Benin Art in Museums and Galleries Essay

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The display of Benin art in museum and galleries reflect the attitudes and perceptions of Europeans towards non-western artefacts, especially African. Thus as European attitudes change towards non-western art since the discovery of Benin art in 1897, Benin art has been revaluated and re-categorised.

Initially there was a great deal of debate about Benin art and its display, as it did not equate with the perceptions then held about Africa. Until the British conquest of Benin in 1897, little was known about Benin and its culture apart from brief interaction with other Europeans in the sixteenth century. The perception of Africa was of a primitive, savage and uncivilised land, full of ‘abuses and fetishes and idolatries’, (Hodgkin, 1975,
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This posed a display problem to exhibitors including the British Museum as they tried to fit them into the ethnological museum to explain the emergence of ‘civilisation from prehistory’ (Loftus, 2008). The predominating attitude towards the Benin artwork was that it was the exception and lost treasure from an ancient, African civilisation. This resulted in the display of the Benin bronze plaques in the British Museum as a ‘collective wall decoration, halfway up the main stairs, one more element in the eclectic mosaic of artefacts’ (Wood, 2008, p72). The rest of the display of various antiquities of art and functional items like weapons and transport displayed jumbled together in glass cabinets with little or no detail as to the function or cultural value of the artefacts often misrepresenting ideas about primitive life.

The primitive nature of African art attracted many artists looking for new inspiration and expression as urban modernity lost its vitality in the late 1880’s and 90’s (Wood, 2008). In adopting primitive African art as the catalysis for their expression of modernity, avant-garde artists created a more positive perception of the primitive rather than the negative barbaric perception. Wood (2008) quotes the early twentieth century, avant-garde critic Carl Einstein in that the Benin artworks were of no decisive significance. In fact, the western artists reduced their sophisticated beauty of the artwork as seen in
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