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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ghanaian guests of honor!

Two distinguished Ga visitors brought a bit of Ghana to the IYARE! opening. Dr. Samuel Quartey, Philadelphia podiatrist and traditional ruler, was hosting kingmaker Nii Amarkai III, and brought him along for a look. Many Edo traveled from Benin to Elmina in the late 15th and 16th century as traders, so this cultural exchange has a long history. Many thanks for joining us!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Yoruba beauties

"Playing the Provinces" looks at Benin's impact on its neighbors, including the Ijebu and Owo Yoruba. Owo artists carved pieces that were absolutely amazing. This double ivory bracelect was made of one tusk section, split by the maker into one cylinder inside the other. Openings on the outer cylinder and projections from the inside cylinder interlock so they have remained intact. Rubbing with palm oil gave the ivory a glowing, golden patina.

Installation photo by Lauren Flaschen-Hansen
Object photo by Penn Museum Photo Studio

On the popularity of Louis XIV

Besides its well-known palace guilds of artists and craftsmen, Benin has many expert furniture makers. Roadside shops produce quality upholstered sofas. chairs, and beds at reasonable prices.

As the signboard here shows, aristocrats favor furniture in the Louis XIV style, full of gilt and furbelows. As a courtly style, its formality matches chiefly tastes, with necessary touches of flamboyance, yet its proportions are more masculine than later rococo work.

When did its popularity begin, and who started this trend? It certainly antedates the Internet. Did the style derive from a book? From furniture someone brought back from a London trip?

Because of the long history of interaction Benin has had with Europe, both through trade at home and embassies and travel abroad, it's impossible not to wonder if this taste was established when Louis XIV was actually on his curlicued throne. France sent many official traders to Benin, right up through the 1790s, when navy Captain Jean-Francois Landolphe attempted to establish trading posts (factories) along the Benin River. Foreign envoys always brought gifts, furniture included--the impact of Portuguese brass-tacked wood and leather chairs in Ghana and Angola was considerable, providing a starting point for Ashanti and Chokwe imaginative reworkings.
Perhaps a chair or a throne from Paris was part of the cargo...yet carpentering upholstered chairs in Nigeria presupposes the availability of foam, bringing us well into the 20th century.

Perhaps an older Edo reader can shed some light on the popularity of the style, or a younger one could pester a grandparent for information. Do you remember this style from time immemorial, or can you recall when it first became popular? Who first had furniture in this style?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shameless plug for a mug and more

IYARE! is dying to come into your house and be wrapped up as a happy present.

The Penn Museum has special IYARE! mugs, tshirts, and replicas of objects in the exhibition. Check them out at the Market section of

This handsome mug bears motifs from one of the Penn Museum tusks.

Website fun

Don't forget to look at and go to the fun section if you want to choose a new computer wallpaper, find Benin coloring pages for the kids, or learn how to play ise with them. Soon we'll be adding Benin paper dolls and some recipes to this section!

Benin drinks and a holiday challenge

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and American households are abuzz with preparation--just so you know, turkeys are indeed available in Benin, though not an everyday food. We just passed a NJ liquor store with a full parking lot, and it got me thinking about Benin and drinks. Soft drinks? Fanta (in orange, lemon, pineapple, and other flavors), Schweppes Bitter Lemon, Coke, tonic water, malt drinks and more. Beer and the like? Guinness has a brewery in Benin City, as does Nigeria Breweries--ah, a cold, tasty Star beer is perfect with a hot, peppery stew.

If you can get undiluted, fresh palm wine, is anything better? Yeasty and slightly effervescent, even better if a fridge is available to cool it off. Delicious and refreshing, and not at all overpowering. Once it's "overnight," fermentation transforms it into a far more powerful drink. Suitable for the ancestors as well as the living, palmi is the traditional alcoholic beverage. Supermarkets in Benin City carry many types of wines and liqueurs--Moet & Chandon is a popular society choice, while Malibu and Bailey's Irish Cream appeal to sweet tooths.

