Saturday, August 09, 2008

Benin - Kings and Rituals at the Art Institute of Chicago

Re-published (with kind permission) from Lost at the Other End of the World's blog:

I finally went to see the Benin Art exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. Below is a sketch of some of my scattered impressions:

As I viewed the last piece of the exhibition, I realized, for the first time, that the artistic acumen that fed the artistic life of the Benin Empire was highly unstable, hybrid, and fluid.

I was happy that the loud buzz among the numerous spectators filing through chambers afer chambers of artifacts was being created by art from my hometown. I was humbled when I realized how little I knew about the empire and the cultural life that moved it. But, I was sad about the lost stories of people, of lives, of an ancient universe forever trapped within narrow glass boxes on display.

Picture an artistic consciousness that defined the artist’s political and personal identity, physical space of existence and connection with royalty, divinity, and the occult. Combine this with an avid openness to multi-cultural influences and love for innovation and experimentation. This, in a nutshell, is how the exhibit represented Benin art life.

The collection spans, roughly, 15th to 21st century. The most striking aspect of the exhibition is the way it narrates Benin, its art, and history. Pre-19th century Benin was presented as a powerful, vibrant, advanced, and dynamic society that appropriated cultural and artistic influences from surrounding and faraway places. Take for instance the Iwoki Guild or royal cannoneers, who were responsible for maintaining Oba Esigie’s Portuguese cannon. More interestingly, they also served as his astrologers and meteorologists and got their astral knowledge from having been slaves in merchant ships.

Benin artists took inspiration and appropriated techniques from nearby Ife to faraway Nupe in the north and beyond the seas in Portugal.

From delicate bronze hairpins finely decorated with coral and agate to Islamic-influenced leopard aquamaniles, the exhibit told a story of Benin I had never head or even dreamed of. It was then that I understood that the reason why we do not understand pre-colonial Africa is because of the lack of stories. What the average one among us knows about our pre-colonial past are impoverished fragments in social studies textbooks.

For the most part, pre-colonial Nigeria is an opaque, dense, formless, and monolithic mass of history that lies somewhere between a stygian impenetrability and fragmentary chaos. Pre-colonial Nigeria is the point of cultural remembering where everything fades to black. We don’t feel connected to that period no matter how we pretend to. Don’t get me wrong, conceptions of pre-colonial Nigeria are political objects of culture and identity, but beyond their political function, they are unfamiliar, incomprehensible, and sometimes embarrassing, especially to the young. In the absence of powerful legends, living myths, and dynamic scholarship that invent and reinvent ideas and ideals about our pre-colonial past, we are left with textbooks and antiquated scholarly treatises that articulate our past as tradition.

If I got nothing else from the exhibit, at least, I now have the strong conviction that tradition is a name we use for things we banish, most times inadvertently, into the musty backrooms of culture or into sealed glass cases where they never appear to change. Tradition is a real illusion we create in our attempts at positioning our present in relation to our past. Ancient Benin art is not traditional. It is 21st century Benin art that is.

When I got to the closing section of the exhibition where recent works by contemporary artists where displayed, I became less intrigued, less surprised, and a little sad because I could see that the new artists had lost the fire of innovation, experimentation and cultural hybridity that actuated their forebears. What we have today appears to be a bad case of atavism, a rigid and lifeless mimicry of the vibrant and eclectic pre-19th century Benin art?


Naapali 5:48 pm  

Copy of comment left at original site.

I got here by way of Jeremy's blog. I could not agree with you more about the exhibition. My family went to see the exhibition and I was proud to show my daugthers, whose only notion of Nigeria is that place I threaten them with where there grandparents miraculously appear from and disappear to. I was struck by my paucity of knowledge about a place whose history is so closely intertwined with mine. I was filled with awe and pride at how organized and complicated the lives of these people were long before the advent of the Portuguese and how they were able to deal on presumably an equal footing with these "Oyinbo" people. I also noticed the fluid cultural exchange that took place only to be stagnated by the turn of the 20th century.
I am glad you found the words to express what I felt so strongly but have been unable to convey.

Thank you!

Lost at the Other End of the World 9:55 pm  

Thanks to Jeremy for the "republication."

Naapali, it is the most seductive exhibitions I have ever seen. By the time I left, I was so over stimulated I wanted to jump into the Buckingham fountain to regain perspective. (lol)

Think of harry potter and think what a goldmine of stories those scultpures embody. I was looking at my notes the other day and wondered about the threnodic possibilities in Oba Ewuakpe's endless mourning for Iden, his wife who sacrificed herself for the kingdom's regeneration.
Facsiniating stuff.

Anonymous,  9:44 am  

Now I have two reasons to go to the state this Sept: This exhbition and Bill T. Jones. Why don't we get these kind of stuff on the continent?

anonymaus,  10:12 am  

I like this quote taken from someone who commented on Jeremy's blog

"...there are aspect of Nigerian culture that I find fascinating and it is this that draws me to Nigeria. Not the Nigerian of today...."

The contributor goes by the name of Bamsant, taken from this blog

Just as the Chinese lamented the 150 year hic-cup in their history (when they encountered Europeans) and are working hard to regain their former world position.

Nigeria's current and future generations will have to work hard to merely begin to redress the 600 year lapse of the country.

Naapali 9:59 pm  

I bought the hardcover book that accompanies the exhibition so I can learn more. I also bought an academic discourse on literature regarding the Benin Kingdom that I hope to read soon.

lost-at-the-other-end, I left telling my wife that great works of fiction must be told about this era. If not then the world will have to settle for my tortured prose, but I will write it if no one else does.

Iyare-Penn 2:44 pm  

So glad to see this and the comments. More on Benin? come to or come to Philadelphia's Penn Museum and see another show full of the vibrancy of Edo culture!

bathmate 8:28 pm  

EXCELLENT and good work


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