Benin Brass Sculpture of a Portuguese Man Riding a Mule

SKU DK.063
Circa

17th Century AD

Dimensions

10.5″ (26.7cm) high x 3″ (7.6cm) wide x 7.5″ (19.1cm) depth

Medium

Bronze

Origin

Nigeria

Gallery Location

USA


 

This imposing brass sculpture of a man on horseback was made by a master metalworker of the ancient kingdom of Benin. These usually represent Obas (the polity’s hereditary God- Kings), but in the current case the coat, the ruff and the domed hat are all indicators that this in fact represents a Portuguese explorer. The Portuguese were the earliest Europeans to enter West Africa and were particularly associated with Benin and the surrounding area. They were immortalized in brass plaques and also in statuary such as this, and were important men to the Bini, who used their trade routes to import and export their produce. Other aspects of the piece are traditional, such as the armour and adornments on the horse, the general proportions of the man and his mount, and the fine abstract detailing to the base. Patination is light and irregular.

Until the late 19th century, the Benin centres were a ruling power in Nigeria, dominating trade routes and amassing enormous wealth as the military and economic leaders of their ancient empire. This changed with the appearance of British imperial forces, which coveted the wealth of the royal palaces and found a series of excuses to mount a punitive expedition against the Oba’s forces in 1897. It was only at this point, the moment of its destruction, that the true achievements of the Benin polities became apparent to western scholars.

Benin royal palaces comprised a sprawling series of compounds containing accommodation, workshops and public buildings. As it grew, the buildings pertaining to previous Obas were either partially refurbished or left in favour of newer constructions; this led to a long history of royal rule written in sculptural works that rank among Africa’s finest; until European industrial advances in the 19th century, they were the finest bronzes that ever made. Sculptures such as this were placed on the commemorative altars of dead Obas, which were decorated with various artefacts alluding to the Oba’s achievements in life. Altar pieces include heads, figures such as this, spears, cast brass objects depicting the Oba and his followers, brass bells to awaken the spirits, rattle-staffs (ukhurhe) and magical objects that included Neolithic celts (known as “thunder stones”).

Dating these pieces is fraught with difficulty as many were taken from their context without recording of important factors and associations. The rendering, tone and quality of this piece would suggest a later date, either towards the end of the Benin regime, or a reiterative piece from after the conquest. Nonetheless, it is a striking and well-made piece of African court art, and would be at home in any sophisticated setting or collection of African sculptures.

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