Africa > West Africa > Benin > Benin Art Culture Profile

Benin: Benin Art Culture Profile

2015/02/27

Before 1975, the Republic of Benin was known as Dahomey, its French colonial name. Three years next the coup that brought Major Kérékou to power, the name was changed to the People's Republic of Benin, reflecting the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the new government. Next the collapse of the Kérékou government in 1989, the name was shortened to the Republic of Benin. In the precolonial period, Dahomey was the name of the majority powerful kingdom on the Slave Coast, which extended along the Bight of Benin to Lagos. Today Benin includes not only the ancient Fon kingdom of Dahomey but as well areas inhabited by a lot of other groups.

The country's lack of cultural homogeneity is due to geographic factors and a history that has included waves of migration, competition between precolonial kingdoms, four centuries of commercial relations with Europe, and the impact of colonialism. In addition to language and ethnicity, there are divisions along lines of occupation and religion.

Location and Geography

The country has an area of 43,483 square miles (112,622 square kilometers). It shares borders with Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Togo. There are five distinct geographic zones. In the south, coconut palms grow on a narrow coastal strip broken by lagoons and creeks. In the north, a plateau of fertile iron clay soil interspersed with marshy areas supports oil palms. The central area is a wooded savanna with some hilly areas. The Atacora mountain chain in the northwest is the area of greatest elevation, while the northeast is part of the Niger river basin. Most of the country has a tropical climate with a dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October. Rainfall and vegetation are heaviest in the south.

The country is divided into six departments containing eighty-four districts. The capital is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is in nearby Cotonou, the major city.

Demography

The current people is estimated to be about 6.5 million and is concentrated in the southern and central regions. The increase rate is high, and 48 % of the people are less than fifteen years old.

Linguistic Affiliation

French is the national language, and English is taught in secondary schools. There are about fifty languages and dialects. Most people speak at least two languages. Fifty % of the people speaks Fon; other significant languages include Yoruba, Aja, Mina, Goun, Bariba, Dendi, Ditamarri, Nateni, and Fulfulde. Approximately 36 % of the people is illiterate.

Symbolism. The flag initial flown next independence was green, red, and yellow. Green denoted hope for renewal, red stood for the ancestors' courage, and yellow symbolized the country's treasures. In 1975, the flag was changed to green with a red star in the corner. In 1990, the original flag was reestablished to symbolize the rejection of Marxist ideology.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation

Although several ethnic groups are assumed to be indigenous, migration that began four hundred years ago brought Aja-speaking peoples (the Gbe) into the southern part of the country, where they founded several kingdoms. The Yoruba presence in the southern and central regions as well dates back several hundred years. The Bariba migrated west from what is presently Nigeria and established a cluster of states. In the northwest, several indigenous groups remained independent of Bariba control.

The Portuguese were the initial Europeans to make contact at Ouidah (Whydah) in 1580s; Dutch, French, and English traders followed. The coastal communities became part of an emerging trans-Atlantic trading system.

In the seventeenth century, slaves became the majority significant commodity, traded for manufactured items. At initial the trade took place with coastal kingdoms, but the interior kingdom of Dahomey later conquered those kingdoms. Although a tributary of the Yoruba kingdom Oyo from 1740 to 1818, Dahomey dominated the regional slave trade. Traders dealt due with the royalty of Dahomey, who continued to sell slaves to Brazilian merchants next the 1830s. Merchants and travelers wrote about the power of the Dahomean monarch, his army of "amazons" (female warriors), and ceremonies that included human sacrifice.

The French presence and influence increased next 1840 as a result of commercial and missionary activity. Tension with France increased as competition between European imperial powers escalated. France engaged in three military campaigns against Dahomey, and in 1894 King Behanzin surrendered and was exiled. By 1900, the Bariba had been defeated and the new boundaries had been determined. From 1904 to 1958, Dahomey was a colony in the federation of French West Africa.

Colonial policy forced the people to accept a new system of central government, heavy taxation, forced labor, and harsh laws. France conscripted men to fight in both world wars. By the end of World War II, the economy was weak and growing discontent was difficult to manage.

Next World War II, France followed a policy of increased representation and autonomy. During this period, a triumvirate of leaders emerged who would dominate national politics for decades. In 1958, Dahomey chose independence, which was declared in 1960. Hubert Maga was elected as the initial president. His term was interrupted by a military coup in 1963, the initial of six in the next nine years.

National Identity

Political turmoil before and next independence was not conducive to the formation of a national identity. The Kérékou regime and the seventeen-year experiment with socialism stabilized the country under a central bureaucracy. In the early years of his policy, Kérékou's called for the creation of a country less aligned with French commercial and cultural interests. Next the government adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology in 1974, a rhetoric of national unity and "the revolution" permeated the media and government propaganda, but even today national identity is secondary to ethnic identity for much of the rural people.

