There have been different and somewhat conflicting accounts of the origin of the Benin bronze art. This has given rise to different schools of thought regarding its origin. In light of the differing views about the origin of the Benin bronze, this treatise seeks to examine both sides of the story, thus giving it a whole new perspective. And given the nature of the history of things, Goethe’s succinct quotation below, does prove instructive as i attempt to throw more light on this discourse.
“Not all that is presented to us as history has really happened; and what really happened did not actually happen the way it is presented to us. Moreover, what really happened is only a small part of all that happened. Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence” – Goethe.
One can say that it is this uncertainty of historical accounts that has fueled much debates on the origin of the Benin bronze. Given the lack of “conventional” sources of history, Chroniclers of the Benin bronze art‘s history of the time had to rely almost entirely on oral traditions, which by its very nature is fallible, thereby making the understanding of the its origin somewhat vague, improbable and uncertain.
Oral traditions, as we know, are documents of the time they were collected and of the period under review, but which are nonetheless fraught with biases and problems raised by the vagaries of memory. For the most part, the person being interviewed could provide more than one account or version of the same event, which in most cases may tend to contradict, and such a person is usually subjective and sentimental rather than being objective in his or her opinions or judgements. Despite these apparent limitations of oral history or tradition, it still represents and has proven to be a veritable tool for African chroniclers/historians to counter and reconstruct the rather distorted and damning accounts of African history by some European and Arab writers. After all, it has become known for instance that, quite a number of written documents were actually oral traditions in processed forms. Be that as it may, the convenience of oral history has given freedom and opportunity to certain historians to formulate schools of thought bordering on the origins of the Benin bronze art.
One of such schools has it that the British, during their plunder of the Benin kingdom, in 1897, overwhelmed by the sophisticated or advanced nature of the bronze sculptures, hastily concluded that their production techniques could not have been native to the Bini ( The people as a collective ) or the Edo (which they may also be called), and that those skills and techniques most certainly came from either ancient Egyptians, or the lost tribes of Israel or were learnt from the Portuguese. They, the British could not believe that the Bini, who, in their estimation were quite uncivilized people, and not capable of producing pieces of art so refined, stylized and naturalistic, (of which most were). In as much as the British’s disclaimer regarding the origin of the Benin bronze art has been debunked by some historians, its quite interesting to know that the brass which represents the raw material with which the Benin bronze sculpture is made, cannot be made without copper. And copper was not actually available in Southern Nigeria during that period. This seems to suggest that the raw material must have been one of the goods they obtained in exchange for the goods they produced (trade by barter), which consisted largely of pepper, cotton stuffs and other goods. So, the trans-Saharan trade, and trade with the Western Sudan most likely ensured regular supply of copper, long before the coming of the Portuguese and their brass manillas which further accelerated the production of the bronze sculptures. Economic and even political relations with the Portuguese ( as the Bini received ambassadors from Portugal and vice versa ) made copper abundantly enough for the Benin court artists to be more elaborate in their artistic representations, and thus giving even more freedom to the artists to be more stylistic in their works.
Another school of thought which is somewhat popular, posits that the bronze casting technique was introduced by a certain bronze-smith, called Igueghae from Ile-Ife, during the reign of Oba Oguola. According to this account, the Oba requested that Igueghae trains the royal artists in the art of bronze casting. Having accomplished this assignment, he returned to his homeland, ile-Ife. It is said that, in honour of his remarkable deed, an altar was built for him, where he is worshipped as a deity, even till present day by bronze casters.
More so, a related version of this story presupposes the existence of the “Benin Art“, albeit not of metal, long before the coming of Igueghae and his “commission”. According to this tradition, the Oba of Benin of the time, about A.D. 1400, is said to have sent for an expert bronze maker from Ife to teach his court artisans to cast in metal. It is said that, because the artistic works of Benin was largely conceptual in their features and not realistic enough, the naturalistic approach of Ife had to be sought to influence the Benin style. This,they argue is evident in the less than life-size thinly cast heads of the period, usually dated about A.D. 1500, which reveals a very naturalistic style or approach.
