Benin Art in Museums and Galleries Essay

Benin Art in Museums and Galleries Essay

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The display of Benin art in museum and galleries reflect the attitudes and perceptions of Europeans towards non-western artefacts, especially African. Thus as European attitudes change towards non-western art since the discovery of Benin art in 1897, Benin art has been revaluated and re-categorised.

Initially there was a great deal of debate about Benin art and its display, as it did not equate with the perceptions then held about Africa. Until the British conquest of Benin in 1897, little was known about Benin and its culture apart from brief interaction with other Europeans in the sixteenth century. The perception of Africa was of a primitive, savage and uncivilised land, full of ‘abuses and fetishes and idolatries’, (Hodgkin, 1975, p33). Therefore, when the British invaded Benin they treated any artefacts they found as ‘war booty’ (Woods, 2008, p30) and sold anything of any value to pay for the expedition. They removed artefacts and artwork without recording any contextual evidence of form or function. These ideas are evident in the photographs in figures 1.10 on page 31, 2.2 on page 50 in Cultural Encounters (AA100, Book 3) and Plate 3.1.14 in the Illustration Book: Plates for Book 3 and 4 where artefacts are bundled into piles with centralised white figures suggesting only British triumph (Loftus, 2008). The ‘clever workmanship’ (Gallewey, 1893b, p37) and ‘delicacy of detail’ (Bacon, 1897, p39) attest to the quality of the artwork and the subsequent bidding by rival museums and galleries for the pieces did not prevent the perception that Africa, and thus Benin, as being barbaric and primitive.

The debate was how such a barbaric society could produce such sophisticated artwork. The quality of the Benin bronzes, based on...

... middle of paper ...

... Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 45-58
Mackie, R. (2008), ‘The Art of the Benin: Changing Relations between Europe and Africa I: The conquest of the Benin in the 1890’s’, in Brown, R (ed.), Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 16-32
Pike, J. (2008), ‘Cultural Encounters and Cultural Exemptions’, in Brown, R (ed.), Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 90-122
Wood, P (2008), ‘The Art of the Benin: Changing Relations between Europe and Africa II: The Benin bronzes and Modern Art’, in Brown, R (ed.), Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp.58-78
Woods, K (2008), ‘The Art of the Benin: Changing Relations between Europe and Africa I: The Art of the Benin’, in Brown, R (ed.), Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp.4-16

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