Royal African art must speak for itself

September 12, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Judging by the art in "Benin: Royal Art of Africa," at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the west African kingdom of Benin was a rich and complex royal society for 500 years before it was conquered by the British in 1897. Under the oba, a king regarded as a godlike figure, were strata of chieftains, dignitaries and organized guilds of artists including metal workers and wood and ivory carvers.

The artists were valued members of society, and judging by the works in this show their skill was extraordinary. Their cast metal sculptures and carved ivory tusks served as both ceremonial objects and historical documents, recording people and animals, events and ritual, down to the smallest details of costume.

Unfortunately, they no longer serve the society by which they were created. The British conquerors carried off thousands of works, which they sold. One of the greatest collections was formed by the Museum fur Volkerkunde (ethnography) in Vienna, from which this exhibit comes, organized for its American tour by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

As a historical exhibit, it's exemplary. Its approximately 100 objects are organized into sections reflecting aspects of the civilization -- royal altars, heads of obas, court life and so on. The show informs about the structure and customs of Benin civilization, using thorough texts and labels. There is even a detailed reading of one of the magnificent carved tusks, the longest of which is more than 7 feet and bears as many as 11 rows of carvings.

The exhibit gives these objects less attention as works of art, however. To look upon objects from other cultures purely for their aesthetic qualities, divorced from the culture from which they sprang, is frowned upon. Fortunately, there is little inclination to do that today. But look at them from too ethnographic a point of view, and the viewer may regard them purely as relics, not as the major works of art which they certainly are.

This show is not devoid of aesthetic appreciation. There is a brief discussion, for instance, of two superbly lifelike full-length 14th century sculptures of dwarfs. Elsewhere, we are told that the heads of obas in the show include "some of the finest sculptures ever created by Benin artists."

But that raises more questions than it answers. Are they the finest of a particular period? Were there better periods and lesser periods, and how are they represented in this show?

Among the most stunning works are the 14th century dwarfs and a messenger figure of the late 16th/17th century. Do these represent peak periods in Benin art? Or was it remarkably consistent down the centuries?

The label for the reconstructed royal altar records that one of the four carved ivory tusks dates from about 1750-1850, another from about 1820-1850 and two others from the 1700s.

How were those dates arrived at -- historically (by information passed down), stylistically, iconographically, or by scientific analysis? If it is as a result of iconographic or stylistic interpretation, it would be particularly nice to know that.

This is a fine show as far as it goes. But it's obvious that the artists of Benin created a major art, and one wishes more attention were paid to it as art.

ART REVIEW

What: "Benin: Royal Art of Africa"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Oct. 30

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18, $12 family, free on Thursdays

Call: (410) 396-7100

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