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hats of the Portuguese--and their protruding noses--stayed in the artists' consciousness long after the Iberians had been replaced by other European travelers.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.


sungoddess said...

Nice one Tamsin... I like the punchiness of the post.

Iyare! said...

Thanks, Tomi! C'mon challenge me to connect something--anything!--to Benin