Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 218th good thing about Lagos: Nigeria's heritage of bronze casting continues

In 1994 I was living in Houston and had recently started a volunteer position that I enjoyed for 14 years -- that of being a docent at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. One of my first big blockbuster exhibitions that I led tours on was an exhibition of art, mostly brass castings, from the kingdom of Benin, a kingdom that existed within present-day Nigeria. (Note: this cultural heritage is not part of the present-day nation of Benin.) I bought an exhibition catalog, a book I brought with me on my move to Lagos, and studied it and marveled at the skill and artistic ingenuity of these artisans who were making very sophisticated bronze and brass work using the lost wax method as early as the 16th century. It surprised me that something like that was coming out of Africa that early -- I had expected African art at that time to be more primitive. Anyway, at the time I was studying about this rich cultural heritage that is part of Nigeria's history, I never once had the thought that someday I might be living in Nigeria. Life sometimes throws a surprise at us.

Well, I still haven't had the opportunity to travel to Benin City, though it was one of my goals when we moved here. I would like to do it, but working out the logistics of getting there and getting around while there is a bit of the challenge. And my husband's employer would rather we didn't travel around anywhere in the country (haven't always followed that) and Benin City is getting near to a danger area, though I think the city itself is usually peaceful.

In the meantime, I was very interested to attend a recent Nigerian Field Society lecture given by a Benin City bronze caster who is a descendant in a family that has been making brass sculptures in Benin for generations. I've heard that there is still a street in Benin lined with workshops where artisans are using the same methods that have been used for years. I've had other opportunities here to see artisans using the lost wax method to create items from brass. But this guy was an entertaining speaker and it was also fun for me to see the projected photos showing the process going on in Benin City today -- at least it's a secondhand visit to the place.

The figure he demonstrated his technique on is a traditional Queen mother head, a style often seen in the markets. The mother of the future oba in the early days of the Benin kingdom had a position that was valued and feared. Her influence on the future king was acknowledged and she was seen as an important advisor. But after her son's installation as ruler, her influence on the king was feared too great and she had to be killed "so that she could not start a revolution against the new Oba or use her magical powers against the people." There was an oba in the 16th century who honored his mother by doing away with the practice of killing the mother of the oba (what a nice boy!), and the position of the Queen mother changed. She was given the rights and privileges of a town chief and she made important decisions for the people of the kingdom. But she was sequestered away and it was forbidden for her to see her son, though she did have secondary contact with him through messengers. Either way, it doesn't seem to be an advantageous thing to me to be a Queen Mother in the kingdom of Benin, even though now there are lots of commemorative heads recognizing her power and position.

He displayed the mud core that had been hardened and the process of coating it with a hard layer of wax. He was kind of funny when someone asked where he got the wax. He said something about how it comes from bees, of course, but he just buys it. He says he would never have time to make the sculptures if he participated in every step in the process.

Some decoration and detail is added with the wax layer before it is encased in more mud and fired. They showed photos of the process of draining the wax from the spouts, heating the molten metal which is then poured into the cavity created from the "lost" wax. Of course I'm simplifying the process here -- there's a lot of technical steps involved. But after the metal is cooled and the mold is broken away (each item is unique as the mold can only be used once with this method), the core is dug out of from the brass object, creating a hollow brass sculpture.

Some of the finer detail is added to the cast brass sculpture itself. Among these types of sculptures for sale in markets here, there's lots of traditional figures. The leopard is a common one, as it has symbolism associated with the Oba, or king. It is considered a royal animal with special powers and abilities. Some of the items this artist was selling had a bright brass finish like these leopards.
And some had a finish similar to this large throne -- which I don't think he really was offering for sale. He just brought it to showcase a large brass object that can be cast. Someone asked him why some of the things he makes have this weathered finish, which I believe is created with kind of an acid wash at the end of the process. He kind of gave an embarrassed chuckle and said something about wondering if he should give away trade secrets. He held up one of these objects and said "Well, I made this piece a couple of weeks ago. But you look at it and it looks really old." He said he would never do it, but someone might be tempted to say that this is a historic piece from centuries ago and it should be priced much higher than a new item. So, there you have it -- a news flash! Buyer beware: traders selling in the markets may sometimes not be entirely forthcoming about the value and history of the pieces they are selling!

I did not buy a leopard or Queen Mother figure or large throne. I'm not sure that I really need to have a brass sculpture from here and I haven't decided yet if I will spend the money on one. They are quite expensive. But I did purchase a small letter opener with a Queen mother head as a reminder of the long artistic heritage of Benin brass casting and because I'm also a Queen mother of my own kingdom without the hazards and restrictions involved with Benin queen motherhood. That's a good thing.

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