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.

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