Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom comes to Art Institu

Many Africans who were brought to this country during the 17th century as slaves contributed rich creative arts and artifacts to the American culture. The masterfully designed arts were often on display in mansions and plantation homes, sometimes causing

Anew exhibit opening at the Art Institute of the Chicago, The Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom, showcases some of that ingenious artistry. Eventually, Europeans%uFFFDmissionaries, explorers in Africa and soldiers%uFFFDrealized that native Beninese were talented craftsmen and had created works that symbolized their primitive spirituality.

The works, often considered artifacts of idolatry by other religious believers, were hand crafted of wood, stone, iron, brass and even gold. The Benin artists’ fine implements were also inspired by their reverence to kings, queens, princes and princesses of the West African nation. The artists also developed sacred places where the precious objects were held for spiritual purposes%uFFFDin praise to their gods and/or for worshiping them when necessary.

A British military expedition in 1897 captured some of the creative designs and endeavored to destroy them. But art critics realized that the artistic integrity and workmanship made the works masterpieces. The collection features royal bronze and ivory sculptures of the Benin kingdom, pieces that, in southern Nigeria, are among the most valued among African art.

The Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom was organized by the Museum fur Vlkerkunde, Vienna, in conjunction with the Kunsthalle, Bonn and will be the first to reunite many of the greatest works from the Benin Kingdom, now housed in museum collections across Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Nigeria.

Established in the 14th century, the Benin Kingdom flourished for more than 500 years. Much of the kingdom’s history is recorded and retold through its royal arts. Beninese art also graphically illustrates the kingdom’s rituals and hierarchy, most prominently the centrality of the oba or divine king. The supreme importance of the oba and his ancestors are witnessed and heralded through commemorative sculptures and royal regalia.

These implements of art and cultural, as well as religious and royal objects, include cast-brass heads of obas and queen mothers that were one placed upon royal altars. Towering elephant tusks embellished with relief imagery glorify the Beninese past. Standing figures, staffs and other ritual accoutures illustrate palaces and palatial activities. The collection also features portrayals of court life and dignitaries’ rituals.

The exhibition opens June 28 and continues through September 28 in the museum’s Regenstein Hall.

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