This essay deals with the nature of a cross cultural encounter between the Benin people and Portuguese traders in the 15th and 16th centuries, which resulted in the depiction of Portuguese figures in Benin brass plaques. It will propose that this contact between people with different cultures was on the basis of 'mutual regard' (Woods, K. 2008, p. 16), and although the Portuguese had qualms about idolatry in Benin it will show that assumptions by Europeans up to the 20th century of the primitive nature of tribal African societies was inaccurate with regard to the Benin people, who had a society based on the succession of the King or 'Oba', a Royal Family and Nobility. The essay will finally suggest that Benin’s increase in wealth following the arrival of the Portuguese led to a resurgence in bronze sculptures and the introduction of a new form, the rectilinear plaque.
The plaque under consideration, is of a forward facing man, with an aquiline nose, thin lips, neatly trimmed beard, wearing a sun hat with flaps and looking intently at the viewer. He is dressed in a typical 16th century Portuguese style, wearing a decorated tunic with padded shoulders and tight breeches with short boots. He has a business like manner, carrying in his right hand a brass manilla, the main item of exchange with Benin, and a walking cane in the other. It is significant that he is not armed, clearly indicating he is safe in foreign surroundings. The background is pleasingly stylised with clusters of petals set against a stippled ground imbuing a secure feeling.
It seems probable that Fernao Gomes, a Portuguese 'merchant adventurer' discovered the kingdom of Benin in 1474 (Wood, K. 2008, p. 8), seeking trading opportunities and looking for gold. The...
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...best case for the retention of the British Benin sculptures is to accord them the unique status they deserve as exceptional artworks and exhibit them appropriately in a prestigious national art gallery, for everyone to appreciate fully.
Flinders, P. and Holman, K. and others, (2012) AA100 'Tutorial Forum Book 3, Weeks, 1 and 2' – Benin , online at http://learn.open.ac.uk/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=900850, accessed between 4 and 17 February, 2015.
Loftus, D. and Wood, P. (2008), 'The Art of Benin: Changing Relations Between Europe and Africa II' in Brown, R. D. (ed.) Cultural Encounters (AA100 Book 3), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 43-87.
The Art of Benin, (2009), AA100 DVD ROM, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
The Open University, (2008), AA100 Illustration Book (Plates for Books 3 and 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University.