The first impressions of this hefty and imposing book are of its outstanding artistic quality: the gold lettering and deep red (the colour of the Benin monarchy) of its cover, the exquisite design of the inside pages, and the many reproductions of astonishing works of Benin art, some famous and others less well-known. No surprise, then, that it is brought to us by Oriiz U. Onuwaje, the graphic designer with an impressive track record in international advertising as well as magazine and book design and production. (His upscale lifestyle magazine Masterpiece – the art of fine living is another example.)
Equally important, the artistic value of the book’s production does justice to its subject: the 800-year-old Benin monarchy and people, renowned worldwide for their bronze, ivory and wood artworks. As His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II writes in the foreword: “As we present this anthology to the world, we are persuaded that the contribution of our people and recognition for our noble civilisation will go far beyond mere reminiscences of the many distinctions which we have become famous for.”
A preface by renowned historian Professor Obaro Ikime suggests a second purpose underlying the publication: the need for African historiography to correct the history written from the perspective of colonial officials. “This is a great book,” he writes, “about a great people, a great kingdom and a one-time great empire, easily the largest empire ever established in the rain forest belt of West Africa.”
The book is divided into four parts. The first takes us from the very beginning of civilisation in Benin through the emergence and consolidation of the kingdom to the creation of an empire between 1440 and 1897. Part 2 deals with the Obas, their powers, personalities, preferences and rituals, with particular mention of the craftsmen’s guilds which they patronised and which created the astonishing court art collection. Part 3 recounts the fate of the kingdom under colonialism, particular the notorious ‘Benin massacre’ and removal of royal treasure by the British, and Part 4 brings us up to date with a biography of the present Oba and reflections on the challenges he faces.
Weighing in at approximately 7kg, this 600-odd-page volume is certainly one of a kind, and the 18 contributing editors are a roll-call of eminent Benin and foreign academicians. Although this dependence on ‘straight’ academicians may make the text intimidating for the average general-knowledge-seeking reader, the design and layout compensate. Indeed, the principal attraction of this book is the expert use of typography and prominent use of carefully chosen and placed photographs and visuals right from the beginning. The wonderful photographs of the finest Benin bronze, ivory and wood artworks alone would ensure that this book finds a wide and appreciative readership.
‘The Benin Red Book’ as it is fondly known, constitutes one of the richest pictorial assemblies ever published of the vast and priceless collection of Benin arts and antiquities, both in and outside Benin, as well as a photographic album of the Benin monarchy from 1897 to 2017. Black and white photographs by Green, Alonge and Fiofori, sourced from museums and palace archives, accompany more recent colour photographs by Okiy and other Benin-based photographers. The record of the lavish coronation of Ewuare II as the 40th Oba of the Benin Kingdom in October 2016 makes a striking contrast to the images offering a glimpse of his ancient forebears.
The 70-odd full-page photographic images of bronze plaques, bronze, ivory and wood artworks of faces, animals and emblems include treasures now on display in top museums in Britain, Europe and the U.S.A., despite claims put forward by Benin that they should be returned to the palace they were originally designed to adorn. A careful reading of the inclusion of such vivid representations itself suggests a subtle commentary on and indictment of their removal from their place of origin.
In essence, this beautiful book is highly recommended for lovers of culture and history worldwide, as well as for researchers and libraries.
Tam Fiofori is a well-known Nigerian filmmaker, photojournalist and writer with over four decades of work as a photojournalist. He is author of the seminal photography-and-text book A Benin Coronation: Oba Erediauwa  and the essays ‘Redeeming the Image of the Benin Monarchy and People’  and ‘J. A. Green: Pioneer and Legend’ .