From a live Smarthistory webinar: Dr. Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch on a Benin Relief Plaque

Transform your course: From a live Smarthistory webinar: Dr. Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch on a Benin Relief Plaque

The Benin bronze plaques are a corpus of more than 850 reliefs that once hung in the audience court of the Oba, or king, of Benin.  Likely commissioned by Oba Esigie (r. 1517–c.1550s) and his son Orhogbua (r. c. 1550s–1570s), the reliefs depict courtiers and warriors honoring and obeying the Oba. When installed the reliefs form a monument that envisions an ideal relationship between the Oba and his subjects. Esigie is known for instituting new festivals and commissioning artworks to emphasize the right relationship between himself and his court, a necessary act of internal diplomacy after the civil war that brought him to power and the subsequent invasion of Benin territory by the Idah kingdom. Esigie seems to have succeeded in his aims: Benin oral history reports a strong relationship between Oba Orhogbua and the Uzama n’Ihinron, a group of the highest-ranking courtiers in the palace.  By examining one relief of this great monument, the relief plaque depicting the palace at the British Museum in London, students can explore the iconography of power in Benin art, artists’ responses to a new medium, the relationship between art and architecture, and the impact of structural racism on scholarship.

For the classroom

Discussion questions

  1. The Benin plaque depicting the palace celebrates the majesty of the king, or Oba, who is not depicted. Compare this artwork to other pieces that refer to a person or idea that is not depicted, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. What strategies have the artists used to give the viewer clues to the real subject of the work?
  2. The plaques were part of a monumental installation in the palace, but they have primarily been studied one by one. Think about other decorative programs you have studied out of their architectural contexts, such as the Parthenon reliefs or Peter Paul Rubens’s cycle for Marie de Medici. How does your understanding of the work change when you consider it on its own, or as part of a larger architectural framework?
  3. This plaque creates a strong sense of place using only a partial view of a building and the stance of the four figures. How does the artist’s strategy compare to the creation of place in Bada Shanren’s Lotus and Ducks?

Classroom activity

  • Using a high-resolution image of the work, identify the passages where the artists have created a sense of different textures. How have the artists suggested the softness of hair or textiles versus the hard surfaces of bronze plaques or beads? Can you find passages where the texture of the depicted object is unclear or unexpected?
  • The Edo Museum of West African Art is scheduled to open in Benin City in the coming years and will include references to the original architectural installation of Benin artworks. Sketch a plan for the display of the plaques with your classmates. What information is most important to convey through labels and wall texts?  What should the design of the space communicate to the audience?

Additional resources:

Read more about this specific plaque on the British Museum website

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also has information about Benin art and the plaques in particular

Learn more about Benin plaques here

“Benin Plaques”

You can learn more about Benin art in general

Many sources provide information on the ownership controversy surrounding Benin art, including:

“Benin Art: Patrons, Artists and Current Controversies”

Ezra, Kate. Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. 

Gunsch, Kathryn Wysocki.  The Benin Plaques: A 16th Century Imperial Monument. New York: Routledge, 2018.

**this book includes many essays by members of the palace, as well as an opening letter from late Oba Erediauwa.**  Plankensteiner, Barbara, et al. Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum mit MVK und ÖTM, 2007.

—–.  Benin. Milan: 5 Continents, 2010.