Reconstructing Benin Costume

Written by Deyemi Akande and Paul Taylor |

Reimagining Benin Bronzes is a project by Dr Adeyemi (’Deyemi) Akande which creates visual reconstructions of selected 15th - 17th century Benin pieces. The project seeks to represent the critical anthropological and historical value of the Bronzes. 

In this blog post, the Warburg Institute's Paul Taylor interviews ’Deyemi to find out more about his research and the project.

Paul Taylor: ’Deyemi Akande was a Frances A. Yates fellow at the Warburg Institute in 2020. I say ‘at’, but due to Covid he was unable to leave Nigeria, and his fellowship consisted of attending seminars at a distance, giving a seminar himself, and talking with Prof. Elizabeth McGrath, Prof. Jean Michel Massing and myself on Zoom. Happily, last year we were able to meet him in person when he took up a fellowship at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. His interests include the famous Yoruba brass heads, 17th-century Dutch images of Africans, architecture, photography and cricket. After his return to Lagos last year, he began to do work on the costumes we see on 15th-17th century Benin brasses. In his view these were not – as one might easily think – stylised depictions, but were instead realistic, literal renderings of real costumes, made of the beads that still form a prominent role in traditional Benin dress. He therefore decided, with the help of bead specialists, to reconstruct the costumes we see in the brasses, and to photograph them with the help of models.

’Deyemi, can you tell us when you became interested in this issue?

’Deyemi Akande: I think I was first inspired to do the Benin recreation project around two years ago, when the misrepresentation of facts on Benin cultural arts and the events that led to the forceful removal of these enigmatic works from their ancestral home in the 1800s to Europe, became the norm in the media. The now famous Sarr & Savoy report seems to have re-invigorated the push for the restitution of colonial artefacts to Africa, but it also fostered an ‘open season’ where everyone suddenly became a Benin arts and culture expert. The loudness and recurrence of Benin in the media caught my attention and I felt it became necessary to remove from the noise and seek fresh primary information that may help order and perhaps promote a more academic discourse. This was the moment I decided to investigate the corpus at the centre of the noise with the aim of producing new perspectives. Shortly after, ‘humanising’ the works through photo-recreations came to me naturally.

PT: Perhaps you could tell us something about the process of how you recreated this Benin head dress in a photograph. How did you work together with your colleagues to make this image?

Portrait of a Young Royal

’DA: It was a huge challenge. I can emphatically say upfront that Africa--or perhaps I should avoid that sweeping generalisation and say--many parts of Nigeria have lost a significant part of the craftsmanship and skill required to make the level of beadwork we encounter on many sculptural artefacts like beaded patterns on the 12th -15th century Ife brasses, the 9th century Igbo Ukwu pieces, or the 15th – 17th century Benin pieces. It was extremely difficult to get bead makers with the right mental and traditional deftness required for the replication of such dated styles.

This said, I started off the process of ‘humanising’ the works by reading the pieces. My theory was to see the sculpture as portraits or factual representation of perceived reality. Clearly most Benin pieces are at the least neo-naturalistic, therefore a good amount of interpolation had to be done during the visual interpretation. One must keep in mind that factors—cultural, technical, religious, even canons--may have prevent total naturalism, so to achieve a reasonable degree of reality, it was important to be flexible. It was only after this that we could start the process of reconstructing the elements seen on the works. We had long discussions around the identification of materials – this relied a lot on available cultural material knowledge of 16th century Benin and the team’s experience of the materiality in traditional societies of western Nigeria. A critical challenge was the issue of assigning colours to the different materials. For this, we relied heavily on modern day Benin court fashion. We went through hundreds of photographs to find overlaps. The reddish-orange coral, the white and the beige appear to have survived for hundreds of years in the Benin court, thanks to the continuity of practice and the resilience of the monarchical system and despite significant socio-political changes in the Edo nation.

To the hair dress seen in the photograph above, after several attempts at using the known traditional style of threading the beads, we were forced to succumb to a more despondent technique of combining the old style of threading with a lot of invisible glue. We figured that the unique pattern was our utmost goal, so we traded technique for result.

