All these historic pieces were looted by the British colonial forces during the infamous Benin City raid in 1897.
  • Many of the sculptures date back to the thirteenth century, and a large part dates back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
  • Several of these works were commissioned specifically for the kingdom’s rulers or Obas, as well as the Queen Mothers.
  • These artefacts shed light on the Benin Kingdom’s relationships with its neighbouring states and the kingdom’s culture.
  • Some of these works also explore the kingdom’s interactions with Europeans.
  • It is considered that two “golden ages” in Benin crafts occurred under the reigns of Esigie (fl. 1550) and Eresoyen (1735–1750) when their craftsmanship reached its peak.

What were the pieces made from?

While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, the pieces are largely composed of brass of varying compositions, like most West African bronzes. There are also pieces that are made of mixtures of brass and bronze, ceramic, wood, ivory, etc. The metal sculptures were created using lost-wax casting and are among the best examples of this technique.

Why did the British loot the collections?

Following the killing of seven British delegates on their way to Benin City for a trade mission in 1897, the British launched a retaliatory military expedition that resulted in the city’s capture. Thousands of artefacts were taken back to the UK after the Benin Royal Palace was plundered and partially destroyed. Since then, the artefacts have been spread globally. Nigerian activists and historians have been trying to get them back.

About the Kingdom of Benin

The Kingdom of Benin was a kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria, sometimes known as the Edo Kingdom or the Benin Empire. Edo, presently known as Benin City in Nigeria’s Edo state, was the capital of the Kingdom of Benin. The Kingdom of Benin was one of the most developed and oldest states in West Africa’s coastal hinterland. It was founded in the 11th Century AD and lasted until 1897 when it was annexed by the British Empire.

Returning of the artefacts

The Smithsonian museum which holds 39 of the artefacts has announced that it will return the majority of its Benin Bronze collection to Nigeria. The organization’s decision comes amid renewed requests from across the globe for plundering artefacts to be returned to their countries of origin by western museums.

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