From the earliest times of civilization, specialized professional guilds or societies were set up to promote the highest ideals in the various arts. These guilds were accorded royal patronage. To this day, some of these guilds, like those of wood carvers and bronze casters, are still operating at Igbesanmwan and Igun streets in Benin City.
Art, as a form of communication, has been greatly explored, especially for recording memorable events in the life of the various communities. Effigies of Obas, heroes and heroines were molded for posterity. Different media such as bronze, brass, mud (terracotta), ebony wood and ivory feature in these works of art. In the 13th century, Igueha introduced brass casting into Benin City. The indigenous artists in Benin have since evolved a peculiar house style in brass casting and created the largest brass industry in the African continent.
The Benin bronze works are the most favored and renowned art works of Edo State. Many of these artworks were looted by the British forces during the invasion of Benin Kingdom in 1897.
In recent years, the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa has spear-headed renewed efforts to repatriate these valuable art pieces from Europe. The Idia ivory mask, which was the official symbol of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), is still lying captive in a British museum.
Edo State has produced some of the best crop of outstanding contemporary artists in Nigeria. Some of these renowned artists are Sir Victor Uwaifo (who is a multi media artist), Festus Idehen, Dr. Colette Omogbai-Onyeka, Tayo Aiyegbusi, Osagie Erese, Klem Emoda, Roseline Thomas-Osakwue, Cliff Oguigo, High Priest Osemwingie Ebohon, late Felix Idubor and late Professor Solomon Irein-Wangboje, who in their life times and even now, stand proud as some of the world’s best.
Formal art education is taught at the school of Art and Design, Auchi Polytechnic, Auchi and the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Benin.
Art galleries are mainly located in the state capital, Benin City, especially on the Airport and Mission Roads axis. The bigger and popular ones like Idubor Art Gallery on Sakponba Road, Victor Uwaifo Gallery along Ekenwan Road, Wangboje Creative Arts Centre on Owoseni Street and Ebohon Cultural Centre off Dumez Road all in Benin City attract tourists and art buffs all year round. Other arts and craft shops are found in the major towns of Edo State.
In the literary arts, the banner of Edo State has continued to be hoisted on the national and international fora. Dr. Festus Iyayi won the Commonwealth Prose Prize in 1989, while Funsho Aiyegina won the Poetry Prize of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) with his poetry collection “A Letter to Lydia and other Poems”.
Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, a former Federal Director of Culture, is the pathfinder in the virgin area of Pidgin English poetry. Odia Ofeimun, a past President of ANA, Harry Garuba, Mabel Segun and Helen Ovbiagele are authors of note in the poetry and prose genres.
In the performing arts, drama groups are mostly located in Benin City with the Edo Cultural Group, Uyi Edo Theatre Group, Earth Pot Cultural Group, Ova Theatre Group, Inneh Troupe, and Ebohon Cultural Troupe featuring prominently.
The State Arts Council has performing troupes that have represented the state at many national and international events. The Oba Akenzua II Cultural Centre, Benin City is the hub of cultural activities in the state, a fine architectural masterpiece with beautiful murals of Edo traditional motifs. The Centre is complemented by Urhokpota Hall which is close by on Ring Road. These two theatres have hosted performances, symposia and exhibitions.
Pottery, basket making, cane furniture, cloth-weaving, mat-making and gold-smiting trades thrive in Edo State with quality and standards comparing favorably with others anywhere in the world.
A craft shop, with wares such as carving, hand-woven clothes, ebony rings, bowls, ash-trays, flower pots and bronze objects, were opened by the state government in July 1968 in Benin City.
The art of basket-making is popular among the Esan ethnic stock. The ready availability of palm fronds has engendered the prevalence of practitioners in this trade in the five local government areas that are Esan-speaking. Their products, which are veritable works of art, include shopping baskets, waste paper baskets and farmer’s wicker baskets.
The Uneme-Nekhua and the South Uneme people in Akoko-Edo and Etsako West Local Government Areas are renowned for their dexterity and skills in traditional black smithing and ceremonial swords. Gold and silver smiths are found in all the major towns in the state. They specialize in the fabrication of ornamental adornments like trinkets, bracelets, bangles, chains and earrings favored by fashion-conscious men and women.
Somorika, Auchi, Igarra and Ubiaja take pre-eminence as major areas of traditional cloth-weaving. The colorful, artistic motifs of the Igarra people have won national and international acclaim.
Molded statues, statuettes and figurines of Olokun the goddess of the sea, is a major feature of the traditional worship in the core Bini council areas of Oredo, Orhionmwon, Uhunmwode, Egor, Ikpoba Okha, Ovia North East and Ovia South west.
Pottery making is largely done by the womenfolk who specialize in the production of the earthenware like cooking pots, bowls, mugs, water pots, pipes etc.
Ojah in Akoko-Edo Local Government Area is known nationally for its fine pottery. Other trailblazers in the art of traditional pottery are the people of Udo in Esan South East Local Government Area, Uhonmora in Owan West Local Government Area, Okpekpe and Imiegba in Etsako East Local Government Area.