People & Culture

 People & Culture

Benin Art and Beliefs

The sophistication and symbolism of Benin art illustrate the monarchy's ability at using the arts as instruments of the state. As the influence of the chiefs grew over the centuries, the office of the oba became increasingly ceremonial. As a result, court ritual and art focused on what set the oba apart from the chiefs: his ability to claim divine origins.

The divinity of the Benin monarchy is linked to Osanobua, the Creator God, and Olokun, his eldest son, who is associated intimately with the human world and with aspects of wealth, fertility and beauty. His symbols are the python and the crocodile: animals that can live in water and on land, sent by Olokun to punish wrongdoing. The midfish also inhabits the dual worlds of the riverbank and the shallow waters, and its powerful electric schock exemplified the potential violence of ancestors, warriors and obas. Symbols such as these help reinforce the political legitimacy of the monarchy.

Benin royal art is primarily made of ivory and bronze. Ivory carving has been part of court life since the early 12th century. In the past, all trade in ivory was controlled by the Oba, and any hunter who killed an elephant was obliged to give one of its tusks to the palace. In this way the rulers of Benin amassed huge stocks of ivory, to be carved by the Igbesanmwan, the herediatry guild of ivory carvers. Ivory's ritual importance stems from its color, orhue (chalk), considered the perfect symbol of purity, prosperity and peace.

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, the supply of bronze would have come from trade with northern neighbors. In the 15th century a great expansion in bronze-casting took place, reflecting the increased commercial importance of Benin. Bronze heads of obas and queen mothers form the pinnacle of this artistic tradition.

While it is common to emphasize the continuity of art and culture in traditional societies, Benin's development was far from static. Contact with the neighboring Yoruba groups, the introduction of Christianity and Islam and the formation of the nation of Nigeria impacted the arts. Although the kingdom of Benin ended in 1897, the Oba continues to commission art to inspire public loyalty and pride, as well as preserve historical memory during the changes of 20th century Nigeria.

The art of Beninis the product of an urban royal court, and is meant to symbolize and to extol the power, mystique, grandeur, continuity, and endurance of the ruling dynasty and its governing institutions.

From the 14th century until its fall in 1897, Benin was ruled by the oba, a divine ruler at the head of the political system of titled chiefs. Under royal support, a number of craftsman's guilds produced brass, ivory, and wood sculptures and embroidered cloth which have become prized by museums and command high prices on the art market.

The tradition of the oba as patron of the arts has continued. In 1914, Oba Eweka II lifted the restrictions on the sale of art work, and traditional craftsmen began to create for the public as well. Benin art has been resilient in the face of political, economic, social, and religious change. Traditional forms continue to be made today, and new forms are emerging to become part of contemporary Benin culture.

Memorial head, bronze, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria. 1550 - 1650 A.D.

Commemorative plaque, bronze, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria. 1550 -1650 A.D.

The population of BENIN is estimated at 4,500,000 inhabitants largely concentrated in Southern coastal region near the major port city of Cotonou (450,000 inhabitants) the chief town of the Atlantic Department, the capital city of Porto Novo (200,000 inhabitants) in the OUEME Department as well as the "Royal City" of Abomey (80,000 inhabitants) in the Central Department of
ZOU. The annual growth rate is 3.1%. Other important towns are Ouidah, Allada, Abomey, Grand Popo, Lokossa, Save, Savalou, Parakou, Djougou, Natitingou, Malanville, Kandi.

Over half the people speak Fon. Yoruba, Mina, Bariba and Dendi are the other important languages. French is the official language. Beside the French language, English is necessarily one of the two foreign languages taught in secondary schools.
Greetings in Fon:

  • Good morning: AH-FON Ghan-Jee-Ah

  • Good evening: Kou Do Bah Dah
  • How are you: Ah-Doh Ghan-Jee-Ah
  • Thank you: Ah-Wah-Nou
  • Good bye: OH-Dah-Boh

Languages spoken:

  • The ATLANTIC "department"- Fon, Alada, Ayizo, Seto, Tofin, Toli.

  • The ATAKORA "department"
    - Basila, Cabrai, Dendi, Dompago, Dyerma, Fulfulde, Gourmantche, Kotokoli,
    Mossi, Natember; others are ouinzi-ouingi, Peul, Pila, Somba, Waama, Ditamari.
  • The BORGU "department"
    - Bargu, Bariba, Bouko, Dendi; others are Dyerma, Fulfulde, Peul, Niendi.
  • The MONO "department"
    - Adja, Guin, Mina, Nago; others are Popo, Saxwe, Waci, Xweda, Xwela.
    The OUEME "department" - Ayizo, Gun, Holi, Idaca, Ife; others are Nago, Weme,
    Yoruba. The Zou "department" - Fon, Idaca, Ife, Mahi; others are Nago, Seto.