Time Capsule is a series featuring the writing of Robert Gibbons
Pair of Leopards
[Edo, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, ca. 16th Century
brass, left: 50 x 15 x 79 cm; right: 49 x 14 x 77 cm;
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria]
Intricacies of the Lost Wax Process
Nothing but black coffee through morning, early afternoon, where digital clocks around the room look like guardians at attention at 1:11. Trying to wrap my head around the intricacies of the lost wax process & lost cities of Africa. A pair of copper-alloy leopards from the old wooden Edo city of Benin, (since razed), reveal exemplary models out of the mold. Fine, aligned, concentric-circle spots on the skin identical as snowflakes. The seventeenth-century Dutch geographer, (there’s a street named after him in Amsterdam, an African museum in Paris), Olfert Dapper describes the ritual where a procession of tame leopards, along with a number of dwarfs & deaf people perform for the Oba, or King. Now, I’ve seen these leopards, not in Lagos, Nigeria, but on loan to the National Gallery in DC in 1991. Let’s just say I was in awe then. To bring it even further up to date, let me add that although most of us, when we think of the art of Benin call up those bronze heads from the classical period, so there was similar awe involved when an international student walked into the library to apply for a job where I was hiring work-study help. The young man’s head configured perfectly to the art of which I’d done some study. Later conversations confirmed his grandfather once a leader in the country. Granted, the old Edo Oba was deposed by the British at the end of the nineteenth century, & granted, Osayi Erhabor’s constant joviality (am I only now reminded of ritual scarification?) separated him from the stoic visage of the bronzes, but the genetic physiognomy, there & then, instantly self-evident.