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|A History of the World in 100 Objects|
One of the Benin plaques on display at the British Museum
by Neil MacGregor
As you read, highlight descriptive details that help you visualize the Benin plaques.
Benin Plaque: The Oba with EuropeansBrass plaque, from Benin, NigeriaAD 1500–1600
In 2001 the UK National Census recorded that more than in 1 in 20 Londoners were of black African descent, a figure that has continued to rise in the years since. Modern British life and culture now have a strong African component. This development is merely the latest chapter in the history of relations between Africa and western Europe, and in that long and turbulent history the Benin Bronzes, as they used to be known, hold a unique place.
Made in what is now modern Nigeria in the sixteenth century, the Benin plaques are actually made of brass, not bronze. They are each about the size of an A3 piece of paper and show figures in high relief that celebrate the victories of the Benin ruler, the Oba, and the rituals of the Oba’s court. They are not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting; they also document two quite distinct moments of Euro African contact – the first peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.
In these chapters we are looking at objects that chart how Europe first encountered and then traded with the wider world in the sixteenth century. These magnificent sculptures record the encounter from the African side. There are several hundred Benin plaques now in European and American museums, and they offer us a remarkable picture of the structure of this West African kingdom. Their main subject is the glorification of the Oba and of his prowess as a hunter and soldier, but they also tell us how the people of Benin saw their first European trading partners.
This plaque is dominated by the majestic figure of the Oba himself. It is about 40 centimetres (16 inches) square; its colour strikes you as coppery rather than brassy, and there are five figures on it, three Africans and two Europeans. In the proudest relief, on his throne, wearing a high helmet-like crown and looking straight out at us, is the Oba. His neck is completely invisible – a series of large rings runs from his shoulders right the way up to his lower lip. In his right hand he holds up a ceremonial axe. To either side kneel two high-court functionaries, dressed very like the Oba, but with plainer headdresses and fewer neck-rings. They wear belts hung with small crocodile heads, the emblem of those authorized to conduct business with Europeans – and the heads and shoulders of two tiny Europeans can be seen floating in the background.
This is the official survey of the population in the United Kingdom.violentThis paper size has a height of approximately 16.5 inches and a width of approximately 11.7 inches.art that has been carved or molded to stand out from the surfaceMetal casting is a process in which hot, liquid metal is poured into a mold. Once the metal has completely cooled, a solid metal form is removed from the mold.came into direct contact withskillgovernment workerssymbolContinued
Copyright: From A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS by Neil MacGregor, copyright (c) 2010 by the Trustees of the British Museum and the BBC. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
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