Igun Eronmwon: Guardian of ageless tradition


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Eric Ogbemudia

Ancient bronze casting

For centuries, Igun Street in ancient Benin City has been the home of famous Benin bronze casting. When The Nation Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE visited the street some days ago, he found the street and its art tradition much unchanged. Descendants of the originators of the sacred craft still operate in close knitted communal exclusionism

Multi-coloured interlocking bricks cover the street. Much like ancient Benin City streets, it is a wide road. Should the government decide to dualise the road, there would be no need for demolition of buildings. The setbacks between the covered road-side gutters and the buildings make enough room for that.

The buildings themselves reflect the character of the street. It is a collection of bungalows that few living would dare boast of sharing the same age with. Rusty corrugated iron roofs all, they are all bungalows except for a couple of storey buildings. Built in the days of mud structures, their pillars stand firm as if defying change and modernity. The same sense of solidity creates an atmosphere whereby no structure needs a fence.

To grab the essence of Igun Street, one needs to enter from the imposing King’s Square via Sakpoba Street. A mammoth arched gateway welcomes the guest to the base of Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild.

A guild it is in the deepest traditional sense of the word. Igun Eronmwon as its Benin name is has been there for centuries. Membership is restricted to Igun Street indigenes who are in the art of bronze carving. The only other members from outside Igun Street are descendants of the original carvers who had moved on and settled in other parts of town.

More rusty than the dirt-brown corrugated iron sheets that shield the bungalows from torrential rainfalls and sunshine are the prescient precious pieces adorning the shops that line up the street. They attract attention of seekers from far and near. Whites travel across the oceans to acquire. Blacks travel across bridges to admire. For centuries, Benin bronze casting has been in a class of its own.

The Benin monarch, Ovonranwen Nogbaisi was in one of his most sacred retreats during which he was not supposed to receive any visitor when British expeditionary force leader Captain Philips rode into town demanding an audience with the former. Of course, the impossibility of granting his request – no matter what mighty empire he claimed to represent – was made clear to him.

Who were these barbarians in the deep heart of darkness resisting a “legitimate” request of the Crown representative for an audience with their man on the “stool”?

A force was mobilised. Captain Philips led an expeditionary force whose attitude Wole Soyinka described in You Must Set Forth At Dawn as:

“His Majesty’s Britannic servants were not to be denied however, and they forced their way into the city, with gruesome consequences. Such insolence was not to be countenanced! Orders were issued to mount a punitive expedition, and they were carried out with equally gruesome efficiency. Numerous treasures, the spoils of war were shipped back to England – to offset the cost of the war, the British dispatches stated, with admirable candour. Among them was the ivory mask, the alleged head of Benin princess.”

The ivory Idia head that later became the icon of the Second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ’77, was just one of the numerous artefacts the British stole during the expedition. The stolen works were predominantly bronze works. Their origin? Igun Street, the home of ancient Benin bronze casting mystery.

How did it all begin?

In those days when Benin knew no Oba – so far, there had been 38 Obas in the kingdom – the Ogiso reign supreme. The days of Ogiso Uwas was credited with being the beginning of the ancient art. That was sometimes around 300 to 500 BC. However, its specific roots can only be traced back to 1280 AD.

“In every invention,” Eric Ogbemudia, the Secretary of the Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild told The Nation, “there is always a point at which a man’s name is associated with the new invention. This does not necessarily mean there was no such an invention can undoubtedly be ascribed to the person.”

An HND holder in sculpture from The Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, Eric Ogbemudia is the poster boy for Igun Street bronze casting tradition. When The Nation entered the street, the very first gallery owner directed the writer to him. “He is the one who can give authoritative information about the Guild and its traditions and operations.”

Born into bronze casting family, Ogbemudia traces his lineage back to Igwera. Igwera it was who was documented to have brought the bronze casting art to Benin in 1280. From where is a question nobody can really answer.

“There are speculations that it was brought from Sudan or Egypt,” Ogbemudia said. “We are researching that now. But there is the possibility that it could have been evolved in Benin here. There were many metal craft shops in Benin then. Metal workers made arrows, swords and daggers for warfare long before the Europeans came. In the process of metal smelting this particular metal could have been detected.”

Scientifically, this is a great possibility. Bronze melts faster than iron. In between, iron stands suspended above bronze liquid – the only condition in which the heavy metal stands suspended on the surface of any liquid – thereby producing a distinct raw material for any creative metal worker.

One way or the other, Igwera is credited with the exalted status of bronze work in Benin.

“The Oba of Benin blessed the Guild,” Ogbemudia said. “There are other guilds such as the metal fabricators and carpenters’ guilds. They are either extinct or in the process of becoming extinct. The Bronze Casters’ Guild remains because it was blessed by the Oba.”

Igwera’s son, Inneh, became the head of the Guild. To date, the Inneh remains the head while the Oba of Benin remains the grand patron. Closely related to the Oba both biologically and in physical location, the descendants of Igwera had carried on the tradition of being court artistes for these centuries.

When the British came calling – or shall we say stealing? – I 1897, what they picked were mostly small sized bronze works. According to practitioners of the art The Nation spoke with at Igun Street, the forage was more or less a mixed blessing. Generally, works were about 18 inches long then. Now they reach as tall as eleven-foot tall statue of the leader of Nigeria’s first revolutionary putch, late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu which stands on a four-foot platform at his Okpanaku hometown near Asaba in Delta State. Executed by the same Eric Ogbemudia, it is a testimony to the coming of age of Benin bronze tradition.

