What comes to mind when you hear the word Benin? African royalty? Bronze masks?
This ancient empire with a staggeringly rich cultural past is one of the most fascinating cities in West Africa.
In the 18th century, the Benin Empire was said to be one of the oldest and most advanced states in West Africa. But after the Benin Massacre of 1897 in which the city was looted and burnt to the ground – everything changed.
Many of the art pieces stolen during the expedition can be found in museums in Europe and North America today. The most popular of them all is probably are the FESTAC masks named after the Festival of Arts & Culture (FESTAC) of which the mask was the symbol of the 2nd edition held in Nigeria in 1977. If you want to see the masks, just visit the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum in New York – the masks are still there alive and well somewhere in their ‘African section’.
But despite the stolen history, Benin is still bleeding with art. Art is everywhere you turn. It faces you boldly in the streets with fierce out-of-this-world sculptures and breath taking architecture. Even the Lady Justice symbols at the High Court scream the city’s history. She’s clearly blindfolded but not dumb.
The essence or spirit of a city cannot always be captured in photographs of the art and scenery.
For instance, the camera cannot capture the sweet, sweet pidgin spoken by the locals. This might indeed be one reason it has produced a great number of comedians and stand-up comics. There are also a number of great places to visit that make you nostalgic for the Empire you’ve read only in history books and wish you were present when Benin city was Benin city.
On the top of the ‘must see’ list would be the Federal museum at the centre of the famous Ring Road and the Benin City National Museum. Nigerian museums can be sometimes be underwhelming but if you have the time, it’s still worth the visit.
The once famous musician of Guitar Boy fame Victor Uwaifo also has an art gallery that is open to the public. The gallery is close to the Ekenwa campus of the University of Benin which has an array of beautiful and thought provoking sculptures and statues scattered across the campus’ grounds.
If you need souvenirs of your visit to Benin then you can head to Igun street to see bronze busts, bronze bas-relief works and ebony wood works of the city’s famous craftsmen. Prices are surprisingly affordable. You will pay more for these items when you find them outside Benin so buy them here.
It is also possible to find what is left of the ancient moats at different locations around the city. Also, the first storey building built in the city is still standing with the descendants of the original owner still living in it. It was allegedly built in 1906, and is said to be the second oldest storey building in Nigeria (the one in Badagry being the oldest).
Other places worth mentioning would be the Ogba Zoo, the Oba’s palace and Chief Ogiamien’s house – the only royal building not destroyed during the 1897 expedition.
So, what comes to your mind when you think of Benin?
Photography by Enefaa Thomas (@enefa_a)