Sunday, September 07, 2008

A.I.C. : Benin Kings and Rituals

Every American art museum has one,
a bronze head or panel from 16th to 19th C. Benin,
a small kingdom near the coast of present day Nigeria.

and here's why we have them...
because in 1897
the British Punitive Expedition
sacked the city, plundered the palace
and carried tons of sculpture back to London
where it was then dispersed to collections
around the world.

And this exhibit,
pulling mostly from museums in Germany,
brings a lot of it back to one place,
making this the most Benin sculpture
a person will ever see in a lifetime.

How enjoyable!

These sculptures
represent the work
of court artists
over several centuries,
mostly the 16th - 17th
when the kingdom was
at the height of its prosperity
from its slave trade with Europeans.

Which makes me a little less empathetic
with its destruction by the Brits,
and with the mission of the sculpture
to validate the authority of the ruling family.

But still... it can be beautiful

This piece looked a lot better at the exhibit,
which raises another, painful issue:
the quality of the photography in the catalog.

The big issue is lighting --
it was very good for the exhibit
and very bad for the catalog photographer.

This was part of a display
that celebrated one of the big shots,
accompanied by
decapitated victims on the base.

I like the sense of power..... but....
it's pretty earthy.
Not much sky energy here.

There were many pieces that I enjoyed
at the exhibit -- but could not find in the catalog
(probably because the lighting was so different)

but here is a piece I enjoyed in the catalog
but don't remember from the show.

It has a kind of wild, calligraphic flair

I really liked this piece at the exhibit,
but not as pictured above.

And something else to mention ---

most of the exhibit had no value to me.

Most pieces were just perfunctory,
like most artifacts from everywhere,
they served an iconographic purpose
and that was all.

It's only occasionally
that the modeler really had a feeling
for the elements of his design

These large, 3-4 foot pieces,
depicting court jesters,
were some of my favorites.

They are really lively,
all the way around.

(But again... these photos fail
to give me the same feeling)

And here's some more
of my favorite pieces
with unhappy photos:

(how I wish that museum visitors
were allowed to take their own!
The catalog photographer was trying
to show the patina of the surface,
rather than the form underneath)

One of my favorites
(I wish they sold casts of it
in the gift shop)

Note: these pieces are 2-3 feet high
and look best in profile.


Sculptural quality seemed to ebb and flow
over the centuries,
but it seemed to come to a full stop in the 20th,
even though there's still a royal family of Benin
and they still have a guild of sculptors.

A room of their recent work was shown at the exhibit
and it was unrelentingly bad,
the delicious sense of form completely absent.


Final note:

I just got back from seeing the exhibit
one last time.

It seems that a lot of other people had
the same idea,
because the exhibit had a good crowd.

Call me a kook,
but I think the sculptures enjoyed all that attention.

They looked different today.
and definitely with a color
far different from the catalog.

None of these piece are gold colored,
they're all reddish-brown
kind of like this:


Anonymous marly said...

They ought to make you a curator! I always enjoy your show-within-a-show...

Isn't it interesting that the jesters have so much charm, when they are the anti-power guild, bent on undercutting the biggest big shot of them all?

September 08, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there are some photos from the show at their website -- but they legends dont give the materials; as to some there appears to be some doubt as to whether they are in wood or bronze... there is an ivory salt shaker on the website -- it looks a lot like the one I oohed over at the Museu do Arte Antiga in Lisbon. cheers, old fellow, Gawain misses you

September 20, 2008  

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