This allusion to the influence of the Ife artistic style has been critiqued by the British historian and Africanist, Basil Davidson, who argues that although there were political and cultural exchanges between the Edo and the Yoruba, the Edo did not simply accept the Yoruba artistic ideas hook, line and sinker, without discriminating. And that the Edo were independent-minded and very much a people with their own ideas. Their artists whether resident in the capital, Benin, or in other Edo towns were exceptionally brilliant in the skill and techniques of working metal, and evolved several styles of great distinction.
One can also find echoes of this sentiment or tradition in the book, Two Thousand Years of The Nigerian Art, authored by the renowned Nigerian archaeologist and museologist, Ekpo Eyo. He contends that the cultural exchange (exchange of art objects) that existed between Ife and Benin was nothing more than “contact” rather than “derivation”, which most historians posits. This claim of Ife derivation is even somewhat invalidated by a certain view that there is no tradition of bronze casting in Ife till present-day, and that the present-day Ife is not that old, and that the art of Ife is not as rich in antiquity as the Benin art and that it lacks institutional background.
Still, a certain school of thought tending to affirm the claim that Igueghae trained the Benin court artists, holds the view that, in keeping with the practice of the time,the heads of the deceased Obas were usually returned to Ife for burial at the site of Orun Oba Ado and that in return, bronze memorial heads of the departed Obas were sent to Benin for some sort of safekeeping. This practice, however, led to the speculation that the Benin bronze art originated from Ife. They added that this practice of sending bronze memorial heads to Benin was abolished by Oba Oguola after the arrival of Igueghae.
This view or tradition has been challenged by the present-day Benin people who believe that the art of Ife was instead derived from Benin, and that Igueghae, was indeed an Edo man, as his name sounds more like an Edo name, rather than a Yoruba name. And that he introduced the art in Ife.
At the vanguard of this historical reconstruction is no other than the Oba of Benin, Omo N’oba N’Edo, Oba Erediauwa, who remains the living custodian of Edo culture and history. And who has been so destined to do so, by virtue of the meaning of his name, Erediauwa, which according to Benin Chiefs Isekhure and Obamwonyi means, “The man that has come to put things straight and together in their true and proper perspectives; the man that has come to remove any doubt, especially in the culture and tradition, in fact, any doubtful or controversial issues that relate to the traditional, historical, and cultural heritage of the people of Benin kingdom”. So what then was Oba of Benin’s stance on the matter under review? In his counter-narrative, the Oba remarked that igueghae was a renowned bronze caster in Benin, who was sent to Ife to cast a bronze head to commemorate Oranmiyan, the king of Ile-Ife. Oba Erediauwa added that Oba Oguola, the reigning Benin monarch at the time, made the Benin bronze art much more multi-purpose as they were not only used to portray the divine nature of the Oba, but were also used to represent and record significant historical events of the kingdom, etc.
The foregoing arguments raise certain questions though. First, the name Igueghae, which obviously looks and sounds more like an Edo name rather than a Yoruba name, does not have any of such syllable as “ghae” present in the Yoruba lexicon. Second, no such two letters as “GH” can be found among the Yoruba alphabets, but of which is present in the Edo alphabets.
Since this is the case, one wonders why the Ife derivation claim is being given credence in some quarters. And i think it is improbable that this so-called bronze smith from Ile-Ife could for any reason ditch his native name, which ordinarily gave him a sense of personal identity, and then adopted a name some strangers gave him.
Against the backdrop of these questions begging for plausible answers, it appears that the accounts or views of this school of thought are more or less conjectures. And thus needed to be rewritten and put in its proper perspective.
Moreover, in the light of these narratives, there seems to be an element of truth in the tradition that the “Benin bronze art” developed concurrently with that of Ife.
And given the nature of history, being an argument without any real conclusive end, there will always be narratives and counter narratives of the origin of the Benin bronze art.
It is on account of this dilemma posed by history, that the American writer, Joseph Freeman, stated, “Everyone falsifies history, even if it is only his own personal history. Sometimes, the falsification is deliberate, sometimes unconscious. Put always, the past is altered to suit the needs of the present. The best we can say of any account is not that it is the truth at last, but that this is how the story appears now.”