The Benin Project

Taking as his starting point the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 (a military excursion by British forces in which the British invaded, burned and ransacked the ancient West African Kingdom of Benin), Orlow’s installation is, amongst other things, a meditation on the contingent relationship between the past and the present and between different geographical and cultural spaces that remain inextricably linked, tied together by the metal cast artefacts that have erroneously become known as the Benin Bronzes and which are now distributed across more than 500 museums and collections across the world.

Orlow’s suite of works are […] connected to each other by the artist’s journey: his physical journey from England to Nigeria; but also his artistic journey from the present to the past and back. Travelling through the installation of artworks, the viewer moves between disparate historical moments and physical locations mapped out by the different constituent parts of Orlow’s Benin Project, mirroring the journeys undertaken by the artist and the Benin Bronzes across geographical space and historical time.

In 1897, following the destruction of Benin and the enforced exile of its ruler Oba Ovonramwen, the British Admiralty seized and auctioned off looted artworks to defray the costs of the Expedition which ended up in private and public collections in Europe and North America where most remain to this day. The Benin Project charts these complex relationships which are mediated by the artefacts themselves, their journeys, their seizure and their subsequent appropriation as cultural artefacts to which attributes of authenticity, financial value, ownership and aesthetic quality have rapidly become attached.

Gilane Tawadros

Download full text by Gilane Tawadros

The Visitor, 2007
Uriel Orlow, The Visitor, 2007
Single channel video with sound
15m 58
Edition of 5

The Visitor is a photo-essay of the artist’s audience with Oba Erediauwa, the current king of Benin. A local narrator follows the artist into the Oba’s palace and recounts the conversation between the European visitor and the royal host and his court of chiefs. The exchange centers on the Benin Bronzes (famously looted by the British in 1897 and now in over 500 museums and collections worldwide), collective memory and the demand for restitution. However, communication remains somewhat elusive, slipping in and out of gaps of cultural and historical difference.

Uriel OrlowLost Wax, 2007
7-channel video installation with sound
Duration variable 

Lost Wax shows artists at work in the traditional brass-casting district in Benin City (Nigeria), using the ancient lost wax technique (cire perdue) and recycled metal from the West to produce metal cast artefacts. The newly produced artworks are in an uneasy relationship with the Western-dominated market that maintains a self-interested and arbitrary divide between authentic (pre-1897) objects and ‘cheap’ reproductions, destined for lovers of ‘African’ art or seen to be ‘flooding the market with fakes’. However, even if the new casts are in the historical style of those famously looted by the British in 1897, they are not reproductions, as each cast is a unique work of art. So what is their status and who are they for?

Lost Wax does not directly answer these questions but instead creates an immersive environment, a visual and auditory mise-en-scène of the extraordinary interplay of materials and the ‘dance’ of the hands working on them. The visual and auditory constellation of the spread-out monitors mirrors the shared labour and the simultaneity of different processes and stages of production. Lost Wax creates a tactile portrait of the skills and gestures involved in making the metal castings: the careful handling and preparation of the basic elements – earth, wax, discarded metal, wood, fire – the modelling of a clay core, the precise application of details with wax, the minutely timed stages of the casting process itself and finally the filing and polishing.

A Very Fine Cast

Uriel Orlow, A Very Fine Cast (110 years), 2007
28 line-block engravings on Somerset textured paper
29 x 42 cm each

“By privileging the linguistic over the visual, a subversive archive is built up which substitutes the traditional objects of the museum archive – the physical artefacts – for their verbal descriptions which unintentionally (on the part of the authors) catalogue the racist and colonial narratives that surround the Benin Bronzes into the present. Fixed and frozen by the printing process, these texts are produced from linguistic negative casts in the form of the metal engraving plates which, quite literally, set into relief the darker, historical context and frame for the museum collections.”

Gilane Tawadros

The Naked Palace, 2008-9
Uriel OrlowThe Naked Palace, 2007-08
Single channel video with sound
Edition of 5
10m 00

The camera trails a guide on a tour through the labyrinthine architectural complex of Ogiamen’s palace in Benin City (Nigeria). This extraordinary building was constructed in the 12th century and is one of only a handful of houses that survived the British punitive expedition of 1897. Ogiamen’s family inhabits it to this day. As the camera follows the guide’s navigation of the ancient palace and records his explanations, the image oscillates between jerky disorientation and lingering close-up shots of architectural details and textures. The portrait of the palace remains fragmentary and ruptures between seeing and understanding, between a historical imaginary and the contemporary conditions become palpable.