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The invasion of Benin by the British saw the looting of many artefacts including ivories and bronzes where upon the majority were sold to either galleries, independent collectors or museums. The placement and consequent representation of these bronzes has been a move that has caused long-term controversy. The bronzes have played a fundamental role in the revision of the West’s perception of Africa and it is the constant re-classification and modification of these representations that has caused such controversy. Here, this essay will discuss the most appropriate way to display the Benin bronzes.
In order to consider how an artefact should be displayed, it is essential to look at the cultural context surrounding the work.
The Benin bronzes are undoubtedly a first-hand portrayal of the wealth of culture that was experienced by the people of Benin, and in a time and place where no photographic evidence or written chronicles were available to document their history, these bronzes acted as creations that eventually enabled outsiders to gain a brief insight into their history and culture.
The Edo crafted a range of bronzes that can all be seen to have vast artistic qualities, however they play a more significant role in the representation of Benin culture. The bronze head representation of Queen Idia for example, displays extensive artistic qualities, however this idealisation is fundamentally used to portray the role of Queens, women and the attribution to royalty within Benin culture.
The idea that Benin bronzes were used to document Benin history is also apparent in figures such as the figure of an armed Portuguese soldier.
This too has many artistic qualities, nevertheless the time and meaning that it represents in Benin culture is far more imperative than its artistic value. It represents both the statement of the Oba’s power and chronicles the relationship between the Edo and the Europeans at that particular time. It is not only the bronze heads and figures that are important in documenting Benin history. The everyday objects such as spears, pots, utensils and swords are also ‘used to represent ideas about how so-called primitive races lived’ (Loftus and Wood, 2008:51), and are essential to form a greater understanding of the Benin culture.
Essentially, the bronzes were crafted by the people of Benin to ‘depict and document important events and activities of a reigning Oba of Benin’ (www.elginism.com). The display of these artefacts should therefore represent their significance to the Benin culture and should not be, as artwork generally is, open to personal interpretation that could consequently lead to a misinterpretation of the bronzes. They should, I believe, be displayed in a largely formal institution, like a museum, in an informative way that allows us to be taken back to ages and places that have disappeared, where the objects on display ‘come from’ and allowing us to witness events that happened long ago and far away’ (Barley, 2010:9).
Comparatively, if the bronzes are displayed to represent a factual history of Benin culture they can still undoubtedly be considered works of art due to the skill, richness and antiquity of their objects. The very fact that the bronzes are now so far removed out of their original context leaves them open to re-interpretation and modification, just like pieces of art. This interpretation is evident in the profound African influence on modern art in the twentieth century, which ultimately had a significant effect on the way that bronzes were to be displayed in the future. Twentieth century artists such as Picasso, adapted the ‘primitive’ art to display profound emotions and deep feelings in their own work.
The similarities to aspects of the Benin bronzes in modern art, such as the masks in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, enhanced the artistic value of the Benin bronzes and encouraged them to be displayed in an artistic manner, thus leaving the artefacts open to interpretation. If the bronzes are displayed as purely artistic pieces of work it encourages observers to consider the artefacts in a wholly aesthetic manner. This leaves the observers to determine for themselves what certain objects could represent and, in effect, leaves the works actual meaning, purpose and therefore cultural significance ignored. This idea is emphasised in the commercialisation of bronze casting in the Benin City of today. People visiting Benin City can obtain ‘stunning look-alike replicas of the great Benin bronze works of centuries ago’ (www.elginism.com).
These souvenirs, reproduced like prints of an artist, emphasise the bronzes artistic value and encourages people to consider their idealised intricacies rather than their cultural depth. The aesthetic admiration of these skilled, intricate artefacts cannot be ignored, however their artistic values and traits as aforementioned have encouraged the bronzes to be displayed in a way that demerits the core value of their purpose. The bronzes in the Sainsbury African Galleries are reminiscent of contemporary installation art and encourage observers to consider only their aesthetic qualities. This is an inappropriate way to display the bronzes as it dismisses its intended purpose to educate the observer of its cultural value and the history of Benin. Overall, the Benin bronzes have considerable artistic qualities in the skill, intricacy and richness that are displayed in the artefacts that ultimately enable them to be labelled works of art.
However, although they can be considered as art it is unsuitable to display them in a predominately artistic way that leaves their cultural meaning and value ignored by leaving them open to personal interpretation. We cannot ignore the fact that a certain amount of interpretation has happened in regard to the historical context of the bronzes, with only written chronicles and tales from the Europeans, yet this interpretation has largely allowed for the cultural significance of the bronzes to shine through. They should therefore be displayed in a manner where ‘the object is not presented as if the moment of aesthetic contemplation were an end in itself’ (Loftus and Wood, 2008:75) and which allows for the people of Benin to tell us their history through the bronzes that they created.
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