Haitian art has deep roots. This month the Haitian Historical Museum of Miami, put on a display of Benin art in the heart of Miami. This display helped to show the historical depth of Haitian art. The art exhibition opened with speeches given by public officials and museum staff whose collaborative efforts made it possible to bring to the Haitian community a sample of African statues that have become world renowned. The statues range over 7 centuries taking us as far back as the 1300s.
The people of West Africa are so proud of these works that the country of Dahomey changed its name to Benin even though the epicenter of this art form was far west of Dahomey and in an area that is now part of Nigeria. In other words, the Benin Kingdom that created these bronze and copper statues was not in the same location as today's country of Benin which took on the name because of their pride in that kingdom's achievement. Similarly, the city of Bainet in Haiti is called Benen for Benin out of pride in that kingdom even though the Benin Kingdom never included the territory of Haiti.
The Haitian Historical Museum made it possible for us to come face to face with an ancestral kingdom affectionately called Nanchon Bini in Haiti. One can see these masterpieces without traveling to Africa or to England and Germany where these pieces were taken following British occupation. In 1897, the British looted the Benin National Palace and took 4000 works of art to England where they were sold to museums and to private collectors. In private and in museum collections, these works of art were often treated with various oils and stripping agents to enhance their appeal and resale value. That same process altered their appearance. As a result, their color has changed and that impairs our ability to more fully examine the aesthetic intent of the artists who created these masterpieces. At the exhibit, we get to view these original works but not always in the colors that they were met to be displayed.
On the opening night of the exhibit, people of all ethnic backgrounds were there enjoying the art and the jubilant reception hosted by the museum staff. Benin art is commonly displayed at museums around the world but in the Haitian community, this art has particular relevance. Each piece is a mirror into our culture and history.
The metal statues are anatomically detailed and yet they are made in metal. When the people from the region of Benin arrived to Haiti, they added the Creole word Feray to the name of their Patron Spirit of Metal and called him Ogou Feray. Feray refers to the ores used in metal making. Metal making was celebrated by the Benin people. Their King Oba Owuare 1440-1473 was known for giving elaborate tributes to Ogou and that earned him the nickname Prince Ogou (Ogun). The machete in one of the statues on exhibit is identical to machetes used in Haiti in tributes to Ogou.
The majority of Benin statues depict heads of Kings and of their Queen mothers. The best known Queen statue is that of Queen Idia, the mother of king Oba Isegbie. Most of her statues depict only her head. This is because the head is the site of one's intellectual activity and in general, it is the head that best represents a person. Like the people of Benin, we often refer to world leaders as heads of state. We consider the head so important that it remains the most photographed part of the body. The Benin statues were mostly intended to represent the kings on religious altars and so the statues accentuate the kings' heads and often make them disproportionately large as compared to their bodies. At times, multiple rings are placed around the neck to accentuate the head. Many of these statues reflect what people in Haiti would call tèt san kò - heads without bodies.
Following their death, the Benin kings were believed to become Lwas, powerful spirits. The statues of departed kings and queens were placed on altars and often used along with regalia as effigies of these former rulers. Statues could also be placed at the border of a king's territory. Some of the head pieces had holes that were used to attach other ornaments.
In general, the statues have their mouths closed so as not to expose their teeth. Showing teeth is a sign of lack of proper seriousness. The kings are portrayed as sober minded and so their teeth are not revealed. This idea is captured in the traditional expression: Loko Oba si ye tèt an plas which seems to mean Loko was a level-headed king. For the people of Haiti, a sober minded king takes care of business in a serious tone and that is no laughing matter - pa gen griyen dan lan sa.
