Bronze Memorial Head from Benin


This essay is dedicated to the many unsung innovators and creators of the art and artefacts of Africa.  It is especially dedicated to the unknown bronze smiths, who lived in the city of Benin between 1480 and 1580.  In July 1989 a piece by these artists changed hands at Christies auction house London for £1, 2000,000.  It lies within the realm of possibility that this memorial head was part of the booty taken from Benin after the punitive expedition of 1897. In that year the British engineered a situation that allowed them to attack the Kingdom of Benin, denude it of its treasures and exile the Oba. This was the beginning of the process of colonizing that part of the Niger area that was to become Nigeria. Colonization and conversion have left the people of that region of Africa culturally poverty stricken, and dependant, the result of being robbed of their past, leaving them mere spectators of their own cultural heritage.

Benin the capital city of the Edo-speaking people is about one 125 miles south east of Ife. According to traditional history, bronze casting was introduced to Benin from Ife towards the end of the fourteenth century, clearly an art tradition that was already advanced; one only has to look at the memorial bronze heads from Ife. All Bronze casting was in the service of the Oba and the Oni, making it a royal tradition in the true sense.  The title of ‘Ona’ was bestowed on the bronze smiths who were priests whose role was to intercede between the spiritual realm and the earthly rulers, both Onis and Obas.  That is the tradition out of which this head came.  I wonder how many of the bidders at that auction had any knowledge of the traditions and the people who created this piece of art. I’m sure for many it was just another commodity, another investment.

On African art


If African art is to be more than a few lines in a newspaper about the record price paid for a piece of “tribal art” or some other exotic curio, then we Africans will have to begin to take our art more seriously once more; if it is to have any relevance to our lives today, then we must begin to define and control it ourselves.

African art is the result of a highly intellectual and abstract process of translating ideas, concepts and values into physical form; it combines features from various sources to make statements about the known and the unknown.  The development of art forms which in some cases took thousand of years to perfect is been sacrificed at the alter of westernism.  Some say that this is the price we have to pay for entry into the modern world; but I believe that this is too high a price for us to pay. 

The expression of the essential nature of the African being is what we find when we look at African art, and so it would be a tragedy to allow these traditional forms to simply fade away or become dead museum exhibits from another time and place with no relevance to our contemporary reality.  We must endeavour to keep them alive, revitalise and use them as the backbone of our creative future, in other words, a new African self cannot be built solely on other people’s achievements which have evolved from their own subliminal, to satisfy their own needs.  When posterity judges this generation of Africans will it show us as a people who were creators and innovators, or will we be seen as a race of consumers and imitators? African artists should not be afraid to use traditional African forms as the foundation upon which to construct their art; neither should they allow themselves to be trapped by notions of originality and universality, after all, nothing is truly original, and who can truly say where the particular ends and the universal begin?

We often have to leave the narrow confines of our tribal state and go abroad before we are able to see beyond the limits of our traditional ways and develop a sense of the universal.   Away from our narrow village existence, we are able to develop a sense of connectedness with people from other parts of the African world, which gives us an understanding of the diverse nature of our people.   However one of the dangers of leaving our village/tribal environment is that we become estranged from our ways.  This often entails ridding ourselves of our Africanness and becoming westerners.   The consequence of this is that we develop deep-rooted fears and hatred of what we have left behind.   What has been left behind now becomes the unknown, shrouded in mystery and evil.

One aspect of the culture that is left behind is knowledge of what in western culture is described as ‘art’.   The idea of art as something abstracted and set apart from everyday life did not exist in pre-colonial African society.   What is now described as art was often associated with magic and ritual and leads us to questions that we are forced to be address.  These are:

1    Is there a role for “art” in the traditional sense in the lives of the westernised or detribalised African?

2    Is there a need for magic and ritual that mediates between that which we have lost and that which we have become

3    That which intercedes between us and the negative forces of modernism, and can art be used for that purpose,

Approaching that disorientated self for the westernised African is often a traumatic experience. The path back through art is littered with timid decorative motifs of cowrie shells, Kente cloth patterns and lifeless two dimensional reproductions of African masks in which Africa is never more than a theme, an adornment.   Nowhere have we found bold iconoclastic ferment in the art produced by the westernised African.  It has often been argued that the path back to that lost self can only be reached through modernism, a watered down western derivative of pre-colonial African art.   

Modernism- Europe’s romance with the ‘primitive’ at the beginning of the twentieth century is the result of four hundred years of striving to reflect appearance in life and art that came to an end in Western Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.   Was this decline the result of a culture that had reached its highest point of achievement and had begun to expire?   Had Europe come to the realisation that there was nothing more to be gained from the overbearance on logic which inevitably led to the perfection of mere appearance, and that it was now necessary to explore new ways of looking at reality?  A newly found romance with the so-called primitive, freed Europe to enter and explore the worldview of the African through his art.  This fascination with the primitive occurred at a time when the African was seen as one of the last remaining primitive, ‘savage’ untouched by progress and civilisation.   What Europe discovered was a fascinating view of reality that transformed their thinking about the nature of reality and set a pattern that would be the dominating theme in their art and culture for the remainder of the twentieth century.   Indeed, this encounter with the ‘primitive’ is believed, above all else, to have been the catalyst that brought about the birth of what has been described as ‘modernism’.

Picasso, one of the founders of modernism, described an overwhelming feeling of nausea and horror on encountering ritual African art for the first time at the Palais du Trocadero, Paris, in 1907.  Had he come face to face with some unknown self, some vestigial memory of the time Africans ruled Spain?  He was born in Andalusia in the south of Spain, an area steeped in the remains of Moorish occupation.  His ancestors would certainly have been scrubbed clean of their ancient African ways by the inquisition, converting them into true Europeans like many Africans today.  Perhaps in this lies his ambivalent attitude to the African in his work.  He often denied the influence of African art on his work. Certainly the experience with the African led him to paint the first piece if modern art, Les Demoiselle Daviginon, a painting that depicted European women with African style masks for faces.  One of his biographers described Picasso as living with a black woman from the Caribbean at this time, which could explain another level of his encounter with the African.   In an interview later in his life, he stated that the role of the artist was made clear to him as he looked at the mask that day at the Trocerdero, and that he realised at that moment for the first time, the true purpose of art.   Art, he said, “was that which interceded between us and the evil and negative forces of the unknown through ritual magic”.   His encounter with the African surely represented the rebirth of a lost self, and not the death of Europe’s cultural and artistic antecedents, as has been argued.   For certainly the reverberations that resulted from his painting of Les Demoiselle Daviginon, has resounded through to the end of the twentieth century.

The visual side of African creativity has become the Cinderella among the arts practised by Africans today.   Most of us are able to reel off the names of dozens of internationally known African musicians dancers and Nobel Prize winners in literature but not a single visual artist.   Yet the visual arts are the most powerful of what we have inherited from pre-colonial Africa.   It is the only true documentation of life in Africa as it existed before the coming of the white man.  Undoubtedly it is the most potent; therefore the most difficult to control and exploit; and so £1,200,000 is a very small price to pay.


Fowokan 1989.