PT: In these reconstruction photos we see a lot of coral red but no white or beige. What was the reason for your choice of hue?

’DA: In almost all the works featured here, the coral beads are the main material used as adornment hence the predominance of the reddish-orange coral colour. The colour white in Benin court fashion is mostly seen in the fabric used as wrapper tied around the loins. This is common among the royals and some courtiers, while the beige (sometimes off-white, sometimes a dull shade of yellow) will mostly be seen in small items like aged tusk bangles or other small fabrics used as embellishments on robes.  

PT: Could you talk us through this next comparison? Did you really cut the model’s hair like that, and was she pleased with it? And can you tell us about the forehead marks?

Portrait of a Woman

’DA: This is an interesting piece indeed. It is a commemorative head of a female (a courtier I imagine). It is important to note that the interesting coiffure seen on the brass image is worn by both male and female courtiers. Thankfully we didn’t have to ruin or cut the model’s hair. She is wearing a wig. A key member of our team is a make-up artist and hair maker. She was able to recreate the peculiar coiffure seen on the brass head for the purpose of this photograph. The hair making process was tedious and painstaking and this final one used for the shot was only achieved after several attempts and with the help of not just the hair maker, but another extremely resourceful member of the team.

I believe the markings above the eyes of the individual are keloid scars left behind from a special process of scarification. While this style of scarification is markedly different from the ones we see on the Ife heads, I maintain that it is deliberate and may have been done by carefully applying a corrosive bio-substance (like abdominal fluid from the blister beetle as was used by the Yoruba in early times) on the affected area and left for some time to heal. This will produce the low relief effect that we have come to know with Benin pieces. Here, we employed a less painful technique of adding make-up and finishing it with digital editing to replicate what the artefact presents.

PT: Can you tell from the scarifications whether the sitter is a man or a woman?

’DA: Well, that's a controversial question! Some of my colleagues think he's male and a non-Edo individual. I have good reasons for thinking she's female and Edo, and I've nearly finished an article on it. This isn't the place to unpack all my arguments, but I intend to publish them soon!

PT: In this next reconstruction you seem to have been slightly less literal. Rather than reproducing an image of a leopard, which we seem to see on the man’s skirt, you have given him a leopard skin. Can you tell us something about the thinking behind your choice of material here?

The Horn Blower

’DA: The attire of the horn blower featured here is an interesting one and it requires keen examination. His garb is a mixture of materials and one that carries deep spiritual significance. I think this photograph is one of the more literal interpretations I created if we examine the work closely. The horn blower wears a leopard fur as a skirt (or wrapper). From the face of the leopard on the brass it is possible that the fur had the head still attached, or it may be that this is a way of alluding to the animal whose fur is being used. We thought a headed fur would make a strange skirt and inclined to the second possibility. This fur is then trimmed along the peculiar curvilinear pattern with feathers as precisely represented by the brass image. We spent a great deal of time debating the colour of the feathers since we were unable to tell which bird the features belong to just by looking at the metal image. After careful consideration and consultations with culture custodians about the instruments and paraphernalia used in rituals connected with the Oba, we submitted that the feathers are most likely white – this has a spiritual significance. The curved edge is further trimmed with coral beads.

I must mention that the leopard in Benin world view is a regal and sacred animal. Mostly identified with Oba Ewuare the Great and descendants. This blower adorned with a leopard fur wrapper must rank highly or be in high favour with the Oba. If you look closely at the patterns around the frontal orbit of the wrapper, you will notice the representation of the archetypal leopard spots all the way up to the waist.

PT: This next reconstruction is remarkable! I take it this is a representation of an Oba of Benin? And can you tell us something about the interesting debris on the floor of your reconstruction?