Gin, however, has long been a favorite for family members who have gone before. Centuries ago, the Dutch started selling it as a standard trade item, and only schnapps attempts to challenge its value as a "hot" drink suitable for ancestors. Gordon's is, by far, the gin of choice today, and is readily available in most shops. Research introductions call for gifts of kola nuts, some naira, and Gordon's--even if you didn't drink in this lifetime, you will in the afterlife, so it's always handy for libations.

Benin is not really a cocktail spot--gin is drunk neat. But the holidays are coming, and it seems to me that a festive IYARE! mixed drink (giving the phrase's "go and return safely" meaning a new twist, promoting moderation!) could be a pleasant invention. So help this blog come up with an appropriate blend--it must be a gin-based cocktail, coral or red in its final color. What else should be in there? Hmmm....plenty of mangos in Benin, papaya, grapefruits, the best pineapples ever, lime, lemon, oranges... post your recipes!


The Hon. James H. Roebuck, Jr., Philadelphia state representative and chairman of the state's education committee, was at the IYARE! preview. We hope he will spread the word, because school involvement is one of our goals, and we appreciated his visit. Our legislator is shown here chatting with Dr. Richard Hodges, the Penn Museum director.


Young Master Iyare made change for eager aficianados of cultural dance at IYARE!'s recent opening. The curator encouraged the audience to "spray" the dancers, a venerable Nigerian (and West African) tradition of showing appreciation by sticking bills to the dancer's face. To spray with flair, the more bills the better, so he had to scramble to collect tribute and break large bills for recollection.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Handkerchiefs are a staple

At least one non-Edo Nigerian visitor to the IYARE! preview knew...

Hearing there would be Benin dance at the public opening, he said eagerly: "With handkerchiefs?"

But of course! Benin ladies have been dancing with handkerchiefs since the Portuguese first brought them in the late 15th century. Like their Itsekiri neighbors, they employ them in smooth, graceful performances.

Male dance can be far more vigorous, with stamping motions and expansive arm gestures.

Chiefly dance has limited steps, but is highlighted by the tossing of the eben ceremonial sword--come see it in the IYARE! exhibition's videos!

Handkerchiefs are also essential non-dance accessories for the monarch himself, as well as his wives, chiefs, and chiefs' wives. Covering the mouth is polite, particularly in a public occasion. "No one sees the teeth a deity eats with."

Photo by Jennifer Chiappardi

Worlds meet at the Penn Museum

Scholar Brian Rose, Deputy Director of the Penn Museum, meets Penn Law School overseer Osagie Imasogie and his father, theologist and philosopher Prof. Osadolor Imasogie, as well as mental health specialist Tina Iyare. Penn Museum's Benin exhibition IYARE! Splendor and Tension in Benin's Palace Theatre united Nigeria and Philadelphia, adding a further layer of international excitement to the week that brought the city the World Series championship and the presidential election.

Photo by Lauren Hansen-Flaschen

Cultural dancers greet Chief Obasogie

Chief Eduwu Ekhator Obasogie, the Obasogie of Benin Kingdom, traveled from Nigeria to see IYARE! He stands here with the Edo college students who so ably brought the Kingdom's dance to a new audience, and gave them a little taste of home.
Chief is wearing attire developed by Dr. Aisien that shows loyalty to the monarch, Oba Erediauwa. In past centuries, all citizens had iwu torso tattoos.
While this fell by the wayside earlier in the 20th century, Dr. Aisien--with palace support--created outfits that included embroidered versions of the old tattoos. Courtiers and cultural troupes demonstrate their unwavering fidelity to the king when they wear this dress.
Oba gha to kpere! Isee!
Photo by Jennifer Chiappardi

Ada attraction

Yes, the ada is getting the boyish votes! The lighting and mounting show off its beautiful chased designs. No, fellows--it isn't sharp. The ceremonial swords were not the businesslike blades the Benin army used so successfully. These are for court!
Photo by Jennifer Chiappardi

Does anything excite a boy's imagination like a sword?

Photo by Jennifer Chiappardi

Nigeria is right with us in Philadelphia

Although we had Nigerian visitors direct from Benin City and from as far afield as Boston, New York and Washington (thank you, all!), our Philadelphian Nigerian-American hosts ably proved the affability and charm of our city. Businessmen extraordinaire Osagie Imasogie (lawyer and pharmaceutical executive) and Larry Dibor (engineer and construction executive) are joined by Chris Dibor, who is preparing to make his capable mark on the City of Brotherly Love as well.

