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Benin City: How Museum Preserves Its Artistic Expressions

By Andy Egbon
01 August 2015   |   6:34 am
Benin City has always been in history. It has always stood shoulder high among the committee of nations. It is a place noted for its arts and culture, with a high collection of arts and cultural works.

Idia Mask in ivory

Benin City has always been in history. It has always stood shoulder high among the committee of nations. It is a place noted for its arts and culture, with a high collection of arts and cultural works.

The Benin arts are rich in history with distinctive features that qualify them to be compared to the Egyptian art works. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia believes that the full complexity of these art works can be appreciated only through the awareness and consideration of two complementary cultural perceptions of the arts of Benin: the western appreciation of them, primarily as works of art and their understanding in Benin as historical documents and as a mnemonic device to reconstruct history or it’s ritual objects.

The uniqueness of Benin Kingdom, beside its fame and acknowledgement as cradle of art is its ability to blend culture and modernism. Today in Benin Kingdom, beside the National Museum established by the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM) at the Benin City centre, historical centres like the Igun (Street) Erhonmwon, Igbesanmwan Street, Oba’s Palace, Ogiamen’s Palace and lately, Crowne Arts Gallery etc. dot different parts of Benin City and they all form focal points to interact with the history of Benin Kingdom.

Igun Street, for Centuries now has remained and continues to serve as guardian of ageless tradition, a place where art is in the genealogy of generations.

Such art works as sculptural piece, carving, painting, drawings have continued to remain reference point for the rich cultural endowment of the Benin nation.

They represent the history, culture, values and tradition of the Benin people. No wonder, the British punitive expedition of 1897 targeted the Benin arts and crafts as booties of that exercise. It is today an understatement to say that the Benin art works dot prominent museums worldwide.

With modernism and interest in giving meaning, appreciation and better understanding to art works, private museums and galleries have sprung up, the latest, being the Crowne Arts Gallery situated in the high brow Golf Course Road, sharing the same premises with the popular HEXAGON Network in the Government Reservation Area in Benin City by Prince Omoregbe Erediauwa, a scion of the Benin Royal family and direct descendant of His Royal Majesty, Oba Erediauwa.

One very unique feature of the gallery is its post-modernism approach to the collection and preservation of arts and artifacts without subverting history and tradition.

Postmodernism in this concept, means skeptical interpretation of arts and its philosophy marked by a revival of historical attributes. Omoregbe is the Chief Executive Officer of Hexagon Network, a conglomerate of several business interests in Benin City.

Realizing his business drive, one begins to wonder why venturing into collection and preservation of arts and artifacts, and he responded thus: “Because, culture has been part of me; apart from being born into a family of culture and tradition, I have always loved culture.

So, gallery is more like a passion, not on the business side.” On source of art works, he said, “I bought some; some from my dad, (Oba Erediauwa). Whenever I stumble on good works that I think should be in our domain, I try to get it.” Part of Prince Omoregbe’s expository works for art works is embedded in the annual ‘Ugie Carnival’ in which arts exhibition is a major component.

Ugie Carnival is organized every December as part of the Igue festival. Igue festival is a worldwide Edo people end-of-year traditional thanksgiving and get together event and an embedded festival encapsulating significant monuments of past historical facts integral to the emergence of Benin Kingdom. It is a combo festival parked with everyday festivity in the Oba’s Palace and the streets of Benin and homes.

It represents the unbroken immortalization of a generational transfer of records of the Benin cultural heritage and accomplishments. Historically, the kingdom is referred to as the cradle of civilization in Africa.

More than a reflection, Igue is a re-enactment of Benin history as well as a collaboration to honour the accomplishment of past Kings and ancestors of the Benin Kingdom whose unique attributes of bravery, war strategy and aesthetic characteristics were not only the envy of the western world, but a source of pride and territorial expansion.

The Curator of Crowne Arts gallery is a former Head of Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture (MOTNA), Ukpalo Ehi Godwin. According to him, “Omoregbe is a collector of arts. Since 2012, we have been working on Igue festival; to get youths involved in what Igue stands for.

An exhibition of contemporary art and craft was staged at the beginning of Igue festival. Since then, the idea to establish a gallery of arts was burning in us.” The exhibition that was held as part of the 2014 Igue festival gave birth to Crowne Arts Gallery which finally birthed December14 of that year.

That year’s exhibition was tagged “Perfection and scenes in the 2014 Igue Festival.” The gallery is a perfect blend of tradition and modernity used to educate members of the public to the extent that the works of arts are not fetish objects as it is believed in some quarters.

Beside the love of collecting and keeping art works, Ukpalo said commercial interest is not ruled out, but with a caveat: “It is not a business you jump into; collection entails having some money, interest and passion also count.” In Crown Arts Gallery, there is a replica of what was done during the British punitive expedition of 1897.

There is the canoe taking Oba Ovonranmen, with the British soldiers and Palace chiefs who expressed the indignity done Benin Kingdom with wailing and crying on the way to Calabar in the present day Cross River State. On one side of the canoe was one of the Oba’s wives and the canoe paddlers in both the front and rear of the canoe.

There is a typical Benin shrine, with various traditional objects, including ceremonial sword, animal horn and other materials. The museum also accommodates replicas of objects in Benin history.

There is the Oba with his entourage embarking on a trip, probably, on a visitation, with a Leopard leading the entourage. In the past, in Benin Kingdom, Leopard featured naturally with humans as domestic animals.

Metaphorically, Leopard is a powerful and courageous animal as manifest in its movement, with royal splendor. On the Obas entourage are two men bearing the Oba’s luggage, with warriors accompanying the entourage.

There is the statue of Oba Ewuare the Great. Oba Ewuare ruled Benin Kingdom from about the year 1440. The royal stool in the gallery is a unique one, with coiled snake around it, with the head coming from one side of it.

These terracotta objects are made from clay. Benin artists were not known to keep the terracotta that they used in their mould.

Most of them were always reused, except few artists who keep some which are today artifacts. Egyptian paintings dots many parts of the gallery, just as there are paintings by artists from different parts of Benin Kingdom and across.

In the gallery also are archeological excavations of relics of Nigeria civil war of 1967 to 1970. Presently, there are over 400 artworks spread in the two-storey dedicated building that houses the gallery.