Sunday, January 26, 2014

Igun Street: Where creativity is guarded

By Jimoh Babatunde
As one enters the Igun street through the arched gateway with the inscription, “Home of  Guild of Benin  Bronze Casters: World Heritage Site”,  one is assailed by popular  Benin bronze works of the kings and queens and other notable royalties as well as other  artistic motif on display at various shops.
The art shops which also display  non-bronze products such as wood carvings and paintings formed part of  the bungalows that make up the well paved street  of Igun famous for  bronze making.
Most  houses on the street built with mud  still standing tall and strong  with rusty roofs, except with few new buildings, are on their own sights to behold. Igun-Eronmwon quarters popularly known, as Igun Street Benin City {listed as Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO} is the home of the brass/bronze casting industries in Benin. It constitutes one of the 31 guilds of the Oba of Benin, in the ancient Benin kingdom.
The ancient guild is so secretive and exclusive that outsiders have found virtually impossible to penetrate in the hundreds of years it has existed. All members of the guild are related by a common ancestry and descended of Inneh  Nigun, the custodian of the street and the bronze casters. Johnbull Ekunwe  disclosed that there are about seven families who are members of the guild with the Ehanire and Inneh families as the heads.
Other families according to Ekunwe who belongs to the Ehanire family are the Akenuwas and the Ossais among others.
He said the secretiveness of the guild is to against infiltration  by  outsider. “Look at Igbesanmwan that was famous for wood carving, because they  did not  protect it from outsider, today  it has become a work for every dick and harry.
“ So we don’t allow people to work here. Though they may work outside like in schools, but our cast works differ from others because of the method we use.”
The exact origin of bronze casting in Benin kingdom is hard to establish. What is very certain is that the art has been in practice from primordial reign of the Ogisos, the first royal dynasty without any break though with discernible chronological stages of development. This ancient craft passed from father to son, from generation to generation continually to this day.
Eric Ogbemudia, the Secretary of the Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild, an HND holder in sculpture from The Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, once said that  “There are speculations that it was brought from Sudan or Egypt. We are researching that now. But there is the possibility that it could have been evolved in Benin here. There were many metal craft shops in Benin then. Metal workers made arrows, swords and daggers for warfare long before the Europeans came. In the process of metal smelting this particular metal could have been detected.”

Scientifically, this is a great possibility. Bronze melts faster than iron. In between, iron stands suspended above bronze liquid – the only condition in which the heavy metal stands suspended on the surface of any liquid – thereby producing a distinct raw material for any creative metal worker.
Just like Johnbull Ekunwa,  Jeff Eholor grew up practicing without learning as they were both  born into it,  I have  been here since I was born, my parents are from this area. What interest me in bronze carving is because I grew in it, saw my father doing it and did not learn it.” said Ekunwa.
In traditional Benin; before the invasions, of Benin Empire, in 1897 by British forces. The Oba controlled the production and the distribution of brass/bronze arts work no single individual have any right to own any of the production process in those days except with the permission of the Oba of Benin.
The story is very different today, visitors  are free to admire, witness bronze casting from the various stages purchase any piece of their choice without let or hindrance. This is probably one of the most patronized tourist attractions in Benin kingdom/Edo state.
“People do come here to buy bronze , as a young man growing up, this street was a tourist centre as people come from all over the world to buy bronze works, but these days, we hardly see the whites coming around.” Ekunwe disclosed.
While lamenting the dearth of tourists, Johnbul Ekunwe attributed the security situation as a factor that could have driven the tourist the  tourists away. “Yes,  might be due to fear of security. As a young man there were lots of them who just walk freely here, even some entering our  mothers  rooms, but today they come with armed security.”
Jeff Eholor added that before now from all over the world, arts lovers, historians, ethnologists, anthropologists and indeed all categories of tourists troupe to Igun Street to behold the marvel of Benin bronze culture come here , but today not a view pay for a foundry demonstration of the production process.”
Patronage has grown beyond the traditional court collection circle. From all over the world people come to acquire Igun bronze works. Apart from direct collectors, there are arts dealers, especially those located within big hotels and other such outlets frequented by tourists and collector, who come an purchase in bulk for retailing.
The curious can still experience the good old bronze casting process. Little had changed over the centuries. The lost wax method still reigns supreme.
Clay is moulded into desired shape. Then the envisaged object is shaped in wax. Another layer of clay coats the well-shaped artistic design. The next step is the firing stage. As the heat rises to up to 700 degrees centigrade, wax of course disintegrates into nothingness literally evaporating into thin – or thick – air. While this is progressing, the bronze is being heated. At 800 degrees, it melts. The molten bronze is then poured in to replace the absent wax through a funnel space created in the moulding process.
The entire thing cools down and there emerges the precious object. Cleaning, filing, scraping and other finishes complete the process after the clay that had fulfilled its part of the creative process has been dislodged, crushed for tomorrow’s production schedule.
To date, women are not allowed into the ogun ogwa, the foundry where the production of Benin bonze takes place. They can purchase products for further marketing anyway or assist their spouses, parents and relations in the later stage of the creative sojourn. Women’s presence at the foundry is a taboo kept over the centuries.