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Osarhieme Benson Osadolor, M.A.
Alsterdorfer Str. 499
Zimmer 107
22337 Hamburg


The basic focus of this contribution is on Benin art as historical records. It is not concerned with the meaning attached to the word art or its German equivalent Kunst, but on how history becomes a living reality to us through art. In all societies, the past is the subject of continuing debate. At its best, historical study, whether based on written sources or derived from oral evidence, contributes to this debate by giving history a purpose through illuminating some aspects of the past as faithfully as it can.

The writing of precolonial Benin history presents five historiographical problems. Two of these problems are historical problems:

First, can we establish the chronology of the period? In other words, is it possible to establish the chronological order and genealogical relationships of the kings, and the absolute time-scale involved?

Second, can we determine what happened in the past? This problem is basically the problem of knowledge in history. The problems of knowledge in history have raised the most difficult questions of epistemology or the theory of knowledge; its main concern is being the problem of reality, of what happened in the past as well as the inter-relationship between events.

The other three problems are methodological problems.

First, is the study and evaluation of primary source material. Since the only direct accounts of the Benin past are those of oral tradition, can we accept oral tradition for historical information or take oral tradition as history?

Second, the problems or limitations in the use of archaeological sources for information about the period, as well as the evidence from linguistics, ethnography, etc.

Third, is the problem in the use of Benin bronzes and crafts as historical records.

The purpose of this contribution is not to re-assess and evaluate these historiographical problems which have been outlined but to focus only on the third methodological problem. In discussing Benin art and history, it is pertinent to draw attention to the argument of R.E. Bradbury that the history of Benin art is itself an important aspect of Benin history and it is of further significance in that bronzes, ivories and wood carvings often purport to depict historical personages and events. However, two views have been expressed on the utility of Benin art. First, that limited proportion of bronzes and wooden crafts were intended to record particular persons and events; and the second view that a considerable number were intended to convey some information about specific events or particular persons.

I hold to the second view that the bronzes contain much potentially valuable information about Benin society, culture and history over a long period. For the historian of non-literate societies, who has to depend on oral tradition for historical reconstruction, the limitation of historical sources makes it inevitable for alternative sources. To depend on art for historical reconstruction, the historian's tasks are two-fold: the exact or proper dating of the art and second, the interpretation. The problem, of course, is that many attempts have been made to explain the essential nature of art, the quality which distinguishes art from all other manifestations of human activity, but most of them lack clearness, do not cover the whole field, or are capable of being extended to non-artistic activities.

To use Benin art to make inferences about historical process ist to attempt to interprete the function of art which is almost as difficult to define as the meaning of art. In the case of Benin art, with few exceptions, the bronzes and ivories belonged to the oba of Benin - to record royal history and not necessarily the history of Benin society. The second problem is to identify the good informant, experienced in Benin culture and traditions that can convince himself or the enquirer that he knows exactly what or whom it represents.

In writing the military history of Benin, the bronzes and ivories are as useful as historical documents. My thesis argument ist that Benin art signifies a process of the production of historical knowledge of the past. The basis of this argument is that Benin art helps to uncover the alternative visions of oral tradition.

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