1850 AD to 1900 AD
10.5″ (26.7cm) high
This striking brass head represents an Iyoba – queen mother to one of the hereditary God- Kings of the Benin Empire. The gender of the individual can be ascertained partly from the shape of the face, forehead and jowls, and partly from the four-dash “ikharo” scarifications over each eye – Obas (males) usually have two sets of three scars. The face is of a mature woman, with rounded features, wide-open eyes with raised rims and the remains of iron inlay, a short nose and very full lips that are slightly parted. The remains of iron inlay can also be seen in the double prestige scar over her nose. She wears a short coral beaded crown (males usually have long tails that hang down to the neck or shoulders). Most unusually, the apex of the head is open to receive a tusk: this is a remarkable finding for an Iyoba head as these usually have a forward-angled point on the top of their coral crowns. The neck/base of the piece is made up of numerous lines of fine beading, while each cheek is decorated with four “whiskers” that originate at either side of the mouth. These are one of the stylistic factors that connect the Benin and Yoruba polities; in the Benin group, the Oba is associated with the leopard, hence the design. The Yoruba link is less clear, although their close juxtaposition over centuries presumably led to considerable stylistic interchange.
In the eyes of the Benin populace, the Obas were divine beings, and these heads were created after their demise in order to be displayed on altars dedicated to their memory. 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 the finest that African cultures have ever produced; until European advances in the 19th century, they were the finest bronzes that had ever been made. Brass or bronze Oba heads were used to honour the memory of a deceased king. Typically, the son of the dead king – the new Oba – would pay tribute to his father by erecting an altar in his memory. These altars, low platforms of mud that were arrayed around the perimeter of the royal courtyards, were decorated with various artefacts alluding to the Oba’s achievements in life.
Particularly important – and perhaps domineering – queen mothers (Iyoba) were also sometimes commemorated in this way, following an edict laid down by Oba Esigie in the early 16th century (Phillips 1999: 397). The iconography and nature of the items placed upon Iyoba’s altars differs somewhat from that of their sons; brass heads representing Iyobas can always be differentiated on the basis of their tall hairstyles. Perhaps the best-known Iyoba-specific artefact is the cockerel, or Eson. The seemingly overtly male symbolism of the cockerel is misleading; the word “Eson” is an abbreviation of the praise name “Eson, Ogoro Madagba” – “the cock that crows at the head of the harem” – which was an honorific title for the Oba’s first wife and thus the mother of the future king. Her tasks included organisation and control of the harem, the training of junior wives in court etiquette, and various other administrative and political duties that give her what is probably the highest rank in Benin society – equivalent to that of a senior town chief.
This is a true Benin masterwork in that it underscores that polity’s importance to the development of African and even world art traditions. This piece would take pride of place in any serious collection of African art.
Ezra, K. 1992. Royal Art of Benin: the Perls Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, US.
Bacquart, J. 1998. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames and Hudson, UK.
Phillips, T. (ed). 1999. Africa: The Art of a Continent. Prestel.Login to view price