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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


In the late 15th century, the Benin Prince Ezoti grew up with a body slave. Body slaves were of the same sex and just a little older than the person they served, and trailed around after them like mini-nannies, wiping their bottoms and making sure they were dusted off when they fell. By all rights, they should have been close. But Ezoti is remembered as having been selfish. He didn't want to share anything as he and his slave grew older. Even if something was a discard, it was his property.

One day the cooks were preparing Ezoti's meal, and the slave had been given no food. He knew it was too much to expect Ezoti would allow him to feed on the leftovers, so he eyed the garbage. The prince would be dining on pounded yam, and the cooks were careless with their peeling. Some of the yam still clung to the bark. The slave took it, but Ezoti entered, saw him, and beat him. "MY yam peel!" The slave's spirit turned.

It was Ezoti's time to take the throne, and he had begun the ceremonies that would confirm his as Oba. While he walked in procession, an arrow flew through the air and struck him in the forehead. The guards quickly caught the slave, and officials bandaged the wound, covering it with beads so the people wouldn't be alarmed. It seemed a shallow wound, but the arrow had been poisoned, and after a few days Ezoti died.

The makeshift bandage cover became the udahae, the beaded headband chiefs wear with certain outfits. One long strand of beads falls from the headband, representing Ezoti's blood. It is at once a piece of chiefly regalia, but also a reminder to treat those around you fairly, and to be generous when you live in plenty.

A Challenge--not even six degrees of separation

Okay, as this blog begins to open up and I pass its link around, let's have a little fun. It's related to the upcoming Penn Museum show on Benin, IYARE! Splendor and Tension in Benin's Palace Theatre (Nov. 8, 2008-March 1, 2009), but this is the informal side of the exhibition. We'll be having a website that will address the Big Idea--that Nigeria's Benin Kingdom, past and present, has a court that reenacts the dramatic, and also stimulates dramatic activities. More on that later.

But this blog is meant to roll around lots of ideas and bits and pieces that are Benin-related, but may not fall within an exhibition's purview. I love Benin, I love Nigeria. I want to share some of the small historical tales that are lesser known, think about incidents I've witnessed, share memories with people, and argue about behavior we may or may not find agreeable. get the ball all roads lead to Benin? Can you help stimulate where my tip-tapping fingers will turn by throwing out a word, question, or concept, just to see if I can somehow relate it to Benin? Try!!!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Goggling at Google Earth

Yes, I've used Google satellite maps for years, but it was only last week that a colleague introduced me to Google Earth--imagine my delight when I could get aerial views of Benin City, suitable for creating simple maps! Imagine my frustration when fuzziness obscured the area I live in, so that I couldn't be sure of familiar landmarks.

Yes, I zoomed from continent to continent in a dizzying display of duo-core processing, alarmed by the drive-by photos on my hometown street, and pleased I couldn't see Benin's darting traffic.

But there is something ominous about this. Will it come to employers checking parking lots for employee cars? Wives tracking errant husbands? Vacationing parents seeing if you've weeded the garden or not?

Thank Gawd for roofs--but if you're in a Benin courtyard, that doesn't apply. Wave and get out your big umbrella!