In vain Nigeria waited for the return of the Idia head for the FESTAC ’77. The cunning British denied the entire Black race even its symbolic presence at the opening ceremonies.

Exceptional the British thought – and still think – their illegal acquisitions to be. No doubt they are of unquantifiable value. These are part of a people’s heritage for the sake of all that is good and sacred. Talking of sacred, these are sacred pieces. More on that later. Yet, the pieces they took away measured average of about 18 inches. Compared to what their arousal of interest had generated in Benin bronze artecraft, new works virtually dwarf their predecessors; if only in size!

From all over the world, arts lovers, historians, ethnologists, anthropologists and indeed all categories of tourists troupe to Igun Street to behold the marvel of Benin bronze culture. “They come here with high expectations,” said Ogbemudia, “only to behold our humble dwellings and wonder if truly all they had heard about emanated from this rustic settings. Not a view pay for a foundry demonstration of the production process.

Who blames them? Just a while ago, an Idia head sold for N6.6 million out there in the world market. Mark it, without any reparation paid to the original creators and inheritors of the artefact!

The curious can still experience the good old bronze casting process. Little had changed over the centuries. The lost wax method still reigns supreme.

Clay is moulded into desired shape. Then the envisaged object is shaped in wax. Another layer of clay coats the well-shaped artistic design. The next step is the firing stage. As the heat rises to up to 700 degrees centigrade, wax of course disintegrates into nothingness literally evaporating into thin – or thick – air. While this is progressing, the bronze is being heated. At 800 degrees, it melts. The molten bronze is then poured in to replace the absent wax through a funnel space created in the moulding process.

The entire thing cools down and there emerges the precious object. Cleaning, filing, scraping and other finishes complete the process after the clay that had fulfilled its part of the creative process has been dislodged, crushed for tomorrow’s production schedule.

To date, women are not allowed into the ogun ogwa, the foundry where the production of Benin bonze takes place. They can purchase products for further marketing anyway or assist their spouses, parents and relations in the later stage of the creative sojourn. Women’s presence at the foundry is a taboo kept over the centuries.

In the same manner, children get initiated into the production process early in life. From around the age of four, they are sent on petty errands such as fetching clay for the mould. As they grow older they naturally grow into the production system. It is natural and ritualistic.

The Benin bronze casters do belong to the Guild Igun Eronwon, no doubt. But each person chooses what God to worship. While someone like the secretary of the Guild boasts of four generations of Christians in his lineage, others adhere to traditional religious practices.

Yet they preserve some deep-rooted traditional rituals no one can breach. For example, be you an inquisitive journalist or a researcher in quest of facts, you have to donate something to the Guild. There is no fixed price but you would need to remember that the smallest figurine on display in the average gallery goes for not less than N6000.

Their lifestyles are generally normal. A good number are craft artists who reproduce existing figures and figurines. Those who are really creative types who delve into experimentation in new forms and shapes tend to have the nature of all artists worldwide. Isolation is a good companion in the creative process!

Their assignment, right from ancient days, had been a sacred one. No one cast any object without the permission of the Oba of Benin. The Igun people, led by their 12 titled chiefs at the head of which is the Inneh, served as the camera that documented important occasions at the court of the Omo N’Oba. When such an event is considered worthy of documentation, they are then commissioned to execute the project.

At the beginning, most of Benin bronze works were the kings and queens and other notable royalties. There were those that documented in one sweeping montage the story of the entire reign of a monarch. Such can be found at the National Museum at Onikan, Lagos and the Benin Museum. In the same manner, non-bronze products such as word carvings and paintings can now be found at the average Igun gallery.

As the British raid exposed the Benin bronze art to worldwide limelight, themes began to change. Today is not unusual to find Ife heads – an old theme, some of the practitioners argue – and other modern designs among the products on display in the some 200 retail outlets and galleries that line Igun Street. Next to the ancient images such as the abe and ada ceremonial swords, you would find images of Jesus on the cross and other artistic motif from other cultures across the land and beyond. Even abstract expressionism find its place in the creative foundry of Igun Street.

“Often times,” Ogbemudia said, “we receive commission from other states. They tell us what they want and we cast it for them.”

Patronage has grown beyond the traditional court collection circle. From all over the world people come to acquire Igun bronze works. Apart from direct collectors, there are arts dealers, especially those located within big hotels and other such outlets frequented by tourists and collector, who come an purchase in bulk for retailing.

In the same manner, battery-propelled bellows had made inroad into the once purely hand operated types. The yearning of the practitioners of the ancient art is that light would be stable. At least that would help propel their bellows. Beyond this, they aspire to using modern high tech bellows and cleaning machines.

If only the government would heed their call.

Walk down Igun Street. Where the road is intersected by First East Circular Street, the dream evaporates. The tile pavement of the road ends. What one is ushered into is muddy gullies dominated road that is practically out of reach bounds to vehicles.

End of the ancient dream that had been preserved over the centuries? Hardly. One only need to be reminded that one of the young “practitioners in training” is a medical student of the University of Benin. If an HND holder from Auchi Polytechnic returned home to take of the profession and a medical student is still growing within the family tradition, Igun Eronmwon, Guild of Igun Bronze Casters, surely has a future!


One Response to “Igun Eronmwon: Guardian of ageless tradition”

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