Maintaining tradition in Benin City
From Fraser Ottanelli:
Seventy miles west of Asaba, on the road to Lagos, lies Benin City. It is a bustling city of over one million, the capital of Edo State. Unfortunately, in the midst of chaotic trafic and sprawling urbanization, very little remains of what once was, along with Timbuktu, one of the great West African kingdoms.
The origins of the city date back at least to the 11th century, the thriving city-state had expanded into an empire within four centuries. Benin City flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, built on a slave trade and the sale of tropical products to the Portuguese and the Dutch. European travelers described it as a well-planned city with magnificent buildings and an outer permiter and internal quarters delineated by massive wall structures. Estimates place the total length of the wall to over 3,000 miles (longer than the Great Wall of China.) In addition to its impressive constructions, Benin was also known for its “bronzes.” These statues portrayed animals (such as leopards and crocodiles), human heads, especially those of the Oba (king) and his family, and smaller statues of his entourage. Initially made of carved ivory and iron, following contact with Portuguese merchants local craftsmen shifted to alloys of brass and other metals.
In early 1897 a large British expeditionary force forcibly occupied and then razed Benin City to the ground. The Oba was forcibly exiled, and almost all the “Benin Bronzes” were taken by colonial authorities and shipped out of the country; most are on display in museums in Britain and elsewhere. The tragic consequence of this action is that only a handful of these beautiful artifacts are preserved in Benin.
In spite of these events, the skills required for casting were never lost, but were passed on from generation to generation. Today a vibrant community of craftsmen, using traditional techniques, continues to produce marvelous objects which stand as testimony to this ancient culture. And the Oba has returned to power, and still exerts considerable influence on regional affairs.
Our hosts in Benin City, Dr. Louis Odogwu and his Italian-born wife Marcella, took us on a tour of of one of the old workshops. There we were shown the elaborate process through which this old art is kept alive.