Photo by Lauren Hansen-Flaschen

Come see

In selecting which photos went up on the official website, we tried to look for those that showed off the installation best. But in our less formal blog, some of the other wonderful shots deserve to be seen! These wonderful photos aren't mine; they were taken by the Museum's own Lauren Hansen-Flaschen and Jennifer Chiappardi, both of whom got right in there to capture the contagious glamour of Benin. So, a flurry of posts this morning to stir viewers to make their own stories by visiting the exhibition.
Here Penn's African Studies director Lee Cassanelli converses with Penn Law School overseer Osagie Imasogie, Museum overseer Peter Gould, and Robin Potter in Benin City red.
Photo by Lauren Hansen-Flaschen

IYARE in the house

A big URUESE! to Tina Iyare for her immense help in publicizing the exhibition to the Benin community, drawing dancers from the Washington, DC orbit, creating enthusiasm in the audience for Edo dance (folks should see that the energetic arm-flinging characteristic of dance from Guinea/Senegal is not the only style of dance on the continent!), and speaking about parenthood and family life in Benin. And for wearing the most glamourous iwu outfit ever!
Many thanks too to her handsome son, who acted as banker for the "sprayers." Our American audience was shy at first, but Nigerians showed them the way, and little girls were particularly enthusiastic in their willingness to step up to the stage. "They're so beautiful!" one whispered to me. Indeed they are!
Photo by Lauren Hansen-Flaschen

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Glamour in Benin

To be a public figure in Benin requires expenditure. One’s palace face must consist of calculated generosity, showiness, and taste. New and gorgeous fashions, objects and accessories, entertainment on a grand scale, a family whose appearance excites comment—all are costly. Lavish spending creates admiration, but it also excites jealousy and strains the purse. The traditional story below speaks to the one-upmanship that occurs on a (non-mythical) level regularly.

Osanobua and His Son Olokun

Olokun, the deity of wealth and the sea, boasted that he was greater than his father, the High God Osanobua. Olokun was the owner of coral beads, bedecked in all manner of ornaments. His palace itself was made of money. Osanobua, in contrast, was modest in appearance.

One day Olokun decided to challenge his father to a contest. Whose attire was more splendid? The nobles of the spirit world assembled to watch.

Olokun emerged into the crowd, beautifully attired, to the gasps of onlookers. A messenger from his father awaited. Concerned with other matters, Osanobua had sent the chameleon as a stand-in. The chameleon stepped forward, and, using his natural abilities, mirrored Olokun’s dress. Frowning, Olokun retired to change.

He reemerged, more splendid than before. The chameleon matched him. Olokun pulled one item after another from his wardrobe, only to see his father’s representative equal his efforts. Exhausted, he surrendered. Osanobua himself then appeared and pointed out, “If you are so grand, and I own YOU, who is the most splendid?”

Saturday, November 15, 2008


When you want to protect your home and family, it's handy to have defensive medicine just inside your door. Thieves, rivals, and miscreants may find themselves helpless.


Court life is full of maneuvering and jockeying for position, whether within Benin’s palace or at Washington’s White House. Benin’s history is replete with stories of chiefs who vied with one another, those who challenged the Ọba, or foreign rulers who dared to defy his will. Being at the palace exposes one to competitors and enemies, ready to use medicine and other weapons to bring disgrace or worse. When you put yourself forward as a great man, you must anticipate trouble and deviousness, and be ready to combat it. Rivalry may result in a few contentious moments, full loss of reputation, or complete triumph. In past centuries, war might ensue.

The Faithful Wife and Enemies of the State

Even before Ọba Ọzọlua died in the early 16th century, his two eldest sons had begun to jostle for the throne. Neither of these half-brothers had a clear claim to being the older, undisputed heir; the reporting of their birth order was in question. Chiefs began to align behind one or the other; a number of the Uzama, the so-called kingmakers, supported Arhuaran, while many others supported Ẹsigie. Civil war broke out. Ẹsigie defeated Arhuaran and went on to be crowned.

