Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Voice of America broadcast a clip about IYARE!--see it here.

It is a thrill to know this is being shown in Africa, and the exhibition online at may get even more Nigerian viewers!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Moon Keeps Rising....

Osayuki's question about the moon keeps producing more results! (So do our "six degrees of separation" and come up with another term to see how it might connect to Benin).

Uwagboe Ogieva, who has several Facebook groups that promote Edo language and culture, not only retranscribed and translated an incantation recorded in 1919, he has written an original poem in three languages, reproduced here with his gracious permission.

Uki ne khui! uki ne khui!

Egbe ye mwén se vbe uh rie owa

I mudia khé wé vbe édé ugie

Émwén wé yé mwén ne óh mose

Uki ne khui! uki ne khui!

Ye mwén re uh gha sé owa.


Moon dark moon! Moon dark moon!

Unhappy when you fade away

Waiting for you at the festival

Your admiration brightens the earth

Moon dark moon! Moon dark moon!

Remember me when you get home


Estrella negra!, estrella negra!,

Me pongo triste cuando te vas

Te espero en la fiesta,

su admiración aclara la tierra!

Estrella negra!, Estrella negra!

Recuérdeme cuando vuelves

By Uwagboe Ogieva

In addition, I delved further into my bibliographic notes and found Northcote Thomas (p. 180) had also referred to the "Agukisemogie the star that tries to take the kingship from the moon."

Paula Ben-Amos noted that traditions state there was an eclipse at the time of Oba Esigie's coronation, as well as at that of Oba Erediauwa--a special mark of favor from the ancestors. (In "Royal Art and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Benin."Iowa Studies in African Art I (1981): 67-86.)
And from my own research notes:
Chief Osuan stated that the moon brightens all and is a friend to everyone, shining as a light in the dark: "God uses the moon to repair the night." Moon imagery frequently shows up in conjunction with Chief Osuan on older artworks, including this headdress of the "baby" Ododua mask made in the 18th century. The masquerade was considered the "youngest," and led the others in dancing. The festivities, not held since the 1990s, were once performed at night, and the moon on the brass headpiece was meant to indicate the lmoon's light and how it wouldn't lead others wrong.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More on the moon...

Osayuki asked for more on the moon, her namesake. I don't know a lot beyond its visual use as a kind of charm to go and return safely ("Iyare!") when it appears with the sun. But I can demonstrate its frequent appearances over time at least. Here it is at right, on the Oba's egbele, worn at the Emobo ceremony in 1994.

But it also showed up on the seat of 18th-century Oba Eresonyen's throne, along with many blacksmiths' tools. The tools symbolize Ogun and the ability to clear pathways to get the job done, and the sun and moon's presence here is likely to be protective. But moons also show up as corner decorations on lots of 16th century plaques. What do they mean there?

Are they occasionally not moons at all? On a handful of hip pendants made for ritual specialists/native doctors, they are crescent-shaped seed pods, an ingredient in medicine. But where there's a sun, there's the moon to cool it and throw light on the darkness.

I never heard older Edo people say much about the sky, except for referring to the star-filled sky as being like a guinea fowl--spotted. But I dug up an old article by Northcote Thomas, a colonial officer in Benin in the early 20th century. In 1919 he wrote about the deserted "Iwuki" headquarters on the right-hand side of Ikpoba Road (Akpakpava) "just above the rest house"; he was talking about the Iwoki guild, but this group (founded by Uti and Avan, two Portuguese in Oba Esigie's service) dealt with celestial phenomena, as well as weapons (probably because they were sailors, used to watching the sky), so its association with the moon is understandable. Thomas said an elderly man took him to the group's place on Ikpoba slope, and that it included a shrine to the sun and moon that was marked by a mud "heap" and by a "chained" Osa and Olokun, who were to "settle any quarrel between the sun and the moon." Eclipses are certainly considered notable in Benin, and the phenomenon involves Iwoki.

Thomas went on to say that the moon would signal Iwoki for sacrifices: chalk for the moon, camwood and chalk for the sun. He also quotes some incantations for the celestial bodies, though the spelling is in the old orthography and probably includes some mispronunciations. Can anybody help with a modern transcription and verify or argue with his translation? Here's what he said: "In Edo when people see the new moon they take sand and throw it up and say 'Gevaxwe; nuyaxwe owe nogbedi; ogaluki noma, semime; gumeka bauki-womame; waluki nogbama itenue (here is soap; take it and wash your son Ogbedi; if you are a good moon, bless me; let me reckon you a good moon for my good luck; if you are a bad moon, I run away." Also "When they see a halo round the moon they say the moon has killed an elephant. When the moon looks dull they say, 'Uki lal ogiami' ('The moon has entered the playground of his enemies'). He also lists several Ishan prayers regarding sighting the moon and asking for blessings.

So perhaps plaques bearing moon motifs are also referencing protection, or they may be connected with Iwoki...I will have to look more carefully now at how many bear them, and what they have in common. And I promise when I return home I'll post a moon-in-the-corner plaque

Thanks for this question and a new direction of thought! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese send more questions, requests, or degrees of separation!

Quotes from N.W. Thomas, "Nigerian Notes: IV. Astronomy." Man 19 (item 92, 1919): 179-183

Leo Asemota

All of you who love Benin--get to know the works of Leo Asemota, a London-based Edo artist. I first saw his pieces at a conference two years ago, and I was struck by how efficiently they conjured the pain, nostalgia, pride, anger, and wistfulness of reflections about the 1897 British invasion and subsequent looting.

