As you probably know by now, I think it is unfortunate when stylistic, technical, or aesthetic trends in the arts are only considered in some art history textbooks in comparison to Western (European and American) art. What is more unfortunate is when Western art is used as the "standard" by which the same art forms from other parts of the world are judged. When the cast metal sculptures of the Benin Kingdom of Nigeria first came to light in Europe after the British sacked the city of Benin in 1897, Europeans could not believe the sophistication and realism of the works, preferring to attribute the lost-wax casting technique as learned either from the Portuguese or the ancient Egyptians. Art historians now believe that is definitely not the case.
The lost-wax casting process is one in which a plaster or baked clay mold is made over a clay model. Once the mold is removed the interior surface is coated with wax. The wax castings are removed and a heat-resistant mixture (investment) is poured on both sides creating an inner and outer mold. The mold is baked in a kiln and the wax runs out, and molten metal is added to the mold, filling in the space where the wax was, essentially the "skin" of the sculpture (see The Visual Experience 3rd edition page 260 for a detailed explanation of the technique). This technique has been around since at least the fourth millennium
This beautiful little work shows the typical seen of loyalty and homage to the king by lesser nobility. It is a high-relief sculpture in which the lack of background or surrounding decoration heightens the ceremonial aspect of the scene. Such plaques were meant to decorate the columns and walls of the oba's palace in Benin City. They commemorated great moments in an oba's reign, and also were meant to represent the oba's continuing presence after his death. Other subjects in Benin metal sculpture were commemorative heads of kings and their relatives, court scenes, animals, and hunting scenes. The figural realism may have come down to
Featured Collection: Cleveland Museum of Art
Learn more about metal sculpture and the lost-wax process in Davis Art Images set 8-D076: Metal Sculpture