Monday, April 10, 2017

A Benin Copper Alloy Plaque at the Walters Art Museum


In the Chamber of Wonders of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, a very special work of sub-Saharan African art may be found: a Benin copper alloy plaque (Walters IL.2005.3 or Smithsonian E428177-0). The empire of Benin was an independent military and economic power on the West African coast up until the very end of the 19th century. The placement of the plaque in between ivory sculptures from East Asia seems fitting. Portuguese sailing in caravels were the first Europeans to make direct contact with Benin in the late 1400s, connecting them to a global mercantile network.
 It is tempting to imagine the copper and brass bracelet currency known as manillas that were melted down to cast the plaque being exchanged for the tusks that became the objects flanking it at the bustling river port of Gwato. Ivory was a principal export for Benin, along with pepper and enslaved people. Benin was ruled by hereditary kings of fluctuating authority known as obas. The obas were not only political and military leaders, but a living point of contact between the material and spiritual worlds.


The Benin plaques first appear in the Western historical record in the Dutch scholar Olfert Dapper’s 1668 book, “Description of Africa.” They were described as being hung vertically on the veranda posts of the oba’s palace complex. More than 900 of these plaques are now in collections around the world. In Benin, copper alloys were valued for their red color and their reflective qualities, which were believed to deflect negative energy and provide glimpses of the spirit world. It can also be speculated that these plaques functioned mnemonically with oral histories to create narrative interpretations. The plaques are associated by scholars with the reign of Oba Esigie in the 16th century, considered to be a period of economic, political, and artistic florescence.

The plaques reemerged into western consciousness after the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. This expedition was the final phase of a conflict between Benin and the British Empire over control of the lucrative palm kernel and palm oil market. They were discovered unhung in a storage area by a British naval force in the process of looting and ultimately destroying the palace complex. Most of the copper alloy and ivory artworks found in the palace were removed and auctioned off by the Royal Navy to defray the costs of the military operation. Some were kept as personal booty by the officers and men who participated in the operation. These objects are now in museums and private collections around the world.

 The path from this auction to the collection of the uranium magnate Joseph Hirshhorn is unclear. During most of the 20th century, provenance records were not generally kept for African artworks, which were often categorized as ethnological specimens rather than fine art. Hirshhorn began collecting Benin art in 1957, eventually amassing an important collection. Hirshhorn is better known as a collector of modern and postmodern art, but the deep influence of African art on European modernism may provide a link between these two collecting interests. All of Hirshhorn’s Benin bronzes were bequeathed to the Smithsonian along with the rest of his art collection. This donation was the genesis of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  In 1985, a Smithsonian reorganization removed non-Western art from the collection of Hirshhorn Museum and sculpture garden. Most of the Benin pieces went to the National Museum of African Art. However, the Walters plaque became part of the collection of the ethnology division of the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology. It was loaned to the Walters in 2005.


The figures in Benin plaques wear a rich panoply commensurate with their rank in the complex hierarchy of the Benin court. An iconographic analysis of the costume of the figure in the Walters plaque may provide some insight into the role of this individual in the life of the Benin Empire. Starting from the head we can see a cap made of tubular beads of precious coral (corallium rubrum) and a high collar also made of coral. Fiery red coral beads carried major significance in Benin society, all being considered the property of the oba and distributed to high-ranking individuals at his discretion. These beads were riginally imported from the Mediterranean by the Portuguese. For the Bini coral had a mythological connection to the superhuman Oba Ewuare's victory over his otherworldy counterpart, the numinous sea god Olokun. Coral caps are sometimes inherited by hereditary nobles. The cap on the individual on the Walters plaque is topped by a feather, and long braids of hair terminating in large agate beads flow from underneath it. The coral collar or odigba that completely covers the neck and the mouth is of special note, being exclusively associated with royalty. On the chest we can see the three vertical lines of the iwu or scarification distinct to the Bini. The hands are in a ritual pose that is repeated across multiple artworks. At the wrists, we can see long bracelets, perhaps made of ivory or copper alloy. These are indicators of rank, not a sartorial choice. At the waist, we can see a kilt or wrapper made of overlapping and richly-patterned fabrics. We can also see a swag of coral beads. This swag of beads, like the odigba, is associated exclusively with royalty. Below this, we can see elaborate anklets. Like the bracelets, they were a regulated indicator of high status.

Using a technique pioneered by the American scholar Barbara Winston Blackmun, we can search other plaques and carved ivories for a recurrence of the figure and other iconographic clues. An example of a plaque with a very similar figure can be seen in a photograph belonging to the British Museum (Af,A60.70). In this photograph, we can seem an almost iconographically identical figure, down to the position of the hands. The key differences are beads on the forehead and temple, strands of beads around the neck, and the absence of the coral swag at the waist. Beads had major political significance in Benin, and the possession of certain beads were considered necessary for the legitimate exercise of kingship. In this photograph we can also see subsidiary symbols, in this case the heads of four crocodiles. Crocodiles were associated with waterways, merchants, and the sea god Olokun, and therefore the oba. Like the oba, crocodiles are liminal creatures, moving between two worlds.

In the collection of the British Museum there is also a plaque (Af1898,0115.38) that is very different but shares some iconographic elements with the Walters plaque. This plaque shows a group of figures, with the central figure in hierarchical scale. This figure has been identified by Blackmun as Oba Esigie. We can see him surrounded by attendants and carrying the ritual wand. We can also see him in what Blackmun identifies as a ritual pose, with one hand extended. This may be a representation of the ritual pose in high relief as opposed to the bas relief of the Walters plaque and similar examples. There are also formal similarities between the legs of the Walters figure and the oba in the British Museum group plaque. We can see a similar pattern on the wrappers of both figures. Is it perhaps an abstracted heads of Portuguese motif? The similarity between the two patterns is so striking that we may think we perceive the hand of an individual artist working the the soft beeswax molded over the clay core, although the brasses were produced by a guild.


Another plaque that contains an iconographically similar figure is Ethnologisches Museum III C 8364. In this example, the only difference is that the sculptor has included the supraorbital iwu marks. This plaque also contains subsidiary symbols, in this case two Portuguese. Unusually, these two Portuguese carry special wands for warding off negative spiritual forces and reflective mirror charms. Like crocodiles, the Portuguese were considered liminal or amphibious messengers from Olokun. They were also symbolic of wealth and danger.

 Finally, we can compare the Walters plaque with a figure on a carved tusk (Cleveland Museum of Art 68.284) also identified as Oba Esigie by Barbara Blackmun. In this case, the figure is flanked by a Bini attendant carrying a cylindrical leopard skin box known as an ekpokin, and a Portuguese soldier stroking his beard. Esigie is particularly associated with the Portuguese. He studied in the Portuguese school established in Benin by his father Ozolua, and could speak and read Portuguese. He was even baptized. The key differences between the figure of Esigie on the Cleveland tusk and the figure shown on the Walters plaque are the kingly beads on the pate and temples of the coral cap and the strands of beads hanging on the chest and the wand in the right hand. Does the figure on the Walters plaque perhaps represent Oba Esigie as a young prince before he recovered the accursed beads of kingship from the site of his vanquished half-brother’s suicide? The iconography of the plaque would have to be interpreted a member of the royal Igun Eronmwon brass casters guild in Benin City to know for sure.

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