Much has been said of the Benin bronze sculptures – indeed the mention of Edo state amongst outsiders invokes visions of bronze heads and natives clad in beads. This is the testament to the fame of the Benin – Bini art. It was this same grandeur that made the Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper in 1668 compare the Oba’s court and the development favorably to that of Europe. Even back home here in Africa, the Queen Idia ivory mask was made the official symbol of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC 1977.
It nonetheless would be a great disservice to other art forms and indeed the other ethnic groups and tribes that today make up Edo state if we do not regard them, as there are worthy of mention in their own right.
In the literary arts, Dr. Festus Iyayi won the Commonwealth Prose prize in 1989 while Funsho Aiyegina won the poetry prize of the Association of Nigerian authors with his poetry with his poetry collection – ’A Letter to Lydia and other poems’.
In the performing arts, the state is home to numerous troupes and groups including the Edo Cultural Group, Uyi Edo Theatre Group, Inneh troupe, to mention a few.
The Uneme-Nekhua and the South Uneme people in Akoko Edo and Etsako West LGAs are known for being good blacksmiths, with particular skill in making traditional ceremonial swords. Gold and silversmiths abound in cities in the state fabricating ornaments. Somorika, Auchi, Igarra, and Ubiaja are major centers of traditional cloth weaving with colorful prize winning motifs. Ojah, also of Akoko Edo is renowned for its fine pottery.
The state government has been making highly commendable efforts to revitalize the tourism in the state as can be witnessed by the unveiling of tourism information desks at the Benin Airport to enlighten visitors to the tourist sites of the state. The last Aba festival held in Igarra, Akoko Edo LGA boosted the economy with 450 million Naira injected by the over one million people who graced the occasion. (The state has a population of between 5 to 7 million people by estimates.) The state is in the process of reviving and rebranding tourist sites – a whole 58 of them, including historical sites in Unuamen village of Oba Esigie and Queen Idia fame, tourist sites like Olekhu Namebo, Odigi shrine, and Okebu – the site of Queen Idia’s hosting of Udo warriors. Strides are being made to bring the culture back to the schools, with cultural clubs being commissioned and teachers in their hundreds being trained to teach the indigenous languages in schools. The state clearly is taking culture seriously with plans to build the Benin Cultural Heritage Complex on land given by the Oba of Benin.
Art galleries are not uncommon in Benin City, the state capital particularly on Airport and Mission roads. The Edo Festival of Arts and Culture EDOFEST held in December put the state’s culture and tourism destinations on the show with a movie premiere – ESOHE, music and cultural shows, seminars and talk shows, photo exhibitions amongst others.
There are positive signs as the British museum held talks with other European museums on possibly returning the Bini bronze statues. This would be a welcome catalyst in the state’s drive towards exploring its tourism potential as they would be on permanent display.
The future is indeed bright for the Edo arts, as traditional, informal means of learning and guilds continue to prosper. Formal education in the indigenous arts is also buoyant as both the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi and the University of Benin, Ekhenhuan campus play major roles in educating the eager students. Ceramic work, sculpting and metal works are course options in the Fine and Applied Arts department of the University of Benin and quality statues, sculptures, paintings, metal and ceramic works can be found on display in the open and in the various studios in the campus premises. Ibukun Emmanuel, a student of the Auchi Polytechnic was a social media sensation as he showed off his work – a carved bust of the Oba, with the canvas – a living tree.