The Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand commemorative metal plaques that decorated the royal palace of the Benin Empire in modern-day Nigeria. Collectively, the Bronzes form the best known examples of Benin art, created by the Edo people from the thirteenth century, which also included other sculptures in brass or bronze, including some famous portrait heads and smaller pieces.
In 1897, most of the plaques were removed by the B ritish during a punitive expedition to the area as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest were purchased by other European museums. Today, a large number are held by the British Museum and are on display in Hall 25 in the Africa wing. Other Benin pieces are in Germany and the United States, among other countries.
While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, like most West African "bronzes" the pieces are mostly made of brass of variable composition. Modern practice in museums and archaeology is increasingly to avoid both terms for historical objects in favour of the all-embracing "copper alloy". There are also pieces made of mixtures of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials.
The metal pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered among the best sculptures made using this technique.
An unusual tradition within African sculpture is the cast-metal work done from about the 12th century in what is now southern Nigeria.
It reaches a peak of perfection among the Yoruba people of Ife. Between the 12th and the 15th century life-size heads and masks, and smaller full-length figures - all of astonishing realism - are cast in brass and sometimes in pure copper (technically much more difficult). These figures have an extraordinary quiet intensity.
This craft, perfected by the Yoruba people, is continued from the 15th century in Benin - still today a great centre of metal casting. The Benin heads, delightful but less powerful in their impact than those of Ife, are commonly known as Benin bronzes.
In fact they are made of brass, melted down from vessels and ornaments arriving on the trade routes (in 1505-7 alone, the Portuguese agent delivers 12,750 brass bracelets to Benin). The arrival of the Portuguese prompts the Benin sculptors to undertake a new style of work - brass plaques with scenes in relief, in which the Portuguese themselves sometimes feature. These plaques are nailed as decoration to the wooden pillars of the royal palace.
FG Asks European Nations to Return Stolen Artefacts
The Federal Government has called on European nations in possession of over 3000 artworks believed to have been stolen by British expedition’s personnel during the Benin invasion to return them particularly as the nation prepares to celebrate its centennial anniversary.
The Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Edem Duke, made the call at a meeting of Nigerian officials and European museum representatives over the Benin bronzes in European museums.
Countries like Germany, Denmark, Italy, and the United States of America had at various times returned artefacts to their original owners and expressed optimism that Britain would also do same to Nigeria.