They're a part of contemporary art that is aimed at an increasingly small elite, one which presupposes familiarity with art history or other arcane references. I don't often think this is a good thing, though as an art historian I always enjoy the referential sampling of "greatest hits," whether they are Western (as in Yinka Shonibare's work, or that of Kehinde Wiley).

But in teaching...ah... Leo, if you ever Google yourself and see this, thank you for the work below! Your painting created pathways for me to introduce students unfamiliar with Benin's location, talk less of its history and art, into a complex world of colonialism, traditional religion, art history, ethnicity, divine kingship, conceptual art, color symbolism and more, in an efficient way that held students' interest (not a given, by any means!) and provoked indignation. This same efficiency prompted me to use the image in a public lecture on Olokun yesterday.

Is this kind of work really for the elite? Or, looking at the history of what the artist has produced, is it meant more for small, specific audiences? After all, he has produced photo and video documentations of sites in particular London neighborhoods which track their own nostalgias, sorrows, and angers. In a way the practice reminds me of a spectacular theatre professor at Uniben (whose name I've forgotten, though he won a Fulbright) who would send his students to an Edo village or neighborhood. They'd be there less than a week, talking to all kinds of people and making notes, then creating a community play that had its local audience laughing, nodding in agreement, and perhaps mobilizing.

Asemota says these works were inspired by a Benin exhibition he saw in 1994 at the British Museum (or its former Museum of Mankind satellite?). I like it a lot. In its absences, gaps, and interstices, it speaks to interrupted (but not stopped!) history.

Leo Asemota's official website is:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reworking the past

I always get a kick of how artists rework the past, even when they are attempting to copy it. This isn't a Benin bronze plaque, it's a wall sculpture at Benin City's Saidi Centre (home of arguably the best spring rolls in all of Nigeria). Though modeled after 16th century objects, the artist has altered the head to body proportions. Instead of the head being about a fifth of the total body, it's more like a sixth; the rosettes in the background are raised and so neatly lined up. The figure no longer have that solid, stolid stance; they're at ease. Saidi Centre is full of other examples--fun to compare with the originals.


It has been an unconscionably long time since I wrote on the blog! Deepest apologies, but I've been working on the catalogue (do you like the cover?) which is almost ready for the printer! It won't be cheap, but it will be sold at cost and is chock-full of color photos. Besides long catalogue entries on each piece in the IYARE! exhibition, it will have six illustrated essays, one for each section. I will keep you posted when and where it will be available.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Idia thrives!

Idia, the 16th century mother of Oba Esigie, has been put to a new use. Lauded for her devotion and intelligent scheming to put her son on the throne, she is remembered as both warrior and witch. Now her powers are being brought to bear on the trafficking of women from Edo State to Europe for prostitution, particularly prostitution in northern Italy, where they are disproportionately a part of street life. This UN-sponsored poster is directed toward the trade in girls, although it and other public campaigns imply that overseas prostitution involves helpless girls who were deceived. While this may happen in some cases, many all-too-aware girls and even some married women eagerly "apply" to the madames who promise visas and dangle the hope of ready foreign exchange before them. They even swear oaths in Nigeria before leaving, pledging to faithfully fulfill their "contracts."

While they may not realize all the degradations that lay ahead, many have their eyes wide open when they make this choice. They are usually unaware, however, that the madames will make them repay every penny of their ticket, clothing, etc. with heavy interest, and that they will be on their backs to also pay for their accommodation, feeding, etc. Those who go ahead are willing to do so because there are few employment possibilities, and they see visiting "Italian women" flaunting their gold, building fabulous homes, and driving flashy cars during the holidays.

NGOs are trying to create more opportunities at home to discourage this flesh trade, and Idia has now been suborned to draw her iron brows together. She apparently frowns on Edo girls who abandon traditional values as homemakers and providers through legal trade, and it will be interesting to see how successful her role in the campaign will be. For more information, see the UNICRI website at

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Moon! A response to Hannah

Hannah played the "Benin Degrees of Separation" game and challenged me to connect Benin to the moon (join the challenge and send your demands!). Well, there are several possibilities...some Edo names refer to it, like Osayuki ("God created the moon").

In crescent form, it appears on the corners of some plaques, and also appears as one of many wrapper motifs on bronze objects. Today it is most commonly seen in thing brass forms on high-ranking chiefs' palace attire, along with triangular-rayed sun disks. Together the sun and the moon are a protective charm, especially for warriors or anyone embarking on a dangerous enterprise. Both faithfully reappear, unharmed, each night or day. So will the intrepid safely return from their battles.

More requests, please!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Intrepid Fighters

Image is everything. Not an Edo proverb, but it might have been. These two 16th century heads from Philadelphia's Penn Museum are high-ranking war victims, either rulers or generals. Made from a copper alloy, they were permanent representations of specific victories. The conquerors appeared in only a handful of contemporary plaques actually engaged in war. Instead, they usually showed themselves in full ceremonial dress at a war festival, not engaged in sweaty combat, but splendid as victors.

Like disdainful conquistadors, they were secure in their position--so much so that they could afford to honor the defeated with precious metal and depictions of coral necklaces. Generals were stars when at home in Benin City, surrounded by cheering crowds and their entourages, encouraged by musicians and acclaim. The stress of the battlefield behind them, bloody memories were converted into beauty.