Ethnic Relations

Beninese recognize about twenty sociocultural groups. In some cases, a cultural cluster is associated with one or additional of the ancient kingdoms. The Fon (founders of the Dahomey kingdom) are the major group. Their language is closely related to that of the Aja and Goun, and there are close ethnic ties with those groups as a result of shared precolonial history. Lines of cleavages create constantly changing northern, southern, and south-central coalitions of leaders who vie for control of limited resources and political power.

The Afro-Brazilian community in the south is descended from European traders, Africans who lived near European trading establishments, and traders and returned slaves from Brazil.

The educated peoples of the additional urbanized southern region have dominated the country's political and economic life. The teachers and civil servants who were given posts in the north were considered to be as foreign as the Europeans.

Benin is as well home to Fulani herders known locally as the Peul. These herders move their livestock over long distances in search of grass. Even at the same time as they become sedentary, the Fulani maintain a incomparable cultural identity. A lot of of them serve in the military.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Additional than 40 % of the people lives in urban environments, primarily in Cotonou. Cities have a mixture of modern and colonial architecture. Although some Cotonou residents live in multi-story apartment buildings, their neighborhoods usually consist of walled compounds. In small towns and villages, new houses tend to be built from concrete block with metal roofs, but a lot of are constructed from mud bricks and roofed with thatch. Large towns have both mosques and churches, and each town has at least one open-air market.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes

The system of social stratification has its roots in the precolonial kingdoms. Kingdoms in the south included royal and commoner families inclunding slaves. At the top of the hierarchy was the ruling group of the Bariba, followed by a class of Bariba cultivators. Next came the Fulani pastoralists, and on the bottom were the Gando, the slaves of the Wasangari. Colonization broke the power of the traditional rulers, but social status is still partially determined by a person's family roots. Wealth is an extra way to gain social status, and those who become wealthy through commerce are held in high regard.

One of the majority significant social divisions is between the educated urban elite and the rural people. During the colonial period, educated Beninese in other states were expelled. Some found work in the bureaucracy at home, but a lot of moved to European nations. The career goal of a lot of students is to become a civil servant, although structural adjustment programs have reduced the civil service sector. The objectives of the new national employment program include developing the private sector and encouraging expatriates to contribute to the economic development process.

Symbols of Social Stratification

The dress, manners, activities, and worldview of the urban elite set them apart from other segments of society, and their lifestyle often is emulated by people in lower classes. Speaking French, wearing Western-style clothes, eating European foods, living in a home with a tin roof, and listening to modern music distinguish a person who is "civilized."

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Poverty has prevented the national from addressing the country's health and educational needs, and it has relied on foreign aid and assistance from international organizations. Adjustment programs initiated next the collapse of the economy in 1989 limited the national's investment in health and social development. The National Family Planning Association was founded in 1972.
Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender

In farming communities, men do the heavier tasks such as clearing land. Women help plant, harvest, and process a lot of of the food products. Women carry wood and water and are responsible for household tasks involving food and children. Women are active in local and regional trade. The degree to which women work as healers and ritual specialists varies between ethnic groups.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Although women in the Dahomey kingdom could increase their wealth and power as part of the royal palace organization and often served in primarily male occupations, the general pattern has always been for women to be socially and economically subordinate to men. The 1977 constitution conferred legal equality on women, but this was ignored in practice. Currently 65 % of girls are not in school.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage

In the completed, most marriages were arranged by families, but individual choice is becoming additional common, particularly part the educated elite. A couple may have both civil and traditional ceremonies. The wife joins her husband's family, or the new couple may relocate. Marriage is nearly universal because remarriage occurs quickly next divorce or the death of a spouse. Although cowives in polygamous marriages are supposed to get along, jealousy is not unusual.

Marriage may involve the transfer of money or goods to the bride's family. Next a divorce, renegotiation of bridewealth may be necessary, particularly if there are no children. Because women marry into a patrilineal descent system, the children belong to the father. Because wives do not become part of the husband's kin group, marriages tend to be brittle.

Kin Groups

Kinship ties involve loyalty inclunding obligation. Outside the immediate family, the lineage and the clan are the majority common descent groups. Kin are expected to attend significant ceremonies and provide financial aid. Kin networks link members in urban and rural areas. Children may be sent to relatives to raise, but fostering sometimes results in country relatives being brought to large cities to work as domestic servants.

Domestic Unit.

The average household contains six persons, but extended families and polygamous households may be much larger. Often close relatives live in the same vicinity in separate households but function as a cooperative economic unit.
Socialization

Infant Care. Infants are carried, often on the mother's back, and most are breast-fed. Children are cared for by siblings and other family members at the same time as they are not with the mother. Babies sleep anywhere, no matter how noisy it is.

Child Rearing and Education

Children are expected to be obedient and to show respect for their elders. Children learn gender-appropriate tasks early, particularly girls. Most children have few toys and amuse themselves with simple games. It is estimated that 8 % of rural children work as laborers on plantations and as domestic servants.

