The Chief Ihama Bronze Works is a family business. They have been bronze casters attached with the royal courts of the Benin Kingdom for centuries. In this modern day, however, they like all the royal bronze casters have to make pieces for other than the royal family.
These are some of the senior artists in the family, but everyone takes a part in one step of the process or another (and you will see many other family members in the following pictures).
The same methodology has been used to cast bronze using the lost wax methodology since the 14th century and before. The tools are largely the same.
They start with a clay form which gives the basic shape of the item. This form is then covered with bees wax. In this picture the artist is covering a base of hardened clay in bees wax.
Next the real art begins as the other elements of the design are added in bees wax. In this intricate bust you can see that all of the detail of the face, clothing, beadwork, arms and hands, and crown are all done in wax. The wax is warmed in the sun and painstakingly formed into the various components of the piece. All of this work in wax is lost or melted away as part of the casting process. Thus it is called the lost wax process.
Once finished the entire piece is coated in clay and then wrapped in wire of some kind and dried in the sun. After it is dry it is placed into a fire pit. They have used the wood of rubber trees for centuries, and continue with that practice today. The heat is intense, and it both fires the clay and melts away the wax leaving an empty space between the initial clay form and the outside layer which leaves the form of the wax as empty space.
Next they melt brass. Other metals are added to make bronze, but most pieces these days are brass. They make fired clay pots to melt the brass in.
This step has been modernized, somewhat. Instead of a clay or wooden bellows made with animal skins and pumped by hand they use a small electric motor connected to a car battery to heat coals hot enough to melt the brass.
It is already hot and humid, but all this fire and coals really pump up the heat and the work is very taxing.
With the bronze in molten form, the wax melted out of the molds, the molds are set in sand and molten bronze is poured into the mold.
After the appropriate time has passed the pieces are taken out to cool.
Once cool the outside layer of clay and wire is cut and broken off and the painstaking work of getting all that baked clay off of the final bronze piece begins. They actually use a chisel and hammer for the big clay deposits, wire brushes and files are used to further clean and polish. You might ask why don't they just soak it in water? The problem is that this fired clay does not dissolve well in water (everything else is hard, so why should this be any different).
When all is said and done you have this extraordinary piece of art which is totally unique, and can never be exactly duplicated. You might find similar pieces, and certain themes do run common amongst most of the artists. But know that each piece has to follow the same detailed and laborious process and is unique.
Because of the ancient technology and technique used you do not get quite the same finished product as a modern high tech brass/bronze work. That imperfection is part of the beauty, individuality, and charm of these wonderful art works.