Read carefully Reading 2.6, ‘Works of Art from Benin City’, in Book 3 Chapter 2 and look closely at Plate 3.2.27, Plate showing four sixteenth century brass plaques from Benin’, in the illustration book. With close attention to both, discuss reasons why the ownership and location of the art of Benin have been controversial and continue to be so.
The Places which home the artwork of Benin have and continue to cause controversy. They did not always as they did in the late nineteenth century languish in cramped displays set up by museums around the world, or in sitting rooms of private collectors but were originally preserved in Benin’s royal place, Benin City. The debate over who should own them is also controversial. They never used to be referred to as ‘belonging to the humankind’ ( Chris Spring DVD ROM, 2008) or owned by the museums of the world, including current day African museums but to the Royal palace of the king or the Oba, who, currently, still owns some. However, the last century has seen the displacement of many valuable pieces of Benin sculpture from the Royal palace which has not came to the west of its own free accord but arrived through the determined efforts of colonial powers to subjugate Benin. There has been much debate in the past over what to do with the art works and in more recent times as to who and where the art belongs and whether or not the concerned parties who do hold and own the art works are the right people and places to do so. When anthropologists at the British museum first saw the artworks their initial reactions, drawing from contemporary ideas of Africa’s savage brutality, was astonishment. Certain views, like that of Blythe, a nineteenth century African writer and supporter of African rights challenged the common perceptions of the era but they did not change them. Blythe talks about scientific Europeans ‘giving academic study to the Negro’ but his overall suggestion is that there is a general ‘opinion of some God is everywhere except in Africa.’ (Blythe 1903 in Brown, 2008) Read and Dalton They described both their perception of Benin society and the objects they were studying in a very ambivalent way at the first sight of these remarkable works of art were at once astounded….and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art amongst a race so entirely barbarous as the Bini’ (Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008).This negative and perception of Benin was a common perception of the whole of Africa at this time . Anthropologists in general struggled to fit explanations of such sophisticated works of art into these commoner held opinions which circulated throughout all major establishments of newspapers, museums and Encyclopaedias. This meant that stereotypical notions were gaining credibility over real facts. Read and Dalton were unfazed and presented their historical version as a prejudiced one, shaped by the society in which they lived, hence they form the conclusion that ‘no hope that a clue to their origin or use may be found in Benin itself’(Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008). They were influenced in a time when these institutions justified imperialism. So, Benin artwork was initially misunderstood due to western misconceptions of Africa. However, with detailed study of the artworks revealed more partial than ever views towards Benin and the artwork fitted into rather than challenged these views. Read and Dalton compared the \artworks to some of the finest ever produced in the Italian Renaissance saying that they ‘satisfied the most fastidious eye of the best artists of the Italian Renaissance’(Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008). Read and Dalton are quick to assume that Galley’s account for the finding of the art works was accurate and jump from what ‘seemed to point to them originally having been buried’ to the conclusion of ‘’it seems certain that they were not buried’ (Read and Dalton 1897 in Brown, 2008) Rather than taking the analytical approach they simply...
Bibliography: Chambers, E., Northedge, A, (2008) ‘The Arts Good Study Guide’, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp152-223.
Spencer, C. (2008) ‘Study Skills’, in Brown, R. (ed.) AA100 Study Companion, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp18-67.
Loftus,D, Mackie,R, Wood,P, Woods,K J. (2008) ‘The Art of Benin; Changing Relations Between Europe and Africa One and Two’, in Brown,R,E (ed.) AA100 Book Cultural Encounters, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp5-87.
DVD ROM ‘The Art of Benin, 2008, the Open University
Skills for OU Study Website at http://www.open.ac.uk/skillsforstudy/.
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