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Archive: The Benin Project


The Naked Palace

The camera trails a guide on a tour through the labyrinthine architectural complex of Ogiamen’s palace in Benin City (Nigeria). This extraordinary building was constructed in the 12th century and is one of only a handful of houses that survived the British punitive expedition of 1897. Ogiamen’s family inhabits it to this day. As the camera follows the guide’s navigation of the ancient palace and records his explanations, the image oscillates between jerky disorientation and lingering close-up shots of architectural details and textures. The portrait of the palace remains fragmentary and ruptures between seeing and understanding, between a historical imaginary and the contemporary conditions become palpable.


Gilane Tawadros | The Benin Project | 2007

published in The Benin Project (London: future perfect, 2007)

Dispersed across the gallery space, a constellation of video monitors map the different phases in the process of brass casting by contemporary sculptors in the city of Benin in present-day Nigeria. Filmed images of the sculptors pouring the hot wax into clay casts buried into the earth or polishing the brass castings are punctuated by the irregular sound of radios playing and the intermittent noise of sculptors hammering and fi ling their artworks. Avoiding the medium-shot portrait of the anthropologist’s gaze, Orlow’s camera lingers on the hands of the sculptors, moulding, shaping and sculpting their raw materials into contemporary artworks. Lost Wax is one element of Uriel Orlow’s complex installation made up of discrete but interconnected parts which continue the artist’s preoccupation with questions of collective memory and restitution. Taking as his starting point the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 (a military excursion by British forces in which the British invaded, burned and ransacked the ancient West African Kingdom of Benin), Orlow’s installation is, amongst other things, a meditation on the contingent relationship between the past and the present and between different geographical and cultural spaces that remain inextricably linked, tied together by the metal cast artefacts that have erroneously become known as the Benin Bronzes and which are now distributed in more than 500 museums and collections across the world. Orlow’s suite of works, scattered across the spaces of the Fri-Art contemporary art centre are similarly connected to each other by the artist’s journey: his physical journey from England to Nigeria; but also his artistic journey from the present to the past and back. Travelling through the installation of artworks, the viewer moves between disparate historical moments and physical locations mapped out by the different constituent parts of Orlow’s Benin Project (2007), mirroring the journeys undertaken by the artist and the Benin Bronzes across geographical space and historical time.

Download PDF: Gilane Tawadros – The Benin Project


The Visitor

The Visitor is a photo-essay of the artist’s audience with Oba Erediauwa, the current king of Benin. A local narrator follows the artist into the Oba’s palace and recounts the conversation between the European visitor and the royal host and his court of chiefs. The exchange centres on the Benin Bronzes (famously looted by the British in 1897 and now in over 500 museums and collections worldwide), collective memory and the demand for restitution. However, communication remains somewhat elusive, slipping in and out of gaps of cultural and historical difference.


Lost Wax

Lost Wax shows artists at work in the traditional brass-casting district in Benin City (Nigeria), using the ancient lost wax technique (cire perdue) and recycled metal from the West to produce metal cast artefacts. The newly produced artworks are in an uneasy relationship with the Western-dominated market that maintains a self-interested and arbitrary divide between authentic (pre-1897) objects and ‘cheap’ reproductions, destined for lovers of ‘African’ art or seen to be ‘flooding the market with fakes’. However, even if the new casts are in the historical style of those famously looted by the British in 1897, they are not reproductions, as each cast is a unique work of art.

So what is their status and who are they for? Lost Wax does not directly answer these questions but instead creates an immersive environment, a visual and auditory mise-en-scène of the extraordinary interplay of materials and the ‘dance’ of the hands working on them. The visual and auditory constellation of the spread-out monitors mirrors the shared labour and the simultaneity of different processes and stages of production. Lost Wax creates a tactile portrait of the skills and gestures inloved in making the metal castings: the careful handling and preparation of the basic elements – earth, wax, discarded metal, wood, fire – the modelling of a clay core, the precise application of details with wax, the minutely timed stages of the casting process itself and finally the filing and polishing.


A Very Fine Cast (110 years)

“By privileging the linguistic over the visual, a subversive archive is built up which substitutes the traditional objects of the museum archive – the physical artefacts – for their verbal descriptions which unintentionally (on the part of the authors) catalogue the racist and colonial narratives that surround the Benin Bronzes into the present. Fixed and frozen by the printing process, these texts are produced from linguistic negative casts in the form of the metal engraving plates which, quite literally, set into relief the darker, historical context and frame for the museum collections.”

– Gilane Tawadros


Worldwide Benin

A roll call of over 500 museums and collectors – from the British Museum to André Breton – holding the famous Benin artefacts taken by the British in 1897 during the punitive expedition in Benin City, and now dispersed all over the world in major museums.  A ‘bronze’ vinyl represents a map of the world drawn by connecting these collections with each other.