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Benin Plaques

The Benin plaques, found in Nigeria, showcase the wealth and power of the Oba, or king. The Oba's regalia, made of coral, and symbols like leopards and mudfish, represent his authority. These bronze plaques, once gleaming in sunlight, were part of a grand palace, impressing all who visited. Speakers: Dr. Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Beth] We're here in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston looking at the Benin plaques. - [Kathryn] The kingdom of Benin is in present day Nigeria. It was founded around the year 900 and the current reigning king Oba Ewuare II dates his dynasty back to around the year 1250. At its height, Benin controlled a kingdom about the size of New England with two million inhabitants. - [Beth] Oba is the word for king. So, here we are looking at the Oba dressed in fabulous regalia and holding symbols of his power. - [Kathryn] We know that this is the Oba because he's wearing a phenomenal crown made of coral beads and it has this tall basketry projection called an oro projection, which is a sign of leadership. He's wearing a tunic made entirely of coral. He's wearing a beautifully imported damask skirt, and he's got coral on his ankles, on his arms. Most importantly, he's wearing the bead of rule on his chest. - [Beth] This coral is a beautiful deep orange red. - [Kathryn] 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 waste, we have these mudfish. The mudfish 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, mudfish sometimes have an electrical charge and can shock you. - [Beth] He is frontal, his body is symmetrical. - [Kathryn] 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 that collection, you'll see that artists become more comfortable showing movement in the body. - [Beth] And this plaque, originally, would have really gleamed. - [Kathryn] 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 Benin bronzes showed up in Europe, people oiled them. Today, we're nervous to remove that oil because it's effected the layer of the metal and we worry about losing detail. - [Beth] Casting bronze is difficult. We're talking about really accomplished artists. - [Kathryn] 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 in the leaf, that coral comes the god of wealth, Olokun, who lives underneath the river, and so, this river leaf pattern is related to that sun, so the king controlling wealth. - [Beth] Visitors to the court in Benin city would have seen a fabulous palace with an audience hall that decorated with these plaques. - [Kathryn] But in our understanding from visitors to the court in court tradition, and they would've 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. - [Beth] 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. - [Kathryn] 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 a hundred dollar bills, it's that kind of wealth that you're looking at when you walk in. - [Beth] 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. - [Kathryn] Like courts around the world, the idea was to dazzle you when you walked in to visit the king. - [Beth] Maybe we should talk about why you can go to so many museums in the United States and in Europe and see these plaques. - [Kathryn] 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, burnt it to the ground and occupied it, and took at least a third of the royal treasury, and sold it 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. - [Beth] 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. - [Kathryn] It seems that the narrow plaques are meant to work together with the wide plaques to sheath a column. This plaque with the mudfish is a great example of the earliest work that the geld 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 surface 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. - [Beth] 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. - [Kathryn] 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. - [Beth] And in the center of this one, we see a figure playing a drum. - [Kathryn] This is probably a warrior. He's wearing a warrior's bell on his chest and he's wearing a leopard tooth necklace, saying that he's in the Oba's militia. - [Beth] And I see bells also dangling from his belt. - [Kathryn] And if you look closely, those bells are attached with a leopard-skin leather, which is a symbol of his relationship to the Oba. - [Beth] And he's larger than the figures on either side of him, and this is something that we also see in Benin art often. - [Kathryn] Although, it's interesting in this corpus, you start to see artists abandoning it, 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. - [Beth] So, I'm seeing so much more movement here. - [Kathryn] 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's 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. - [Beth] And their heads tilt slightly. So, there's a real sense of animation to the figures. - [Kathryn] 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. - [Beth] And so, these are figures who are entertaining the king. - [Kathryn] These were likely in a procession coming to or from the Oba's palace. - [Beth] And now, we're looking at another plaque of three officials, but these figures are all the same size. - [Kathryn] 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. - [Beth] And we can tell that because of that coral necklace that he's wearing. - [Kathryn] 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 odigba, is really quite important. - [Beth] And we see the leopard's tooth necklaces and also the warrior bells. [Kathryn] So, they're all wearing emblems that they are members of the new militias. And if you look at their stomachs, you can see a stylized head of the leopard. This is a kind of armor made out of a stiffened leather. - [Beth] 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. - [Kathryn] 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 textile depicted. The figures are wearing different bracelets, and the figures on the left have upper arm decorations that are separate. - [Beth] So, these are figures that would be processing towards the king. - [Kathryn] 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 a king's court. - [Beth] The figures on either end, in their left hand, carry a sword that really emerges from that background. We've moved from that lower relief to higher relief. And I can see how these figures would be more readable across a large space. - [Kathryn] 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 this 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. - [Beth] So, we see stylistic change as we look at this corpus of more than 850 plaques. - [Kathryn] 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 Esigie and his son, Orhogbua. When Esigie took the thrown 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've navigated around the columns, in order to sit down, and then, these figures would've taken on even greater sense of life and vitality, thoroughly becoming almost courtiers themselves, present in the space with you. - [Beth] What an impressive environment for an audience with the Oba. (jazz music)