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Date: 16th to 17th century
Medium:Copper alloy (brass or bronze)
Geographic Location: Nigeria, Benin City
Dimensions: Overall: 18 x 14 1/2 x 3 in. (45.72 x 36.83 x 7.62 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.
Object Number: 2005.38.McD
This plaque from the Edo (E-dough) peoples of Benin (buh-NEEN) shows a high-ranking warrior chief in military attire. Behind him is a background of river leaves and rosettes cast in relief. These rosettes symbolize an Edo belief that the sun makes a daily voyage from the sky to the sea and back again. The sea was important to the Edo peoples because it was the source of Benin’s wealth from trade.
Benin art was made to glorify the reigning and ancestral obas (O-bah), or kings. Plaques like this were used to decorate the oba's palace.
Edo (E-dough) metalsmiths were casting brass before the late fifteenth century when the Portuguese, the first European visitors to the area, arrived bringing copper, a material valued by the Edo peoples. The Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira noted in the 1490s that the Kingdom of Beny [sic] “is about eighty leagues long and forty wide; it is usually at war with its neighbors and takes captives, whom we buy at twelve or fifteen brass bracelets each, or for copper bracelets, which they prize more.” The brasscasters’ guild melted down the copper bracelets and over time cast plaques, equestrian figures and other statuary, portrait heads of rulers, pitchers in the form of leopards, boxes, and game boards. Many seventeenth-century visitors described seeing plaques engraved with pictures on their travels. A casting in Berlin shows how bronze plaques were affixed around doorways and to columns that supported the palace. One Dutch account, published in 1668 by Olfert Dapper, refers to the plaques in a description of the palace complex:
“The king’s court is square… and is certainly as large as the town of Haarlem, and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many 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.”
Accounts of the plaques’ existence all but disappeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only to resurface in 1897 following the British Punitive Expedition of 1897.
The warrior chief on this plaque is dressed in formal military attire—consisting of a shirt and a layered, leopard skin wrapper or kilt—an elaborate hat decorated with horsehair, a coral beaded choker, a leopard tooth necklace, and a bell for signaling his position on a battlefield. The leaves in the background are thought to represent healing river leaves, and the rosettes cast in relief are thought to symbolize an Edo belief that the sun made a daily voyage from the sky into the sea and back again. The sea was important to the Edo peoples because maritime trade was the source of their wealth.
Founded around 900 AD by the Edo peoples of present-day Nigeria, the Benin (buh-NEEN) kingdom was a powerful nation based in Benin City. Its success was based on trade with the Portuguese and others. Ruled by a divinely mandated oba (O-bah), or king, the Edo peoples created works of art largely from copper alloy and ivory. The kingdom flourished from its founding until the seventeenth century. The British Punitive Expedition of 1897 destroyed Benin City. Today, the Edo number about one million.
The City of Benin. Engraving, 1668.
The oba is shown in the foreground on horseback surrounded by dancers, dwarves, and animals. His palace is in the background.
In 1896, a small group of British officers and nearly two-hundred African porters were sent to negotiate with Oba (king) Ovonramwen of Benin to open his kingdom to international trade. Though the expedition sent a message to the Oba describing peaceful intentions, Oba Ovonramwen treated their advance as a national emergency. On January 4th, days after executing twelve condemned criminals in front of the expedition as a show of force, he sent a group of soldiers, led by his son, to ambush the British as they approached. All but two of the officers were killed.
When the survivors returned to the colonies, accounts of the experience were published in the press. These reports caused wide public outrage which eventually pressured the British government into sending a punitive expedition force to Benin consisting of twelve-hundred British soldiers armed with Maxim guns. For six months, British soldiers attacked villages and towns in the Benin countryside looking for the Oba until he finally surrendered. Many precious cultural artifacts, including this plaque, were taken during the campaign as war booty. After the Oba’s surrender, the king and his chiefs were subjected to a show trial presided over by the leader of the British expedition. At the trial’s conclusion, six Edo chiefs were condemned to death while the oba was deposed and sent into exile after a battery of humiliating ceremonies.
The Edo throne was restored in 1914, but without its former power. Today, Oba Erediauwa reigns as a member of one of the oldest extant dynasties in the world.
2. We know that this plaque would have been one of many pieces used to decorate a king’s palace. How are other royal spaces decorated? What is the potential purpose of these decorations?
3. It can be argued that movies like Indiana Jones dramatize and romanticize the removal of cultural treasures from indigenous populations, but rarely, if ever, question the legal or ethical responsibilities of their protagonists. Are filmmakers and writers responsible for the attitudes that their narratives create?
|Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss the British Punitive Expedition.|
|Watch a video about the symbolism of space related to this plaque.|
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.