Glitters of yellowish-brown lights whispered off handcrafts of ingenious minds. Crafts of staffs, swords and many masks, they were;
While some others were of human forms that tell stories of ancient times, others happily flaunted their exotic and ostentatious designs to anyone who cared to stare.
These figures line a street at a busy city-centre, and has now become a World Heritage Site. It is the home of the Igun Bronze Casters and the street is known as Igun Street, sandwiched amidst the tightly-locked brown roofs of the ancient Benin City, Edo State capital, south-western Nigeria.
Welcome to Igun Street- the Guild of Benin Bronze Casters, where a giant brown-coloured concrete arch cheers visitors into the brownish-red stone-paved street, walled from end to end with bronze-casting workshops and galleries. Igun street, which is located off Upper-Sakponba road, is said to be the oldest street in Benin kingdom and was the first place to be visited by the Portuguese who came to the city during the reign of King Ewakpe the Great. The street had been separated from other streets in Benin, exclusively for bronze casters to reside in, make their artworks and display in galleries along the street.
I got a chance to visit Igun some years ago and I am yet to get over the awe-inspiring sensation that engulfed my soul during the few hours of my stay.
I had ample time to spend on my visit to Benin-City, but couldn’t leave without stopping at the popular “Igun Bronze casting” (as the heritage is sometimes called). On getting to the arched entrance to the street, I quickly dashed into the first shop on the street and without delay, introduced myself to its curator and he replies with a smile:
"My name is Elliot… Elliot Enobakhare; and welcome to my bronze shop", and I smiled back, thinking "ok now, let’s go there!"
As I trailed my eyes curiously on the myriad of bronze and wooden sculptures that adorned his shelves, he started off as he led me into his shop, "hardly will the history of Benin Kingdom be told in any part of the world without word ‘bronze’ being mentioned as bronze casting has intricately worked itself into the culture, tradition and history of our people", and I thought, "hmmmmm….ok now…"
Then, he went on to tell the story of an incident that took place a long time ago, an event that greatly affected the bronze casting tradition and the political history of the kingdom.
“It was a period of time when the Benin people betrayed themselves", he noted. According to the story, some Potokis (traditional way of referring to the Portuguese) came visiting Benin Kingdom during the time of Oba Ovonramwen and since the Oba didn’t understand the language of the foreigners, he had his speaker, Chief Ologbosere (who understood Portuguese language) interpret for him.
At this time, the people feared that if their king had a successful relationship with the Potokis, he may get married to a white woman; which may eventually give the white people a chance to dominate their kingdom. The interpreter was therefore instigated to mislead the Oba into believing that the Portuguese visitors came for war. This misconception infuriated the king and he ordered that some of the white visitors be killed and others driven away from the land.This action resulted in the abduction of Oba Ovoremwen by the Portuguese, alongside with about 5,000 bronze works. This event will forever be remembered by the people of Benin.
On the uses of Igun bronze works, Elliot said, "formerly, bronze works from Igun street were made exclusively for the Oba, which he gives as gifts to visitors at the palace; but these days, we make the bronze works for commercial purposes. Also, Benin bronze works were also made to preserve notable events in the history of the kingdom".
Aside the bronze masks of varying sizes and designs set on the shelves of the shop, the sculpted human forms attracted me most as they all appeared to tell one story or another. There was one in which a group of people sat in a canoe, one of them was dressed in a royal regalia, and others in shorts and shirts, with hats on their heads and guns in their hands- "That’s Oba Ovonramwen and the Portuguese invaders who abducted him". Just then another piece winked at me from corner, I gave it a better look and off it blew me into a cloudless sky of passionate pity. It depicted the typical scene associated with slave trade in ancient Nigeria. Slave masters dressed military uniforms with guns hung on their backs while dragging and flogging a number of people whose hands and legs were bound in chains; one of the ‘slaves’ had fallen chest down and was looking up as if trying to plead, while one of the soldiers with a big stick raised high hit him the face with the heel of his boot, and at the same time another slave towards the rear end of the line had already collapsed on his knees, as another soldier pulled yet another slave at his neck and flogged him with a stick.
Stepping out of Elliot’s shop, I looked up the street and about a thousand bronze works inundated me with a flood of sparkling reflections. The hot mid-day sun overhead reminded me of my hungry tummy. I knew I needed to satisfy its longings immediately if I didn’t want to experience the punishments unleashed on the slaves by the soldiers. Thanks to one of the numerous lovely restaurants well positioned at strategic points along the street.
As I departed from Igun Street, the series of historical events surrounding, the creativity of crafting and the age of some of the bronze works on display at the galleries, all gave me an indescribable feeling of awe, being happy to have partaken in the celebration of an ancient but unbeaten culture.