I’m training a neural network to create conceptual representations of bronze heads that may have existed during the 17-year interregnum [1897-1914] in Benin Kingdom. The dataset consists of looted bronze objects available in museum collections.
Why this matters? Since artistic production was monopolized by Benin royalty, an outcome of the 1897 invasion was the fizzling out of the guild system. For this reason, there is a dearth of documentation to identify bronze objects created during the 17-year interregnum. In exploring the gap “in-between” pre-1897 and post-1897 bronze production, I hope to call attention to this gap.
The dataset includes images of precolonial Bronze objects obtained from the following online collections:
- British Museum
- Ethnological Museum of Berlin
- Pitt Rivers Museum
- Weltmuseum Wien
- Museum of Ethnology, Museum of Arts and Crafts
- Dresden Museum of Ethnology
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
- National Museum of Ethnology
- Museum of Ethnography
- Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum
- Museum of Fine Arts
- Rietberg Museum
- Dallas Museum of Art
- DeYoung Museum
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art
- Getty Museum
- Harvard Art Museums
A caveat to keep in mind: Benin bronzes undergo a process of ritualization in order to activate their cultural significance. The objects created by the guild were used to establish communication with the spirit world, commemorate important personages and events, and decorate shrines, and ceremonial attire. This project is not designed to literally fill in the gap with non-culturally significant bronzes. Instead, the goal is to call attention to “absence” in artistic production during the interregnum.
At the center of artistic production, was the Igun Eronmwon—the highest-ranking guild in Benin. Sumptuary laws maintained the guild’s monopoly of artistic production for the Oba, and his aristocracy of chiefs and priests. For this reason, bronze objects were central to the social system and to an individual’s position on the social hierarchy. As an example, Chiefs were allowed to wear bronze hip pendants and bracelets during royal rituals. Occasionally, some chiefs commissioned bronze sculptures, such as the 18th-century Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua.
However, the 1897 punitive expedition altered the conditions and sources of patronage for bronze casting. Without the possibility of casting sacred bronzes for the Oba, the Bronze Casters probably retired to their farms to escape the stigma of breaking their oaths of service to the King.
While the re-emergence of bronze casting after the Punitive Expedition is known, production during the interregnum is not. There is a dearth of documentation to identify scholarly references to: bronze works commissioned by Chiefs appointed by the colonial government, Bronze objects used to send messages to the exile Oba Ovonramwen and bronze works commissioned by Colonial officials. Nonetheless, if Bronze casters created objects for colonial officials and chiefs during the interregnum, they most likely followed longstanding design restrictions to casting objects approved for chiefs and priests only.
The 1897 invasion of Benin Kingdom was precipitated by the desire to gain control over trade on the Niger River and in the Bight of Benin, the “massacre” of a trade delegation to Benin, and later justified by British morality. The British destroyed the palace, exiled the king, hanged the chiefs guilty of the massacre, and confiscated palace objects. The objects were shipped to England and sold to museums and private collectors to offset expedition costs. With the kingdom conquered and the king ousted, Benin art product
Nwachukwu, M. (2010, April 10). The story of power and royalty: An insight into the great bronze casting works of Benin. Vanguard Nigeria. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2010/04/benin-bronze-casting-the-story-of-power-and-royalty%E2%80%A6/
Osadolor, O. B. (2011). The Benin Royalist Movement and Its Political Opponents: Controversy over Restoration of the Monarchy, 1897—1914. The International journal of African historical studies, 44(1), 45-59.