Most of the art of Africa before this century has been lost because of its fragile materials, such as wood and textiles. But from the West African kingdom of Benin comes one of the world's great treasures: bronze sculptures that date back as far as the 14th century. They record a highly centralized culture in which artists were so prized that they acted as the king's advisers on matters of state.
Benin, says Baltimore Museum of Art curator Frederick Lamp, was "one of the most powerful and proud civilizations of Africa. It had problems, excesses and abuses as any civilization does, but it exemplifies the epitome of the great beauty, grandeur and power in art that Africa has to offer."
Wednesday, that beauty, grandeur and power will appear at the BMA with the opening of "Benin: Royal Art of Africa," an exhibit of 104 works from one of the greatest repositories of Benin art, the Museum fur Volkerkunde (ethnography) in Vienna.
The exhibit contains bronze heads of the obas, or kings, with their large, heavily outlined eyes and powerful features. It contains the multi-figure plaques that detail religious and court ritual and events in the kingdom's history. There are also representations of the leopard, the crocodile, birds and fish, which had symbolic significance. And the exhibit has unique masterpieces, such as the 16th-century messenger with his richly decorated garments, and the 21-inch-tall 18th-century rooster with every feather in place. In addition to bronzes, the exhibit contains ivory tusks bearing up to 11 rows of carved figures.
That the exhibit comes from Vienna testifies to the fact that it records a civilization that has not survived in its former glory. There is still a kingdom of Benin, still an oba, still a Benin City. But, says Mr. Lamp, "If you go to Benin today -- I went in 1968 -- it's very much a disappointment. We know from displays, books and museums the evidence of power and wealth. Today it's a muddy little town. There's a palace . . . but a mud wall around it with no adornment."
Olfert Dapper, a 17th-century traveler from Amsterdam visiting Benin at the height of its civilization, described a different sight: "The castle of the king is square. . . . It is divided into many magnificent apartments, and has beautiful and long square galleries. . . . The roof of the same sits on top of wooden pillars, which from bottom to top are covered with brass, upon which are depicted their war deeds and battles. . . . Every gable is adorned with a turret, ending in a point. On it stands a bird, cast in copper, with extended wings, artistically made after a living model. The city has thirty quite straight avenues. Each is about 120 feet wide. . . . The houses . . . are washed and polished until they gleam, so that they shine as a mirror."
Where was this great kingdom? On a map of Africa, west of Nigeria, is the Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey. That's not it. According to Mr. Lamp, the Republic of Benin appropriated the name Benin because of the kingdom's former greatness. The actual kingdom lies inside the country of Nigeria.
The kingdom of Benin is populated by the Edo, a people distinct from the nearby Yoruba and with a different language. The kingdom lies not far from the city of Ife, the religious center of the Yoruba. In about the 13th century, history has it, the people of Benin asked the king of Ife to send a ruler to them. He sent his son, who produced a son by a Benin woman, who became Eweka I, the first oba.
Shortly after that, in the 14th century, bronze casting was introduced to Benin from Ife, where its use had reached great heights. "Benin and its predecessor Ife are in an almost unique position in the handling and use of the medium," says Mr. Lamp. "There aren't that many places that have a history of bronze used to that extent."
In Benin, the art of bronze sculpture was at its height from about the 15th to the 17th century, a period when there was a major European presence, especially from Portugal. That doesn't mean Europeans were responsible for the quality of Benin art, Mr. Lamp says.
"Any civilization that has contact with other cultures will have a richness at its center, culturally and spiritually," he says. "The culture that doesn't have outreach isn't bound to have that richness."
A major reason for the flowering of Benin art was its centralized, autocratic structure, with the oba acting as patron of the arts. The bronze sculptors, like the other artists of the kingdom (weavers, wood and ivory carvers) were organized into guilds.
"The guilds were actually considered to be part of the king's court," says Mr. Lamp. "The heads of the guilds functioned more or less as a president's cabinet would. They were his counselors and advised him on matters of state."
Some of the most important pieces produced by the kingdom's artists are among those coming from Vienna. "The feeling of the bronze is very heavy," says Mr. Lamp. "There is a ponderousness, as if it is full of power. It speaks of the divine, absolute power."
The bronze plaques with relief depictions of obas, dignitaries and other figures are important for several reasons. They show in detail the regalia of the oba and his court. "They show rich costuming with different kinds of textiles, and the pendants, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, headgear," Mr. Lamp says. One showing an oba with two dignitaries and two musicians reveals five anklets on each leg of the oba, each arm encircled with bracelets from hand halfway to elbow.
This and other plaques record history. "It's documentary as well as being symbolic and spiritual, as we expect African art to be," says Mr. Lamp. "People often say that Africa has no history. Benin shows that's a lie. If history is documents, then here we have documents. The plaques were taken down and stored in the manner of card catalogs, for historians to refer to. They needed information for correct protocol or for the chronology of events."
A plaque showing two figures holding containers, for instance, "documents a ritual event and was used as a guide to that event," Mr. Lamp says. "It [the use of plaques] augmented their memory and allowed the repetition of ritual, which is important to suggest continuity. Because the more one replicates antiquity, the greater the legitimacy of the ruling elite."
There are also individual figures of great distinction, such as two dwarfs, dating from the early 14th century. One of them is 23 1/2 inches high and weighs more than 32 pounds. "It is one of the high points of Benin art, capturing the essential aspects of bodily comportment and spiritual expression," writes art historian Armand Duchateau in the show's catalog. "Its form combines great visual harmony with self-contained monumentality, and its physical impact is incomparably intense."
The Benin kingdom lasted for almost 600 years after this figure was fashioned. In fact it lasts still, but its glory was abruptly ended in 1897 when the British sacked Benin City and captured and deported the then-ruling oba as part of the conquest of Nigeria. Thousands of works of art were carried off, but as booty, not for their artistic merit.
"The British hadn't quite caught on to appreciate the cultural wealth of some of the colonies, and particularly Africa," says Mr. Lamp. "The culture was more appreciated in the German-speaking countries. There are German collections of African art dating to the 16th century.
"The British knew what they had monetarily but not artistically. So they sold it off to sponsor military campaigns and specifically the . . . campaign against Benin. A lot was bought by the monarchs of Germany and Austria. Berlin has the largest collection, but the Vienna collection is one of the most important in the world."
It is from that collection that 104 treasures are making an American tour that originated in Houston and opens Wednesday in Baltimore.
What: "Benin: Royal Art of Africa"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Oct. 30
Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18
Call: (410) 396-7100