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[Music] we're here in the museum of fine arts in boston looking at the benin plaques the kingdom of benin is in present-day nigeria it was founded around the year nine hundred and the current reigning king opera the second dates his dyna state back to around the year 1250. at its height benin controlled a kingdom about the size of new england with two million inhabitants oba is the word for king so here we are looking at the oba dressed in fabulous regalia and holding symbols of his power we know that this is the oba because he's wearing a phenomenal crown made of coral beads and it has this tall basket tree projection called an oral projection which is a sign of leadership he's wearing a tunic made entirely of coral he's wearing a beautifully imported demasque skirt and he's got coral on his ankles on his arms most importantly he's wearing the bead of rule on his chest this coral is a beautiful deep orange red we also see the king holding leopards which are a metaphor for his power the leopard is the fastest most ferocious creature in the forest and so it's an emblem of the king and then around his waist we have these mudfish the mud fish is an interesting creature in that it can bury into the mud during the dry season and survive until the rainy season so it has this ability to live in two worlds also mud fish sometimes have an electrical charge and can shock you he's frontal his body is symmetrical this is an aesthetic choice that you see in benin art of many media i always ask people to mimic his posture it's very uncomfortable to hold your hands in line with your torso and that tells you that this is a little bit less naturalistic in just the posture of the king as we look at other plaques in the collection you'll see that artists become more comfortable showing movement in the body and this plaque originally would have really gleamed visitors to the court noticed that they were glistening in the sun and that the benin courtiers kept them polished you see them brown in most european and american collections because europeans like their bronzes to be dark they oil them so when the banin bronzes showed up in europe people oiled them today we're nervous to remove that oil because it's affected the layer of the metal and we worry about losing detail casting bronze is difficult we're talking about really accomplished artists and we'll see as we look at different plaques how the artists gained greater confidence in this medium over time what you see in the background is the most common motif it's a river leaf motif and that makes sense if we think about the coral that the king is wearing there's a belief that coral comes from the god of wealth olokun who lives underneath the river and so this river leaf pattern is related to that sense of the king controlling wealth visitors to the court in benin city would have seen a fabulous palace with an audience hall decorated with these plaques that's our understanding from visitors to the court and court tradition and they would have surrounded the pillars that supported the roof of the audience hall so it had an open ceiling that let in sunlight and the plaques would have gone around all four sides of those pillars that's the theory today so we can imagine people entering the audience hall seeing the king at the other end and looking at these images on the pillars that speak to the power of the king it would have been very impressive especially when you consider that copper was a medium of exchange in this period so try to imagine wrapping the halls of the president with 100 bills that kind of wealth that you're looking at when you walk in and then when you saw the oba at the end of that audience hall dressed in this gleaming orange coral this was quite a sight like courts around the world the idea was to dazzle you when you walked in to visit the king maybe we should talk about why you can go to so many museums in the united states and in europe and see these plaques it seems like every museum has at least one benin plaque and that's dated to a terrible moment in benin history in 1897 due to a trade dispute there was a war between britain and benin the british forces invaded benin city burned it to the ground and occupied it and took at least a third of the royal treasury and sold it at auction in europe people were amazed by the beauty of benin art and so very quickly museums around the world bought pieces of benin art one of my favorite plaques is of a mudfish all by himself and it reminds us that the plaques had basically two different sizes a narrow size and a wide size it seems that the narrow plaques are meant to work together with the wide blacks to sheath a column this pack with the mudfish is a great example of the earliest work that the guild is accomplishing it's an incredibly low relief mudfish and what we mean by that is that the fish doesn't really emerge from the surplus of the plaque more than about an inch inch and a quarter so the artist has been fairly safe in the way that he's molding this figure keeping it close to the surface of the plaque and that's something that might have given him confidence that it would cast well but you can see that artists are really interested in decoration and so every bit of this fish has some fine decoration on it and especially when it was bright and shining it would have been so much more impressive let's look at a wider plaque this one in higher relief which was likely made later here we see a very common motif in benin art and that is three figures very often in benin art you see something called triadic symmetry where you have a central figure and then figures on either side that are symmetrical and in the center of this one we see a figure playing a drum this is probably a warrior he's wearing a warrior's bell on his chest and he's wearing a leopard tooth necklace a sign that he's in the opus militia and i see belle's also dangling from his belt and if you look closely those bells are attached with a leopard skin leather which is a symbol of his relationship to the oboe and he's larger than the figures on either side of him and this is something that we also see in benin art often although it's interesting in this corpus you start to see artists abandoning that and that might be because it makes the side figures much harder to see from a distance in later plaques we start to see three figures who are all the same size even if one of them is hierarchically more important so i'm seeing so much more movement here yes and if we think of the mudfish we looked at as the earliest kind of plaque very simple very flat the farther along we go the more fun we can see the artists are having with the medium here the arms of the drummer are off the plaque surface they're touching that drum in a way that feels believable and comfortable to mimic with your own body same with the attendants who are playing a double gong their arms are off of the surface of the plaque the artist is still a little cautious the arms are attached to their chests and yet we get that sense that they really are moving out to play this instrument and their heads tilt slightly so there's a real sense of animation to the figures even the way the bells are tipped it seems like they've just moved or come to rest and for me at least that helps me imagine the sounds these figures are making and so these are figures who are entertaining the king these were likely in a procession coming to or from the opus palace and now we're looking at another plaque of three officials but these figures are all the same size it's unlikely that they are the same hierarchy it seems that the figure with the helmet is a more important member of the court than these two figures with the crown and the feathers and we can tell that because of that coral necklace that he's wearing these coral necklaces are given by the king to important courtiers the more coral you're wearing the greater favor you have with the king so we know that this figure wearing the high coral collar which is called an odykba it's really quite important and we see the leopards choose necklaces and also the warrior bells so they're all wearing emblems that they are members of any militias and if you look at their stomachs you can see a stylized head of a leopard this is a kind of armor made out of a stiffened leather so this is so much more complex the decorative forms of their regalia stand out more we have more of a contrast of light and dark you could look at this plaque for an hour and see different textures so you can see those cascades of bells on the figures to the left are different from the bells worn by the figure in the helmet they're attached differently the skirts are different and there are different levels to each figure's skirt so there's many different kinds of textiles depicted the figures are wearing different bracelets and figures on the left have upper arm decorations that are separate so these are figures that would be processing toward the king because that central figure is holding an offering box we know that those carry either a gift from a king to his subject or taxes from a subject to the king's court the figures on either end in their left hand carry a sword that really emerges from that background we've moved from that low relief to higher relief and i can see how these figures would be more readable across a large space they have much larger eyes and the way that the eyes are set into the head it's a deeper recess which gives us a better legibility to see those eyes across the space and the eyeball itself is tipped forward again making it easier for light to reach that part of the plaque and for us to see it from a distance so we see stylistic change as we look at this corpus of more than 850 plaques you can start to see how the artists are developing the medium how they're changing composition over time how they're learning from the act of creating this large commission it was probably made by two kings king of sigia and his son or hogua when asigia took the throne in 1517 he had great problems with his court and so he created this commission to imagine the court that should be and it seems to have succeeded to have created that sense of awesomeness of the king's power and that really contributed to the way that he repaired relationships with his court and assured the dominance of the benin king over his subjects in the museum we look at these frontally but in the palace you would have navigated around the columns in order to sit down and then these figures would have taken on even greater sense of life and vitality they're really becoming almost courtiers themselves present in space with you what an impressive environment for an audience with the obama [Music] you
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