Walking into the exhibition room on the lower ground floor of the Tyburn Gallery in London, one can not help but feel reverent. On the wall at the far end of the room, a looming figure of a crowned angel, with wings outstretched as though ready for flight, stands out. The figure is made of white and red rosary beads and is set on black textile lace, studded with small rhinestones. On the surrounding walls are eleven nail-perforated images with indistinguishable faces and one image of a king in traditional regalia from the Benin Kingdom. In the corner is another Benin king, the title piece —My last dance as King before Sir Harry Rawson’s army arrived— infers that it is Oba Ovọnramwẹn Nọgbaisi, almost swaying in motion, somewhat apart from the rest.
The show by Victor Ehikhamenor takes its title from the novel The Kingdom of the World by Cuban author Alejo Carpentier. In the book, the narrator – former slave Ti Noël – tells of brutal French colonialism in Haiti, the country’s subsequent revolution, and the rule of the megalomaniacal King Henri Christophe, all the while drawing on themes of traditional African spiritual practices and lo real maravilloso, the marvellous reality.
Intrigued by the novel’s detail of the stories and culture of a people whose ancestors were sold and stolen from West Africa generations ago, Ehikhamenor started to think about the way kingdoms operate. His considerations fell, in particular, on how history played out after the war for supremacy between the Benin Empire – the center of which, Benin City, is now part of Edo State, Nigeria – and Britain. Ending in the punitive expedition by the latter against the former in 1897 when Oba Ovọnramwẹn Nọgbaisi ruled over the kingdom then subsequently exiled in Calabar, Nigeria. As in the exhibition, kept at a distance from the kingdom.
Ehikhamenor is a versatile storyteller. Where the canvases of his well-known brightly colored intricate paintings and drawings are filled with his labyrinthine language of strokes, in this exhibition – though the lines, the twists, and turns are ever present – they are quiet spaces. There are gaps even between the white and black backdrops; gaps for the viewer to fill in with their own stories, or memories, of real, recalled and retold events in history. With a sense of mysticism running through it, In the Kingdom of this World also combines the classic trinity of love, loss, and betrayal.
The figure at the far end of the room is Queen Idia, an indomitable and compelling force in Edo history. As has been told from generations to generations, Queen Idia’s remedial and mystical adeptness saw her become a key component in the expansion of the Benin Empire in the 16th century. She stood on the frontline with her son Esigie in the battle he won to become the 16th Oba of Benin. After successfully securing his seat, Oba Esigie gave her the title Iyoba, Queen Mother and in doing so the position had new authority.
As a spiritual protector, Iyoba Idia guides the kings, the kings of kings, the kingmakers, the police, the warriors, and the civilians. She is transcendental. After hundreds of years, pendants with a casting of Idia’s face are still worn by the reigning Oba who keep her close for their protection. Her image in this room at the Tyburn Gallery conjures up thoughts of a constellation burning against an eclipsed night sky. She is the literal star of the show.
Close-by is the image of the king of the heavens, the Ogiso, who represents the council of kings and leaders who have transitioned to the afterlife. As boldly as the image of Queen Idia faces the viewer as does the Ogiso. I think of the Ogiso being called upon by those who seek his counsel. But what does he look like? In whose image is he formed? Pieced together by rosaries the Ogiso’s image, and the beaded golden bronze staff he bears hints at the irony of the destruction of Benin religious symbols and artworks replaced by European ones. Where the cross of Calvary and the imagined face of Jesus Christ can be seen in picture frames on living room walls across the country, that of the Ogiso is not. It is left for the viewer to conjure up his image.
The precision with which the images on paper are perforated – with hundreds of markings – brings to mind the exactness of a ritual. You can see the shapes, the bodies, the faces and the angles at which the figures lean and are formed. Everything has its purpose.
