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African Art: The Benin Bronzes

Benin Bronze at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Benin Bronze at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

© Jack Shoulder

    • The British Museum, and some other museums in the UK, have some beautiful works of art with a very bloody history in their collections. They're called the Benin bronzes. We decided to find out more about them...

      Benin is now part of a country called Nigeria in West Africa. But over 100 years ago, it was a powerful kingdom called the Kingdom of Benin. The people of Benin traded pepper, ivory, leopard skins and slaves with Europe, this earned them lots of money and the Kingdom became very wealthy.

      © British Museum
      Some businessmen in Britain were envious of all the money that Benin was making and wanted to take control of the Kingdom so they could profit from it instead. In 1897 a British expedition was sent to take control of the kingdom and destroy the city of Benin. The Bronzes that you see here are some of the treasures that were stolen from the King's palace. 

      This isn't an English soldier but a Benin bronze of a Portuguese soldier. Fierce, isn't he?! How do you think the artist who made this felt about the soldiers?

      Here's another of the bronzes, this time a brass plaque. It would have decorated a pillar in the Benin palace.

      © British Museum
      Which one do you think might be the king? Yep, he's in the middle.

      Can you see how the artist makes the king look most important by putting him in the middle of the plaque?

      How else does he look more important?

      © British Museum
      Here's a brass head of the king, called the Oba. You can see him more clearly through the British Museums online collections.

      The Oba is wearing a crown and coral beads. The beads were rare and valuable.

      The story goes that an ancient Oba of Benin once beat the sea-god, Olokun, in a fight. The Oba took Olokun's coral as his prize.


      © British Museum
      Do you know what coral looks like? This necklace from Algeria has coral in it - the pinky-red bits. It's beautiful isn't it?

      What do you think Olokun might have looked like? He was linked with crocodiles, the 'policemen of the waters'.

      To give you some idea, here's the forest god, Osun. He's got snakes coming out of his nose and a crown of birds.

      © British Museum
      Or why not visit the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford to see their Benin artefacts?

      On their website you can find out why leopards, crocodiles and snakes were so important in Benin culture.

      The Oba even kept leopards as pets. This is a pendant mask of a leopard's head.

      © Pitt Rivers Museum
      Why don't you have a go at drawing a picture of Olokun, the Sea-god? Or you could design a plaque with your face on it, like the King of Benin!
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