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Once it was only for royalty: traditional carving remains big in Benin



Emanuel Osifo's forefathers would only carve sculptures to celebrate the Benin kings and affluent families. Today, Osifo is passing on his "inherited" skills to anyone willing to learn the traditional craft of wood carving.


Bright Emwanta Igbinomwanhia, bird story agency


On the bustling 25\ 27 Igbesanmwan Street in Benin City, Southern Nigeria, a small white shop with rusty corrugated metal roofing stands between similar rundown buildings.


Despite its dilapidated appearance, the Emma O Carving Depot, owned by Emanuel Osifo, holds a remarkable collection of historical artefacts. The store showcases various bronze and wood pieces, such as masks, medals, tools, plaques and sculptures of varying sizes and colours. While some are new, other older pieces are evidence of an ancient tradition.


A common belief in Benin City is that certain families have a genetic inclination for sculptural art. The case of Osifo is no exception. The reality, however, is that thousands of hours of practice go into mastery of the ancient woodcarving craft.


Even though he started working as a professional wood and ivory carver right after secondary school, Osifo started practising the skill in childhood.


"I have been carving since my primary school days. My father's family are carvers, and his father's family were carvers, and that is how I learned to carve. Besides, my primary school teacher would normally bring wood and chisel to the classroom for carving lessons," the shop owner explained with a smile.


The Benin Empire, also called the Kingdom of Benin, was located in southern Nigeria. It was a highly organised king-oriented state formation renowned for its thriving economy and celebrated art, including wood and ivory sculptures and its bronze works.


Benin's rulers, or Obas, created a guild of talented carvers in Benin called the Igbesamwan, who made significant wood and ivory carvings for the king and other wealthy people in the kingdom.


When the British forces attacked Edo, razing it and bringing the Benin Kingdom to an end in 1897, they looted the artefacts from the royal palace with the result that today the largest collections of ancient Beninese art are displayed not in Nigeria but in museums in London and Berlin.


While the Kingdom - and with it the economy that allowed the carvers to live comfortable lives - collapsed, the culture's wood carving traditions have lived on through craftsmen like Osifo.


When hired to carve, the founder of Emma O's Carvings admits that he is not overly concerned with making money. He does, however, determine his fee based on the size of the artwork.


"The bigger it is, the more expensive it becomes."


To pass his carving knowledge to upcoming generations, Osifo hosts youth apprenticeship programs.


"I have taught many people who are now their own bosses and also people who have travelled abroad," he explained, emphasising that what he teaches is the ancient ways of carving, rather than quicker, modern processes.


"Machines cannot carve wood for you because it won't give you what you want," Osifo explained.


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