Ehikhamenor draws on the Benin tradition of honoring those that held power and influence through sculptures and castings as in the work he presented at the 2017 Venice Biennale, A Biography of the Forgotten. In that installation, Ehikhamenor recognized the nameless, faceless artists inducted into the guilds of the Benin royal palace using mirrors and miniature bronze statues stitched into canvases of his drawings, signaling an evolution of the ancient artistic practices into a contemporary one. In this show, he makes the features of the honored indeterminable. In the cases of Queen Idia and the Ogiso there is a simple outline of a face, allowing the viewers, or perhaps, more importantly, the people of Edo, to step into their history and – like looking into a mirror once again – see a reflection of themselves in the stories of their forebears.
The titles of each of the works in the exhibition reference a person or group in Benin history, shedding light on the structure of the kingdom with the names and roles of people that Ehikhamenor says are either unknown or at risk of being forgotten.
I am Ohen, custodian of memories
I am Emotan, the Benin woman that hid a young troubled king
I am a saboteur, waiting for Britain to make me king of Benin
I am a British soldier in love with the King’s daughter
I am Emuada, the King’s sword bearer
Ehikhamenor concerns himself with the physical, mental and spiritual breakage that came after the destruction and devastation of the palace and the kingdom and in doing so, calls to mind Walter Benjamin who, in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction writes “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition.”
For centuries, the artistic practices of the Benin Kingdom have continued to be highly regarded. It is a well-known tragedy that much of their most-valued artistic creations – including a bronze cast of Queen Idia – that were looted from the palace in 1897 sits in the British Museum in London or has been sold to private collectors and ripped away from their ancestral home. So, if the fabric of a tradition has been torn, what then happens to its art?
Indeed, archives and artworks were lost and destroyed during the British invasion. There were, for example, fourteen years that the kingdom was without its Oba. Fourteen years without trade and governance, fourteen years without traditional festivals and celebrations, fourteen years where culture was stagnant.
In that time, Ehikhamenor says, despite the long history of passing the craft down through families, people began to see these objects of worship and art as demonic.
Though the Catholic Portuguese first introduced Christianity to Benin in the 16th century, the religion took more of a hold in the 19th century. At the time, British missionaries began to settle during colonialism and forced submission to British cultural values across the country became increasingly insidious. While local spiritual practices and traditions began to be regarded as taboo and primitive, they did not die.
In Udomi-Uwessan – the village in Edo State where he grew up – Ehikhamenor saw patterns and symbols chalked on the walls of shrines. Some family members practiced ancestral worship. Other relatives would go to church to participate in Catholic offerings to Christ and the saints in Holy Communion. I imagine, as with other Christian denominations, that bread would be broken and eaten to depict the body of Christ, and some type of wine would be passed around and sipped, to represent his blood spilled in the Christian belief that he sacrificed himself for humankind. When Ehikhamenor’s relatives would return home after such services, they would honor and pay homage to their ancestors.
With this duality in mind, the artist’s use of lace and rosary beads is undoubtedly carefully considered. These, too, now form part of the fabric of Nigerian culture. Lace, though present in the country from the 19th century, has in the last sixty years come to be customarily worn for notable occasions across many cultures in the country. It is a symbol of elegance and prestige, the go-to textile for traditional weddings. And with Catholicism accounting for roughly a tenth of the population – and an even higher concentration in Edo State where, in Benin City, there is an archdiocese – it is common to see rosary beads dangling out of pockets and car rear-view mirrors, wrapped around a wrist or hanging around a neck. By using the rosary, a symbol of Christian devotion, to depict historical legends of the Benin Kingdom, Ehikhamenor reclaims the iconography that was used to condemn them. The legends are now presented in the likeness of modern Edo State, and new understandings of the myths emerge.
“The marvellous is the image of our absolute liberty,” notes French-Martinican writer René Ménil.
Despite the changing landscape of religious beliefs, it could be said that there was something that Ehikhamenor’s relatives could not be stirred from: the importance of folding the past and the future into the now. It is a tradition that Ehikhamenor is continuing with his work. Ensuring that the power of kinship between those that have left the world as we perceive to know it; those that are still here, whose hands we can clasp and faces we can touch; and those yet to arrive, are drawn upon as we build our personal, and greater, kingdoms in the land of the marvellous.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Billie McTernan is a writer and editor covering the arts, culture and political affairs across Africa and the black diaspora.