The educational system is modeled next that of France. School is free and compulsory for seven years beginning at age five. However, a lot of families cannot afford uniforms and supplies or need their children's labor. It is recognized that education is the key to social advancement, and most parents sacrifice to send their children to school.
Etiquette

Good manners include taking time to greet people properly, using conventional oral formulas. Upon entering or leaving an appointment, it is appropriate to shake the hand of each person present. People who are well acquainted may greet each other by kissing on the cheek. Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are discouraged, but men frequently walk together holding hands. Offering food and drink to visitors is a key element of hospitality, and to refuse is considered rude. A lot of people eat in the traditional style, using the fingers of the right hand. It is considered bad taste to eat with the left hand or offer an extra person something with it.

Religion

Religious Beliefs

About 15 % of the people is Muslim, and 15 % is Christian, mostly Roman Catholic. The rest of the people follows indigenous systems of belief. Vodun (voodoo) was taken with the coastal slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean. Some Vodun spirits were borrowed from the Yoruba religion, and Vodun involves divination and spirit possession. These supernatural powers help believers cope with illness and infertility and provide a philosophy for living.

Death and the Afterlife

In indigenous belief systems, ancestors are considered to remain part of the community next death. Shrines honor the ancestors, and offerings "feed" them. Part the Fon, circular metal sculptures on staffs called asen are made for each deceased person and kept in the family compound. In some communities, funerals involve a sequence of rituals before the person is considered to have made a complete transition to being an ancestor.

Secular and Religious Celebrations

The major national holidays are New Year's Day (1 January), May Day (1 May), and National Day (1 August).

The Arts and Humanities

 Art and Craft of the Benin People

Benin the heart of Edo State in Nigeria is renowned for its brass casting , however, Benin art cuts across different media such as such as Bronze, Brass, Terracotta, Ebony wood and Ivory.
The Benin Bronze
The Bronzes mainly depict a variety of scenes, including animals, fish, humans and scenes of court life. They are usually cast in matching pairs (although each was individually made). It is thought that they were originally nailed to walls and pillars in the palace as decoration, some possibly also offering instructive scenes of protocol.

Craft

Pottery making is largely done by women who specialize in the production of earthenware such as traditional cooking pots, mugs and bowls. Other works common amongst the Bini people include basket making, Cane furniture, Cloth-weaving, Mat-making and Gold-smiting.

Traditions And Customs

There are various rich traditions and customs amongst the Bini people, these encapsulate attire, food, ceremony, festivals and beliefs.
Beads and hair style
The traditional gems Ivie (meaning precious ornaments) is worn in Benin kingdom, and is considered as sacred jewels. When colored red, it assumes inestimable value prided as objects of sacred beauty and harmony. Popular to the Edo people, the coral beaded damsel with the crest hairstyle identifying her as the Queen’s maid or linked to the royal family. Today, all over the Nigeria women are seen wearing the beads hairstyle called ‘okuku’, the hair is woven and beaded in a crown-like manner. It is worn on different occasions especially by brides during a wedding ceremony. Complementary beads are also worn on the shoulders and around the neck.

Dressing

The indigenes of Edo State are well-known for their traditional attires epitomized in the traditional male mode of dressing. A flowing agbada made with Ankara, voile, lace, jacquard or guinea cloth material is worn over a trouser and topped with either a long or short-sleeved loose shirt of the same material. Usually, an embroidered cap on the head and a carved walking stick complements this dressing. For some traditional rites, the white wrapper is usually tied around the waist. Coral beads (ordinary or ornamental) are popular among the men and womenfolk.

Festivals and Masquerades

Edo State has a very rich tradition of festivals and Masquerades through which the people either appease the various gods and goddesses, initiate men and women into age-grades or as a traditional get-together.
The Igue festival takes pre-eminence among festivals celebrated in Edo State. It is celebrated in December by the Oba of Benin to usher in the New Year and as a thanksgiving for the outgoing one. The Igue festival attracts tourists from across Nigeria and abroad. Most of the festivals have a yearly cycle and are open to general viewing and sometimes, participation. During the seven days of elaborate traditional and cultural activities, Bini chiefs are seen in their enviable traditional regalia, including the Iloi (Queens) in their Okuku (hairdo). Some others like the Obazu festival held among the Aomas of luleha in Owan West Local Government Area is strictly restricted to the men folk.
Other important festivals celebrated in Edo State are Ekaba, Ukpe, Irua, Agiele, Adu-Ikukwua, Ebomisi, Eho, Ipihionua, Ugbele, Itakpo, Ofarhe, Emomorhe, Iko, Uzo, Ugozo/Ihiasa, Uba, Egbere, Owere, Ukpako, Oriminyam, Ohonmoimen, Itikiri, Ivhamen/Ororuen, Amekpe, Oto-Uromi, Ighele and Okpuge-Oro.

The masquerades in Edo State are generally believed to be earthly representatives of some celestial gods, goddesses or ancestors. Masquerades like the Igbabonelimi of Esanland are very popular social entertainers whose secrets and workings are only known to initiates who are sworn to utmost secrecy.
Many masquerades are linked to traditional festivals, while others are only social and have no ritualistic backgrounds.