Portrait of an Oba in Ceremonial Garb

’DA: I must commend your good eye. The debris prop on the floor of this photo is a deliberate addition to challenge the ideas of perfectionism that some Afrocentric researchers project about precolonial Africa. From the oral accounts of early Africa, we get a sense of all being in perfect order until the Europeans came to ‘destroy’ everything. We must remember that these accounts are mostly at the behest of the local historian with little evidence or way to confirm the facts other than the accounts themselves. The introduction of debris here is a metaphor to subtly challenge these ideas of a perfect and self-existing pre-European Africa. It is to engage and redirect our minds more towards realism, rather than utopianism or the unbridled sensationalism of early Africa. I seek to visually argue that many imperfections existed in the society. They were in fact a feature of the identity of the time and frankly an integral part of our existence in a dense tropical environment. The debris symbolically argues that contrary to the flawless image that pro-perfectionist precolonial Africans are inclined to, at the very foundation, the Oba was human and possibly not as omnipotent as the religio-cultural framework of early Benin may like to have us believe. For clarity, the debris does not signify filth or tardiness, but the absolute beauty of humanism even in the romanticised era of exotic pre-European Africa.

In the brass image, the Oba is seated on perhaps a mud slab or a log of wood—maybe carved, maybe not—we are unable to tell. What we most certainly can tell is that the throne then will look nothing like the magnificent, gilded edifice that the current Oba sits on today. In the end, art historians can only retell, what the art of a society has preserved for us to see.

PT: The last of these beautiful images seems to show a man holding mudfish in his hands. Is he meant to be a real person holding real mudfish, or is he meant to signify a spiritual creature?

Portrait of an Oba

’DA: The garb suggests it is a representation of the Oba. It is difficult, if not impossible to determine if the image we are confronted with is an allegory of something or a factual pose by an Oba or both. It is generally thought that the image is an allegory depicting the Oba’s pre-eminence over land and the realms of the sea. It also symbolises the King’s identification with Olokun, god of the mighty waters. Based on what we know about the religious customs of early Benin, and an examination of other plaques that present similar iconography of the Oba holding animals (like a leopard or elephant) in both hands in the most impractical and unnatural way, it may well be that this image is a symbolic visual creation rather than a factual pose. This said, I do not think that it is outright unlikely that a 16th-century Oba of Benin could have been seen in a ritual pose such as this, even if it was meant to symbolically reiterate his identification with subterranean powers.

I decided to produce a direct recreation of the plaque’s content with the aim of showing that it is physically possible to hold the fish in both hands in the same way it was presented in the brass image. I hope this presents us with the opportunity to consider the possibility that the image may be a realistic pose.

PT: You’ve told me that you have thirty of these photos ’Deyemi, and that you’d like to mount them in an exhibition. Do you have a venue in mind?

’DA: Yes, I hope to have the final works exhibited in Lagos, London and a yet to be determined city in the US. Sadly, I can only confirm the Lagos end at this moment. The exhibition tentatively tagged ‘ReImagining Benin’ will be mounted at the Museum of Natural History, University of Lagos next year (dates to be announced). I am yet to secure venues in the other proposed locations. It is still quite up in the air right now. My desire is that the works are presented in spaces where art and the academy intercept. This is why my primary preference will be spaces attached to, or within the reach of a university or research body.

PT: I imagine that many of your photographs are based on Benin pieces in the British Museum. It would be great to show your images in the museum, right next to the brasses themselves.

’DA: Indeed! I think it will be a wonderful visual experience to present the works next to the metal pieces themselves. I have in fact suggested this to the curators there and am hoping for a positive response.

PT: That will be a wonderful exhibition. Good luck with getting your work exhibited, and thanks so much for sharing it with us on the Warburg blog.

’DA: You’re very welcome.

‘Deyemi Akande is an Art historian with an interest in the visual identity and visual documentation of the cultures, art, and architecture of pre 19th century Africa and African diaspora.

A trained and practicing art and architectural photographer, ‘Deyemi works with images and visual resources as a central reference for both teaching and research. He was 2020 Frances A. Yates Fellow at the Warburg Institute and H. Allen Brooks Fellow with the Society for Architectural Historian, USA. ‘Deyemi is currently a researcher with the department of Architecture, University of Lagos.