Benin Plaques

Art around the world serves all different purposes, not all of these seem traditional to the people of western civilization. For example the art of many african tribes and cultures is very different from the classic styles of the european tradition. Art from these areas usually serves a larger purpose to the people. Either representing religious figures or the leaders of the tribe. The subjects of these works of art are often crafted in an idealized manner as to show their greatness. One great representation of African art is the plaques of the city state Benin. In south east africa this city state was well known for its royal art as well as its unique way of creating metal works.

One specific work of art from the region is the Plaque of the Warrior Chief Flanked by Warriors and Attendants, which was a version of political propaganda. Made using the process of wax casting, which involves creating molds and pouring extremely hot melted metal into the moulds. This particular plaque told the story of a divine and powerful king, shown with many symbols that conveyed this message to the people.

Located in western Africa, centralized in modern day Nigeria, existed the Benin Empire. A warlike state that legend says was able to summon two hundred thousand troops in a matter of days. A civilization like this requires an extremely powerful leader, one who can take all of the people in a large area and unite them under one banner. The ruling family the Ogisos were perfect for the job. Ruling with an iron fist and expanding the empire, the rulers were beloved by the people.

Much of the history of empire was recorded either through oral tradition or in the civilizations artwork. Brass was the medium of choice for the kingship, infact the metal was prohibited to anyone but the King himself. As he controlled the process of brass casting and who was allowed to use the medium. Anyone caught without royal permission faced an execution. The Edo (people of the Benin Empire) associated brass and it properties of resisting corrosion with the permanence and continuity of the royal family and the kingship. As kings died their heads were often cast in brass and displayed throughout the royal palace. It was a belief of the Edo people that through having representations of the ancestors the living would be protected by the spirits. Brass wasn’t just used for the dead however, as leaders often used it to create their own propaganda showing their power and greatness.

The plaque of the Warrior Chief is a perfect example of a leader creating art for the use of propaganda. The work was made in the time period between 1550 and 1650 a hundred year span that included some of the most productive years for the people of Benin. The plaque is just a little over a foot wide and long and made of brass. Created using the brass casting technique that was famous in the area, it only could have been commissioned by the Chief himself. The plaque is full of symbols, most representing the total and godlike power that the king held. Starting with the most obvious which is the hieratic scale. This dominates the work as the warrior chief is show much larger than those surrounding him. The figure is also centered and simply catches ones glance immediately, and that was the goal of the king, all the attention to be drawn to him and his greatness. As one continues to look over the central figure it is hard to ignore the powerful and deep stare that is on the face of the king.

One can even feel weak and helpless due to this glare coming from the king. Created to represent his power over everyone the kings expression is ment to make an onlooker feel like a mere peasant. The attire of the king also aides to show the viewer his power, starting with his skirt. Which is held up by a belt made of a leopard head. Paired with his necklace made of leopard teeth, the fearsome power of the king is shown. As the leopard was one of the most powerful beasts in the region and if the king was able to tame one and kill it to use as jewelry, then no one could stop him.

The elaborate coral accessories that he wears across his chest as well as on his wrists shows the viewer his high status. As in the time of this works creation coral jewels were some of the most divine and were usually reserved just for the royal and extremely wealthy. In the warrior chiefs left hand he clasps a spear, this symbol almost doesn’t need to be explained. As the spear was a weapon of choice for the warriors of Benin and by the leader clutching one he exerts his power over the warriors. In the kings other hand however he grasps the eben sword of Ogun. Unlike the spear this sword doesn’t have anything to do with war and battle, instead it shows the kings ties to the divine spirits. As he is more than just a mortal, he is the divine king. As one continues to look through the figures in the work they will notice that the two on the extreme left and right, represent warriors. Shown a head smaller than the king they are obviously under his control.

They are dressed in similar attire to the king to show their high status in the kingdom as well as their importance. The warriors also hold a shield and a spear, both symbolizing their loyalty to the chief. In Between the chief and the warriors are two much smaller figures, these court attendants play instruments to announce the arrival of the chief. They are shown in a much smaller size because in the eyes of the king they are of much less importance than him and his warriors. This work of art and its symbols can all be related back to one common theme and that is the power of the chief.

A ruler needs to be powerful in order to rule a state based off a warlike culture. A king must be able to rule his people with an iron fist in order to keep the peace and create a working civilization. To gain power a leader needs to be able to convince people he is the answer. That he is the best thing for the civilization, and that his power is absolute. One of the simplest ways this is done is through artistic mediums. The rulers of Benin often used brass plaques in order to get across the message of their power. A form of propaganda that not only lasted the test of time but is able to still send its message of the greatness of Benin rulers.