The Kingdom of Benin Royal Court Art
The objects in bronze and ivory from the Kingdom of Benin (Nigeria) made the kingdom famous when it comes to African art and culture. They were objects with religious and spiritual value made only under royal command. The Oba (King) commissioned the Igun-Eronmwon (members of the guild of bronze casters) to make a bronze-cast of significant events that took place.

The ancient Kingdom of Benin was raided by a British military expedition in 1897 when most of the priceless works of art were forcibly removed from their context and dispersed to England, continental Europe and United States of America. Their total number being estimated at over 4,000 (Philip J.C. Dark 1982).

A general survey history of the Benin kingdom from the earliest times; the Ogiso period (c. 900-1170); the second is the period of the New Dynasty of kings or Obas (c. 1200-1897), while the third phase is that of colonial rule and its impact on Benin society (after 1897).

The name 'Benin' can be found on European maps of Africa from the sixteenth century onward; from that time, the kingdom was an important trading partner. Trading relations was first with the Portuguese, then with the British, Dutch and French. Goods supplied by Benin in 1897 was Guinea pepper and ivory were traded, then cotton and textiles, beads, redwood, rubber and palm oil. Ivory was also exported up to the end of the 19th century. The Europeans exchanged these goods mostly for copper and brass manillas or for cowry shells from the Maldives, as well as for diverse luxury goods such as European and Indian textiles and fine silks, hats, and Mediterranean coral. Later also firearms and munitions were traded, and a great variety of metal goods, spirits, tobacco, as well as bars of iron and lead (Alan F.C . Ryder 1969).

In the end it were economic factors that led to the destruction of the kingdom of Benin. In the late 19th century, the Niger coast was dominated by the British, who increasingly became reluctant to accept the trading conditions dictated by Benin, and aimed at talking control themselves. The gradually brought the areas bordering Benin under their administration, removing or exiling unwilling local rulers. Furthermore, they started to add the areas delineated as their sphere of influence at the Berlin Conference of 1885 to their territory.

Works of Art

The bronze and ivory pieces viewed today as significant works of art had a variety of functions in the court life and ritual in Benin. As court art their primary purpose was to glorify the godlike king and the history of the powerful empire. Benin City, the capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, has become a lively metropolis of more than half a million people and is lead by Oba Erediauwa who has revitalized the arts including brass casting. The Lost Wax method of metal casting or cire perdue dates back over 6,000 years. Artisans of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Han Dynasty of China and the Benin civilization of Africa used this method to cast artifacts and tools. There is still debate as to who was the first to develop the technique.

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16th - 17th century: Thanks to Olfert Dapper, a reasonable amount of information is available on the architecture of the palace at the time of the manufacture of this plaque.
Container in the Shape of a Palace Building
17th - 18th century: The hinged box container in the shape of the palace depicts the king's conference chamber.
16th century: The rider represents Oba Esigie
(c. 1504-1550), one of the three great warrior kings.
20th century
Oba Akenzua II greeting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in historic 1956 photograph.
Queen Mother
Oba Akenzua II during a palace ceremony.
March 3, 1964
21th century
2005/2006; Omodamwen workshop; Shown here is an idealized portrait of Oba Erediauwa, presumably with the first wife of his four wives, to whom there also corresponds a special role; both are appareled in the regalia in use today.
15th-16th century: The bronze head date from the creation of the title of Iyoba, awarded to the woman and mother (Uhunmwun-Elao) who literally, gave birth to the future king, Oba Esipie (1504-1550)
1997: The four wives of Oba Erediauwa during a palace festival. Only the queen who bears the first male child will become the Iyoba, Queen Mother of Benin. Therefore she is the woman most often represented in court art.
Site created by  Myra Wysinger

16th century: The battle scene plaque shows four Benin warriors accompanied by a hornblower and five of the enemies. (military essay)
18th century: Brass Stool of Oba Eresoyen
18th century: Brass Lidded Container
Ivory Object
18th century:
Staff with Lyoba (Queen)
Ivory carving has been part of court life since the early 12th century (source). In the past, all trade in ivory was controlled by the Oba (king), and any hunter who killed an elephant was obliged to give one of its tusks to the palace. In this way the rulers of Benin amassed huge stocks of ivory, to be carved by the Igbesanmwan, the hereditary guild of ivory carvers. Ivory's ritual importance stems from its color, orhue (chalk), considered the perfect symbol of purity, prosperity and peace.

While it is common to emphasize the continuity of art and culture in traditional societies, Benin's development was far from static. Contact with the neighboring Yoruba groups, the introduction of Christianity and Islam and the formation of the nation of Nigeria impacted the arts. Although the kingdom of Benin ended in 1897, the Oba continues to commission art to inspire public loyalty and pride, as well as preserve historical memory during the changes of 21th century Nigeria.


Institute for Benin Studies