Arts exhibition review

Intricate art with a complicated story

A Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture at the MFA

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The commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader, from the Edo peoples of the Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Made of copper alloy and iron, from the late 15th-early 16th century, it is on display in the Benin Kingdom Gallery of the MFA.
Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts

Benin Kingdom Gallery

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Saturday – Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.

Wednesday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 9:45 p.m.

Free with MIT ID

On Wednesday Sept. 25, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) hosted A Celebration of Benin Kingdom Arts and Culture, an event in collaboration with the Coalition of Committed Benin Community Organization, to mark the opening of the new Benin Kingdom Gallery, which features rare art from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day southern Nigeria.

MFA Director Malcolm Rogers welcomed the audience, many of whom were wearing traditional Nigerian dress, in the rotunda of the MFA. Dr. Arese Carrington, the wife of a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, introduced His Royal Highness Professor Gregory I. Akenzua, the brother of the current oba, or king, of Benin Kingdom, who had traveled from Nigeria with two palace chiefs, all of whom wore full regalia for the event.

Most pieces of art in this collection were taken from the palace of the oba by British soldiers in the Punitive Raid of 1897, which marked the end of the Kingdom of Benin. The expedition was later funded by auctioning the “bronzes” and ivory pieces that had been looted, but of the 4000 pieces taken from the palace, only 800 are known to exist today.

HRH Prof. Akenzua said that though they had come to this event, they do not condone the taking of the art during the Punitive Raid. However, he said he is happy that the art will be shared with members of the diaspora who are in Boston, and he expressed gratitude to the MFA for inviting them and opening a dialogue with the royal family of Benin. The speech was followed by the first of three performances of Edo dancing, drumming and singing by the Ugho Dance troupe led by Eunice Ighodaro.

The collection consists of 34 “bronzes” and ivory pieces donated to the museum in 2012 by Robert Owen Lehman, and includes free-standing heads, pendants, and several high-relief plaques that had adorned the pillars in the courtyard of palace. The “bronzes” were made by a lost wax-casting technique, and the original wax figures included all of the intricate designs seen on the final “bronzes”.

Popularly known as “bronzes,” these pieces are actually not made of bronze, which is typically an alloy of copper and tin, but are instead made of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc. The brass was not smelted locally but was imported to Benin, where it was considered a royal possession, and only the oba could own it or give it as a gift.

The plaques are dated as 16th–17th century, but they were probably commissioned by one particular king and his son, during a 60-year post-war period, in attempt to reinforce the message of royal power. Thus, the motifs include many traditional symbols of power, such as leopards, which can be viewed up close with an interactive digital display in the gallery.

The permanent collection is on display in the Benin Kingdom Gallery, where the gray walls and lower lighting than the neighboring galleries in the MFA give the room a restful ambiance. The Africa Gallery in the next room has diverse African art from many places and periods, and the cases with a large number of pieces can feel crowded. In contrast, the pieces in the Benin Kingdom Gallery are displayed either individually or in very small groups, and thus the narrative is more focused.