A number of the Uzama were very displeased at this outcome. One of their members, Chief Oliha, had been an Arhuaran supporter. The teenaged Ọba was well aware of his past activities and waited for an opportunity to retaliate.

During daily palace activities, in Oliha continually bragged to his fellow courtiers about his wife Imaguero. According to him, this beauty was the kindest, most faithful woman in Benin. The mischievous Ẹsigie devised a plan to put the disaffected Chief Oliha in his place. He called one of his lame porters, an elderly, low-born man, and gave him a few coral beads. With orders to tempt Imaguero, the porter set about his task.

Ọba Ẹsigie waited for an opportune moment when the chiefs were assembled and conversing. When Chief Oliha began to boast about his wife again, the king summoned his porter. In front of the entire assembly, he instructed the porter to tell the tale of Imaguero’s successful seduction for the sake of a few coral beads. Humiliated, Chief Oliha returned home and slew his wife. He then sent messengers to the Igala kingdom, promising them information and assistance if they invaded Benin and dethroned the Ọba. This led to the Idah war, which Benin won. You don’t fight the palace!

Thursday, November 13, 2008


In the small world of the aristocracy, reputations build and shatter on the strength of words. Shaping an individual’s public persona might occur through idle but repeated chat, or be the result of a carefully crafted campaign. The weapon of gossip is a sharp one. While its use in tearing down someone is common worldwide, it can also be used to build a reputation. A well-known Benin story examines the fortunes of an early 18th century monarch:

Iden and Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ

Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ spent the palace’s resources on extravagant funeral ceremonies for his mother and was driven out of Benin. Only one of his wives, Iden, remained with him as he roamed in poverty. A diviner suggested there might be a way for Ẹwuakpẹ to return to glory. It required three things: empty oil containers, the carrier pads laborers wore to cushion head loads, and a human sacrifice. The Ọba sank into depression. The first two elements made no sense to him, and he had no funds to purchase a slave for sacrifice.

Iden understood. She obtained the containers, ensuring their mouths were slick with palm oil, and left them scattered just inside the palace gate. She scattered carriers’ pads throughout the grounds. Finally, she commanded an aide to slay her by an ancestral altar.

The next day, pages noticed the empty oil containers and alerted the chiefs. They concluded that tribute was pouring into the kingdom from the provinces. When they saw the carrier pads, they deduced others were sending presents to the king. The spectacle of a human sacrifice told them Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ was in control and honoring his ancestors.

As gossip about these events spread, so did alarm, revitalizing the king’s reign. Those seeking favor rushed to pay their respects, bearing gifts and pledges. Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ’s throne and wealth were secure once more. He honored Iden by declaring her grave should never be stepped on, upon pain of death.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Anyone looking at our exhibition's title might wonder what the tension it refers to is all about. Tension--past and present--can develop because of personal and economic stresses, and it produces dramas. I remember being told in Benin: "It's your enemies who make you, not your friends." The gist is that your skills are not developed through interacting with companions, but by being tested and honing your reactions to your adversaries.

“Ama Yogbe, Aimiu, Ulmwan”

“Beware of the Public Place; If You are Not Competent, Your Enemy Will Put You to Shame”—do Proverb

The palace is a site of splendid display, where courtiers vie to outdo each other and compete for public recognition. Being at court can be extremely fulfilling, but it is rarely relaxing. Image cultivation is both time-consuming and stressful.

Courtiers seek power and reputation, and then have to maintain them. As a man rises, others are ready to tear him down and take his place. Benin’s history is replete with tales of stratagems, plots, and downfalls worthy of any empire worldwide. Social ascents and downfalls play out visibly. Gossip, rivalry, and the pursuit of glamour are key elements in contemporary dramas, but they were also drove the tensions of the past. Ceremonies and performances at the palace and in villages often reenact such stories: jealous wives lying to their husband about a co-wife (the Ovia masquerade), the monarch's key warrior who then became irritated that his efforts were not more appreciated (the Agboghidi epic), the generosity of the monarch whose gifts of beads resulted in a scornful "Beads are common in the palace," with a fierce punishment resulting (15th century Oba Olua and his son Iginua).

