Today’s Art Around the World destination is Nigeria. Take a look at this plaque from the Court of Benin. As always, take a good look before you read anything else!
If you are a geography whiz, you may be confused. The country says Nigeria, but it is a Benin artwork, and Benin is a country in Africa too. Confusing. In regards to this artwork, it is from the former kingdom of Benin in western Africa which prospered from the 1300s to the 1600s. The capital was Benin City which is in present-day Nigeria. Benin City continued to prosper until around 1897 when *ahem* it was taken over by the British. More on that in the purple “More Resources and Ideas” section below. I don’t know why I felt I needed to explain all that right off the bat. I’ve probably bored you to tears.
The center of the Benin empire was the oba, or king. He was in charge of everything governmental as well as was considered a god on earth. The artwork I am featuring today is one of many of such artworks. The obas in the 1500s and 1600s commissioned tons of these plaques to decorate the palace. There are at least 2,500 of these little guys out there in the world. Incredible! The British Museum has about 700 of them alone. I wonder why they ended up with so many? *ahem*
These plaques usually put the oba front and center. You can tell who the oba is easily because of his fancy dress and accessories as well as his size. These artists used something called hierarchical scale, which put the most important people big and the least important small. Many of them also include references to and symbols about Portugal. The people of Benin traded regularly with Portuguese merchants and received a lot of wealth because of this.
These plaques were hung all together surrounding the exterior of the oba‘s palace (see the nail holes at the top and bottom). You can think about reasons the obas chose to do that with the discussion questions below.
Art Discussion Questions
- What’s going on in this artwork? Describe what you see.
- Who is the most important person in this artwork? How can you tell?
- The oba (the guy in the middle) is shown with a larger head than the other guys. Why do you think the artist did that? What does that symbolize?
- See the holes at the top and bottom? Why do you think they were there?
- These artworks were hung outside the palace on pillars with lots of other similar plaques. Why do you think the obas chose to do that? What feeling would all of these artworks hanging together give to the people of Benin?
Benin Art Project Idea
Have your students think about what they could put on the outside of their house to send a message to their neighbors. If they were to make their own brass plaques on the outside of the house, what should they include? What message do they want to send? What imagery should they include? Have them sketch out some ideas and then make a relief sculpture of their idea with air dry clay.
I think it would also be fun to make the costume of the oba with various arts and crafts materials. You also could make a coil pot to make something that looks like his neck decoration and then sculpt a head to put on it like this cool sculpture here.
More Resources and Ideas
This is a great article to discuss with your kids about how British soldiers plundered the Kingdom of Benin and stole many of these plaques from their original location. Your kids maybe could not read it, but you could talk with them about how the Benin plaques ended up scattered around the world and how that changes the art and the people. Often, non-Western cultures are seen as other and less than, and it is an attitude shift that needs to happen in future generations as we become a more global society. –> Should art remain in its original location? What value do artworks have in museums? How does the artwork change when it is put it a different place?
There are tons of lesson and websites out there on the internet about the Benin plaques. Here are a few good resources I found:
- Here is a site for kids from BBC about the Benin culture and plaques. It has pictures, a timelines, and information for the kids to read. There is also a teacher version of the site with some worksheets and lessons.
- The British Museum has a teacher resource guide about the Kingdom of Benin. Ignore the parts about visiting the museum. Here is another teachers’ notes file about Benin as well from the British Museum.
- For some light reading, here is a free, downloadable pdf of a 346-page exhibition catalog from the Met from an exhibit about Benin art.
- Khan Academy has a fabulous section on Benin history and art.
Okay, that’s all for today! I just need to say that every single time I typed plaque up there, I typed plague first and then changed it. Every. single. time.
Tomorrow, we are traveling to Mexico! Here’s a hint: a unibrow is involved.
Click here to find more art from around the world, and come back tomorrow for another installment! Remember you can get the whole month of Art Around the World posts as a PDF eBook at the end of the month by subscribing to my e-mail newsletter. Enter your e-mail to get that when it comes out!
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