Over the centuries, additional themes were incorporated into the statues. Towards the 17 and 18th centuries, in response to contact with the Portuguese, the region became more militarized and the statues depict weapons alongside the kings' heads. The statues often have signs of the crossroad on them to depict the king's ability to dispense justice. In this manner, the kings are portrayed as guardians of the intersection of the living with the dead. For this reason, the regalia used with the statues were frequently red. The color red highlights the danger one faced in the presence of the king. Even the statues themselves were described as being red even though they are bronze. Until today, the people of Haiti continue to call people with bronze colored skin, red people. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy studies have also revealed the coating of some of these statues with red stains.
Alongside the king and queens, various different animals can be seen in the carvings. The most common are alligators because they ferociously guard their territory. Leopards are often depicted because they are smart and strong, and like the elephant, are regarded as the king of the forest. The mudfish is represented because it lives on both land and water and in this way it shows that the king's authority extends over both of these domains. Feathers or birds of prey are often present on the statues as symbols of the king's far reaching and dominant rule. Together, these animals symbolize the king's dominion of the air, sea, and land. Another animal commonly present is the puff-adders snake. This snake is poisonous and it habitually sits and waits for its prey. It behaves like the king who sits and all his needs are performed for him and his food is brought over to him. The snake's poison symbolizes the king's ability to dispense capital punishment. The snakes also sheds its skin symbolizing the king's ability to give life. The people of Benin associated the snake with the Patron Spirit of the Ocean, Olokoun, who is also given religious tribute in Haiti. The presence of snakes on the bronze sculptures helps to show the close link between the king and Olokoun, thus making the king divine.
On occasion, statues were made of other important people. These people were often advisers to the king who enjoyed a high level of immunity. Their statues often depict them with elements of the pangolin, an anteater with scales that prevent it from being eaten by leopards. Some of the statues of Queen Idia depicts these scales in her headdress.
One of the statues in the exhibit shows a man sitting on a low set chair. The Bini people like their Nago neighbors use these chairs as a symbol of authority. People, like the kings, would sit on these when they had something important to say. In Haiti, these chairs have been redesigned but they continue to be low set and are often used in the same manner, for saying something of high importance. The statue with the low set chair is remarkable because it does not have the figure of a king but rather of a hougan, a religious leader. This statue reveals that religious leaders enjoyed high social status in the Benin Kingdom.
Another element frequent in the statues are cone shaped headdresses. These headdresses were often triangular so as to highlight the three worlds of spirit: celestial, earthly, and underworld or water spirits. The headdress comes to a pointed tip to show that the person depicted is a privileged person in the society who did not carry burdensome loads on his or her head. Such loads cannot be balanced on the pointed tip of a headdress.
By oral tradition, the technology for producing these statues came from Ile Ife, the cultural capital of the Nago Oyo Kingdom. It is said that in the year 1280, Oba Oguola (King Oguola) of Benin requested the help of the King of the Nago Oyo people so that metal art making technology could take root in Benin. Perhaps it happened with the two kings saying “enhen”, which means yes in Edo, the language which was spoken in the Benin Kingdom. Following an agreement, the technology was shared. In Haiti, we continue to use the Nanchon Bini word “enhen”. The word Oba for king is also used in Haiti. It is the prefix in the name Obatala which can also be prounounced as Batala. This word also appears in the traditional song Anonse o zanj lan dlo, Oba Kosou Miwa...
There is still much to learn about Benin art, particularly about their much older works in stone and clay. Some of these older pieces date back several thousand years. Hopefully, after this treat, the Haitian Historical Museum will continue to help us dig even further into our past and rediscover a history so long neglected in formal school education.
Allen Wardwell. Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. Published by Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York. 1989.
Janet L Schrenk 1994. The Royal Art of Benin: Surfaces, Past and Present. Essay published in Ancient and Historic Metals: Conservation and Scientific Research. Edited by David A. Scott, Jerry Podany, Brian B. Considin. The Getty Conservation Institute. Electronic Edition 2007.
Jerry M. Gilles and Yvrose S. Gilles. Remembrance: Roots, Rituals and Reverence in Vodou. Bookmanlit. Davie Florida. 1999.
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