Human impulses and strivings may find new outlets today, but gossip, striving for public acclaim, and enmity are worldwide and perennial. In the palace arena, they have a more avid and attentive audience than they might within an office building or in a school, but the motivations are familiar.

Monday, November 10, 2008

We're Open!

I'm happy to say the exhibit IYARE!: Splendor and Tension in Benin's Palace Theatre is now open and ready for you to visit!

It's at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, at 3260 South Street, and open Tuesday through Sunday. Our giant website is also open--please check

The opening was great--we'll be adding footage and photos both here and on the website. A big and enthusiastic crowd--tell your friends and come see us!

Chief Eduwu Ekhator Obasogie, the Obasogie of Benin Kingdom, came from Nigeria for the IYARE opening and is shown here watching the cultural dancers. Thank you so much for gracing the occasion

Friday, August 22, 2008


Osazee's standing on a decorative inset showing the crossed eben and ada ceremonial swords, a motif restricted to the Oba and his chiefs. Wealthy householders often floor parts of their compound yards, either with concrete or an amalgamated material. I've never seen one of these insets being made, and I'm still curious about them--a metal strip separates the colors. I've never viewed anything like them outside Nigeria--perhaps the costs here are too high? Or perhaps I just don't get out often enough! Owners choose the motifs; in Benin, traditional gongs and other emblematic symbols also show up.
Even though this flooring has a practical purpose, particularly in the rainy season when mud can be a problem, the decorative aspect recalls older forms of floor ornamentation. Cowrie shells used to be placed into floors in patterns. Since cowries were an old currency, they attested to the owner's wealth--so extreme that he could afford to seem casual about it. and have his visitors step on money.
I've never seen cleaner compounds anywhere. The whole of a household, inside and out, is swept every morning. When younger, Osaze would be out with a hose, a broom, and Vim or Omo, scrubbing the light-colored designs of Benin's red mud or dust.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Coiffures and wigs

Yesterday DHL rolled up to the door with a long-awaited package from Benin--some gifts for our upcoming exhibition. Inside were two wigs, a bit sad from the shipping process, but quickly returned to a happier state. The wigs are a shortcut to the okuku style, the coiffure the queens (iloi) wear every day in the palace, with their natural hair. The Oba permits favored chiefs to allow their wives to wear the style, too, and Benin brides often wear it on their traditional wedding day. For brides and chiefs' wives, the style is a rare one--special occasions only.
Stylists come to the house and create a beehive over padding, adding curving braids and coral beads. It's hard to sleep on, so women often get up very early in the day so the hairdresser can perfect the okuku. Some women find wigs an easier alternative, and fake coral is certainly more economical--though any Benin woman can spot even a good fake and dismiss it for the sham it is.
My wigs are replete with the fakes, but they're pretty impressive, for they have the white veins and pocking of real coral. I wonder where the plastic factory that makes them is located--in Nigeria? China? Are they sold anywhere else? Changing specialized markets fascinate me--China is now competing with Switzerland and Austria for the Nigerian "lace" market, but India still rules the "george" market.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Aliens

Look at these little Portuguese faces. The photo is larger than they are, yet the artist carefully included their straight beards, curving round the chin. The odd angle of their heads? They're quarreling with one another, and unseemly behavior (so natural for foreigners!) called for undignified poses. (If it weren't a detail, you'd see the gin bottle that started the quarrel).

But the Portuguese didn't drink or trade gin--genever--in its typical square-bottomed bottles. The Dutch brought gin to Benin in the 17th century, the English continued its trade from the 1700s on--but in their day (the late 15th and 16th centuries), the Portuguese sent brandy. The 19th century Edo artist who carved this probably saw European traders brawling over hot drink--but they wouldn't have looked like these little men.

No, the royal guild artists stopped really looking at foreigners in the 16th century. The long hair, dress, and hats of the Portuguese--and their protruding noses--stayed in the artists' consciousness long after the Iberians had been replaced by other European travelers. No other visitors matched their impact, and no individuals befriended the king, the way a few Portuguese had grown close to Oba Esigie. As their images decorated the palace and various court goods, artists continued to look at them and create, caught by their alien character and clothing.