Bronze casting is one of the most important cultural trademarks and inheritances of the ancient Kingdom of Benin. However, the history of this all important communal cultural practice is shrouded in a whole lot of controversies. This keynote address presented at the 2008 Edo Bronze Festival, provides additional information on the controversial history of bronze casting in Benin.
THE Bronze Casters Guild, Igun Eronmwon is affiliated to the Royal Society of Iwebo in the Palace of the Oba of Benin. Iwebo Society is the most senior of the three societies namely, Iwebo, Iweguae and Ibiwe. Each of these societies is specialised in the areas of responsibilities assigned to it. Arts and crafts guilds are normally affiliated to Iwebo. They keep the Omo N’Oba’s wardrobe and through Igun Eronmwon, provide all ritual ornaments which in present day, have come under the expression “Benin Art Works”.
There are 21 guilds under Iwebo namely: Igun Eronmwon (the brass casters), Igbesanmwon, Igun Ematon, OwinaN’Ido, Ogbelaka, Ogbesasa, Avbiogbe, Efa, Odiomwan, Ikpema, Ivbiosa and Ivbiosuan, Emadase, Isekpokin. Igbuzebu, Iwifemwen, Iwoki, Iwogun, Ukhigie, Iguisi, Iviekpen, and Ivekpen. Seven different units supervise the activities of these guilds to ensure standard and strict compliance. The seven centres of control are: Iwenekhua, Iweribo, Iwevien, Iwosa, Iwenegbon, Iwezomo and Iweinene.
Brass casters who may also be called bronze casters produced only by royal permission or commission. Igun Eronmwon brass casters produced the famous Benin bronze works now scattered throughout the world. They were established by Oba Oguola in the 14th Century and placed under the hereditary leadership of the Ine N’Igun Eronmwon.
Over time, other hereditary titles and guild titles were created by different Obas of Benin namely: Ehanire (Oba Akenzua I), Obadolaye (Oba Osemwende), Ihama (Oba Ewuare), Akenuwa (Oba Akengbuda), Ebagua (Oba Ewuakpe), Olague (Oba Orhogbua), Obasoyen (Oba Eresoyen), Obazogun, Obasogie and Osasomwonyenmwen.
The origin of bronze casting has provoked many debates with several schools of thought emerging. Some believe that the lost wax casting was introduced from outside Africa. This school of thought argued that the technology was too sophisticated to be of African origin or of African extraction. A second school of thought argued that bronze casting in Benin was introduced from the neighbouring Kingdom of Oyo from the town of Ife.
By this account, it was Oni of Ife who sent Ezohe to Benin at the request of Oba Oguola. As the story goes, Ezohe did not want to stay in Benin on permanent basis, he therefore returned to Ife and left behind in Benin a son called Igueghae who was born in Benin to continue to teach and produce brass works in Benin.
Igueghae continued to enjoy the favours of the palace and was made the first Inneh of Igun Eronmwon. The basis for this argument seems to be that the oldest known bronzes from West Africa are the naturalistic heads from Ife. It is plausible to expect that the Benin brass works and methods could have been introduced from Ife.
The people of Benin, however, hold the view that bronze casting at Igun Eronmwon could not be introduced from Ife since there is today no trace of bronze casting as a court art or communal enterprise at Ife or any quarter dedicated for the production of the art as practised in the Kingdom of Benin. “Neither Ezohe nor Igueghae are Yoruba names,” argued the people of Benin.
Timothy Gerrard believes that the traditional bronze casting in Benin is autochthonous because of non-political motivation. Frank Willet sees a stylistic difference between Benin art works and those from Ife; and Flora Kaplan notes the difference in regressive gender (1993, 2004). All these may suggest independent origin at the centres of Ife and Benin City.
What then is the view of the Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin? The present Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa (himself a university trained man from King’s College, Cambridge University, Great Britain) argues that it is erroneous and distortion of history to conclude that Igueghae, the first bronze caster had introduced bronze casting from Ife to Benin.
In his view, what took Igueghae to Ife, was for him to cast the head of Oranmiyan but that he was a well known caster in Benin before then. Beyond casting memorial heads according to Oba Erediauwa, Oguola broadened the application of bronze figures by using bronze to represent different events in the kingdom’s history; making the brass casters the official recorders of historical events.
He said brass articles were attractive in the hands of the Portuguese during Oba Esigie’s reign, as the people of Benin already had it as article of value with indigenous application. In the view of Ekpo Eyo, the exchange of objects between Ife and Benin does not necessarily mean derivation; rather, it could have been contact. He believes that future researches may probably point to the same direction as the source from which Ife and Benin derived their knowledge of brass casting.
In Benin, bronze works had utility application in Palace Ceremonies or events related to it. They were visual art and easy to understand by members of the community and even non-members; bronze works were part of the people's living tradition; rather than decorative, they were ritual arts.
I have pointed out to the organisers of Bronze festivals that some of the things written in the 2007 Bronze Festival were not correct; and I wanted to know what was being done to correct them. I am informed that Guaranty Trust Bank wanted to take care of that this year in a new write-up.
To me, this is not right. GTB should have left the write-up to the organisers. There are various schools of thought in many sensitive areas of Benin history and culture.
If GTB is to do the write-up, how will they not be seen as taking a position, subjective and supportive of the line of argument against Benin interest? If GTB ‘captures’ the write-up to the exclusion of the organisers, then the organisers would have made an unfortunate surrender; because it is the write-up that the future generation will share in today’s event. It is therefore important that Benin’s position in the various arguments are well represented.
A historian, E.H Carr in his book, What is History noted: No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought - what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought.
Today as in the past, Benin art works provide the mirror for reflecting on Benin's past and have come to serve as a form of communal and national identity. The huge collections around the world have also vastly enhanced the majestic divine grace of the Oba.
They provide public view to the power of the Oba; his relationship with his people and courtiers and the splendid deeds of his ancestors. The Bronze Festival, the Annual Igue Festival, the various exhibitions around the world in different ways renew in the consciousness of the Oba’s subjects, His majesty’s magnificence, pomp, pageantry, divine grace and elaborate world of splendour.
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