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Brass Heads, Coral Beads, And Ivory: Art from the Kingdom of Benin

Ivory lions, 1800, Benin. Source: BBC

Sculpture

Brass Heads, Coral Beads, And Ivory: Art from the Kingdom of Benin

Today we’ll go back in time to around 1500s when the wealth of Benin kingdom (in contemporary Nigeria) was at its peak: when Europeans traded with Benin spices, palm kernels, gum, brass, ivory, shells, or arms; when art was an instrument of ideology since it was strictly controlled by the king and produced solely by the guilds working at the royal court. A fascinating story featuring brass, coral, ivory and many heads: art from the Kingdom of Benin!

Oba’s Head

Head of an Oba, 19th century, Benin, Met Museum, art from the kingdom of benin

Head of an Oba, 19th century, Benin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Edo people settled down in the rainforest area around 900s and their chiefs were called “rulers of the sky”- Ogisos. Struggling for power, they created chaos and the king of the neighbouring land of Ife sent his son Oranmiyan to restore peace. Oranmiyan’s son Eweka became this way the first legitimate king of the new kingdom of Edo people, the new Oba. The people believed Oba to descent from a dynasty of semidivine beings who descented directly from the god creator of the world, Osanbue, and that the Oba didn’t need to sleep or eat, and a person could only approach them kneeling.

Queen Mother’s Head

Queen Mother's Head, 18th century, Benin, Met Museum, art of the kingdom of benin

Queen Mother’s Head, 18th century, Benin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Also Oba’s mother, the Queen Mother, was believed to have special powers and hence the nation and the Oba held them in esteem because they were protectors of the people. Hence, the Mother had her own palace with servants and a right to commission cast brass sculptures for her own use, while the tradition required casting in brass their own heads. How can we know that a brass head represents the Queen Mother? By her coral-beaded crown whose peak is usually pointy.

Europeans’ Heads

 Saltcellar: Portuguese Figures, 15th-16th century, Benin, Met Museum, art of the kingdom of benin

Saltcellar: Portuguese Figures, 15th-16th century, Benin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This ivory saltcellar perfectly ilustrates the typical style of the Benin court. We have four figures of the Portuguese, two more important gentlemen (bigger and represented frontally) and their two attendants shown in profile. Hierarchy and status were extremely important in the Benin art: the figures of lesser importance are always smaller in scale and wear less distinctive clothing. We can notice such a convention in brass plaques which were very common in Benin since brass was believed to drive evil away. They were produced on an enormous scale in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Obas would cover with them all exterior walls of the royal palace.

Crocodile’s Head

Bracelets: Crocodile Heads, 17th-19th century, Benin, Met Museum, art of the kingdom of benin

Bracelets: Crocodile Heads, 17th-19th century, Benin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Animals had a huge significance in the belief system of the Edo people. Crocodiles, for example, symbolized the god Olokun, the eldest son of the god creator Osanobua, who was the god of water and wealth since the ocean was considered a major source of prosperity for the kingdom, which benefited from overseas trade with Portugal and other European powers. In this example, the crocodiles may not be visible at first sight but these cylindrical bracelets terminate at both ends in elongated crocodile heads, which also serve as a metaphor for the powers of the ruler which are as vast and unpredictable as an ocean. Whereas the ivory leopards from our cover photo were a recurrent motif in royal iconography because they were a symbol of the court and royal influence. The two figurines were made of 5 separate ivory tusks each while their spots were made with copper.

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Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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