The descriptions of Benin sculpture of art and culture provide important historical perspective on artistic developments over several hundred years.
The royal ancestral altars have long been a focus of artistic elaboration perhaps dating back to Ogiso era, and much of the sculptural forms that most charactetrize Benin art were originally created to honour Royal ancestors of the Benin nation.
A European visitor van Nyandael in early eighteenth century saw on one altar eleven men’s heads cast in copper and upon every one of these is an elephant’s tooth and on another he saw only carved tusks.
In early 1820s, a written description in the Royal gold coast Gazette, an actual sketch of a Benin altar with many other brass objects were represented “The tombs are decorated by as many Large elephant’s teeth as can be set in the space; there are elegantly carved in the manner of the ancients, and the socket of the tooth is introduced into the crown of the head of a colossal brazen bust, that by its correctness of expression and regularity of features confirms our opinion of that art having been long introduced and Liberally cultivated by those people.
The drapery, which resembles the collar of a large toga or gown covers part of the cheek, and infact the whole is in the best style of workmanship. The other figures on these monuments are very happy, a blacksmith on an ass, and a carpenter in the act of striking with an axe, are well portrayed, and figures of animals are generally equally happy in design and execution”.
While the Portuguese impact was strong, it was nonetheless brief, for they were soon surpassed in trade by the Dutch, French and English visitors.
The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries have provided vivid picture of the size and complexity of Benin City and of the customs, ceremonies and art forms associated with Benin life.
Dutch descriptions of the royal palace and its art works are of particular interest because this important edifice was destroyed in 1897 by the British invaders, thus we can only know about it indirectly through accounts and artistic depictions.
In the writings of Olfert Dapper, who used early seventeenth century Dutch reports, find the earliest Europeans depiction and written description of the palace thus:- “The King’s court is square and stands at the right hand side when entering the town by the gate of Ughonton; and is certainly as large as the town of haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircle the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces; houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the exchange at Amsterdam, but one Larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean. Every roof is decorated with a small turret ending in a point, on which birds are standing, birds cast in copper with outspread wings, cleverly made after living models”.
In another report, the Dutch visitor pointed out “On top of the last gate is a wooden turret, like a chimney, about sixty or seventy foot high cast a large copper snake attached to its top, its head dangling downwards. This snake is so neatly cast with all its curves and everything that I can say; that this is the finest thing one has seen in Benin. One can see behind a white carpet eleven human heads cast in copper, upon each of these is an elephant’s tooth.
A brass stool, on the base are images drawn from the bush and water as well as the sign of the powerful hand, and at the centre is a circle of blacksmith’s anvil, surrounded on either side by blacksmith’s tools and ceremonial swords. Above these symbols of civilization are cosmic symbols — Moon, Maltese cross and sun and below are symbols of monkey’s head and two elephant trunks ending in hands holding magical Leaves (Berlin Museum).
In Benin elephant is identified with chieftaincy and there are folktales recounting the rivalry between the elephant and the Leopard representing kingship. A royal staff showing the Oba standing on elephant could be proclamation of victory. (New York Museum).
A wooden status of Esu and Brass plague of the messenger of death are commonly found on ancestral altars. The figure symbolized the king’s power of life over his subjects. (National Museum Lagos).
Osun specialists use ivory horn to announce to the witches that a ceremony is about to begin (London Museum). Brass cup used by Osun specialists for Ewawa divination has small brass images of humans, animals, cowries and other objects are shaken in the cup and thrown down into Ewawa drum, the resulting arrangements of the images are then analyzed. (Vienna Museum).
The Ancestral god sticks-ukhure are staffs, surmounted by a human head, represents generalized ancestors and is for a paternal ancestral altar while an upraised thumb is for nobility and is associated with the gesture of gathering up riches. (Chicago Museum of natural history).
The bell on the ancestral altar is used to call the ancestors and warriors used to wear such bells around their necks for protection in battle and to announce their victories on returning from War. (University of Pennsylvania Museum).
Oba Eweka II put the traditional craftsmen, carvers and casters to work, producing replacements for the shrine objects taken away during the British expedition; and lifted the restrictions on the sale of art work and built a shed which Later become an Arts and crafts school; in the palace courtyard so that the craftsmen could have a place to work and sell their wares.
Traditional Guild members were thus able to continue creating art forms for their former patrons while at the same time producing objects for a new colonial officers, tourist and developing Western educated elite.
At the same time, the Government schools introduced art classes based on techniques and styles and new approaches to art and forms emerged as a complex reaction to a changing situation in the Benin sculpture of Art and culture.