Benin (French: Bénin, formerly Dahomey), officially the Republic of Benin (French: République du Bénin), is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Togo to the west, by Nigeria to the east and by Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. A majority of the population live on its small southern coastline on the Bight of Benin. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is in Cotonou, the country’s largest city. Benin covers an area of approximately 110,000 square kilometers (42,000 sq mi), with a population of approximately 9.05 million. Benin is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture, with substantial employment and income arising from subsistence farming.
The official language of Benin is French. However, indigenous languages such as Fon and Yoruba are commonly spoken. The largest religious group in Benin is Roman Catholicism, followed closely by Islam, Vodun and Protestantism. Benin is a member of the United Nations, the African Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, La Francophonie, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, the African Petroleum Producers Association and the Niger Basin Authority.
From the 17th to the 19th century, the main political entities in the area were the Kingdom of Dahomey along with the city-state of Porto-Novo and a large area with many different tribes to the north. This region was referred to as the Slave Coast from as early as the 17th century due to the large number of slaves shipped to the New World during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After slavery was abolished, France took over the country and renamed it French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, and had a tumultuous period with many different democratic governments, many military coups and military governments.
Benin art is the art from the Kingdom of Benin or Edo Empire (1440-1897), a pre-colonial African state located in what is now known as the South-South region of Nigeria. Primarily made of cast bronze and carved ivory, Benin art was produced mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin – a divine ruler for whom the craftsmen produced a range of ceremonially significant objects. The full complexity of these works can be appreciated only through the awareness and consideration of two complementary cultural perceptions of the art of Benin: the Western appreciation of them primarily as works of art, and their understanding in Benin as historical documents and as mnemonic devices to reconstruct history, or as ritual objects. This original significance is of great import in Benin.
The Benin Bronzes were created by the Edo people starting in the 13th century, and, in 1897, the British appropriated most of them. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest were split among other museums. Today, a large number are held by the British Museum and are on display in hall 25 (in the Africa wing). Other pieces are in the United States and Germany, among other countries.
The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and tribal art. Initially, it appeared incredible that people supposedly so primitive and savage were responsible for such highly developed objects. Some even concluded that the makers’ knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese. Today, it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin beginning in the 13th century and that a large part of the collection dates to the 15th and 16th centuries. It is believed that these two golden ages in bronze work occurred during the reigns of Esigie (c. 1550) and of Eresoyen (1735-1750).
While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, not all the pieces are made of bronze: there are also pieces made of brass, of a mixture of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials. The pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered the best sculptures made using this technique. (Read more here)