Igun Street: Benin City’s home of bronze

Sun Jun 22nd, 2014 - Edo

ALEXANDER OKERE writes on the rich cultural heritage of Benin City’s Igun Street where bronze casting and sculptures reign

Guild of Benin Bronze Casters, World Heritage Site,” reads the inscription on the moulded ark at the entrance of Igun Street, Benin City, the Edo State capital.

Many visitors to the ever busy Sakponba Road in Benin City, will cast a glance at this structure and cut short their journey to ponder on the mysteries behind a street made popular by masterpieces of various shapes and sizes of artefacts which adorn it on all sides. But this is no ordinary street. It is Igun Street, the hub of bronze casting in Edo and beyond.

Igun, the traditional name for metal fabrication, is historically believed to have originated from an ancient immigrant bronze smith called Ugiokha in the palace of the Oba of Benin. According to history, Ugiokha was of Egyptian origin, although some schools of thought argue he was a Sudanese. The then Oba was said to have granted him refuge following his display of craftsmanship in sculpturing, which later became a method of documentation for the Benin Empire. Having served the palace meritoriously for decades, the then Oba rewarded Ugiokha with a location with the reach of the palace to settle down and preserve the art of bronze casting for the palace and posterity. That location became what is today known as Igun Street.

As the acclaimed father of bronze casting, Ugiokha mentored other artisans, who were skilled in other artworks and settled around him.

Igun Ematon (steel smiths of warfare), Igun Owina (bead makers), Igun Eronmwen (brass smiths) and Igun Igbesama (wood carvers) have over the years transformed into a large collection of people and families skilled as bronze smiths, sculptors and bead makers. It is said that the neighbouring streets around Igun house a substantial number of these craftsmen. Even the world could not ignore the beauty that the street holds; little wonder it drew the attention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, thus, earning it international recognition. The colourful interlocked road perhaps, adds credence to its status. There are, however, other different versions on the origin of the famous street and the art of bronze casting in Benin. For instance, while some believe that the art started in the reign of Oba Ozolua around 1270 AD, others link it to the reign of Oba Eweka I.

The Guild of Benin Bronze Casters is the official body regulating the art and trade of bronze casting among the over 300 smiths in Benin.

The General Secretary of the Guild, Eric Ogbemudia, who has a 30-year experience in bronze casting, however, says that membership is only open to descendants of Ugiokha or the ancient bronze casters in Benin.

“It is not open to outsiders because it is our birthright. That is why we have the monopoly of the job,” Ogbemudia said. But what about people interested in learning the art as a vocation? “We can only teach our offspring,” he replied adding that although there are art collectors among them, the bronze casters originally own the trade.

From the statue of Oba Isigie, said to be the first man to have spoken the English language in the whole of Africa, to the Queen Idehen, who sacrificed her life for the restoration of peace in the then Benin Kingdom, the value of a bronze sculpture depends on what is placed on it by the maker and the social class of the buyer. But the most expensive pieces are the bronze sculptures of Benin antiquity, says Alex Agbonmwenre, a graduate of Political Science/Public Administration from the University of Benin and the Youth Leader of GBBC, who was born into the linage of bronze casters. He has been active in the trade for over 28 years.

“What we charge a famous person, like a governor, is not the same with what we charge an ordinary man on the street. So the value depends on the producer and the buyer,” he explained.

A palm-sized bronze piece costs around N3, 000 and above. This may seem expensive to an unaccustomed buyer. But the cost of production tells why.

The art of bronze casting follows the lost wax process, a crude method of production. The desired size and shape of the work is first moulded with red earth and laterite. The wax is later applied to the moulded piece in the sun to soften the wax. The wax aids in bringing out the details of the work. Again, the red earth is used to coat the wax, bound with coils and heated in a local oven made of ordinary firewood. In the heat, the wax melts away. The bronze caster smiths the brass in a pot-like shallow hole dug in the earth, which serves a crucible or casting pot and afterwards empties the liquefied brass in the space left by the wax. The bronze caster, however, finishes the solidified brass with a file or sandpaper.

The guild usually organises an annual carnival to showcase it various bronze works to both local and international tourists.

The various artistic pieces are carried through a procession, in the presence of no fewer than 100 chiefs under the Benin Kingdom from Igun Street to Akpakpava and later to the Oba’s Palace in Benin. Igun Street alone has a minimum of 14 chiefs. During the carnival, tourists, who are the primary buyers of the products, are entitled to a 20 per cent discount on every piece purchased. This, the guild explains is to encourage the buyers. A tour on the process of bronze casting costs N15, 000.

In spite of its international recognition, Igun Street is losing the attention and economic viability it deserves due to lack of commitment from both the state and federal governments. The street, which is occupied by art workshops and galleries, still parades dilapidated mud houses and rickety rooftops. The absence of the Edo State Government, through local and international art exhibitions by the Ministry of Art and Culture, is fast becoming conspicuous. Even the exhibitions that exist do not engage the original bronze casters directly.

“Initially, we thought the interlocking of the road of the street was done by the governor. But we later realised that it was the United Nations that did it,” Agbonmwenre lamented.

The street, originally meant for bronze casters, has also been infiltrated by wood carvers, painters, bead makers and artisans in other trades.

Ben Odia, who used to deal solely in bronze work, now, has an array of paintings, beads and wooden sculptures, which he attributes to their high rate of sale. “It takes a longer time to sell a bronze work. But the same work made of wood can be sold the day one creates it. Besides, no business man would like to open a shop and end up not selling anything,” he said.

However, Agbonmwenre noted that the infiltration was caused by the migration of the wood carvers, some of whom were displaced by the state government during the expansion and beautification of the Airport Road.

Also, wood carving and bead making are much easier to do, unlike bronze which requires an array of metals, energy and endurance. For instance, the effect of the heat from the local oven is dangerous to the eyes, while the beating of metal can result in fatigue; which is one of the reasons women are only allowed to buy and sell.

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