16th Century AD – 18th Century AD
9″ (22.9cm) high x 5″ (12.7cm) wide
The Kingdom of Benin can justifiably lay claim to having produced the finest artists and craftsmen in the history of sub- Saharan Africa. Yet this heritage was scarcely recognised until the British punitive expedition of 1897, which destroyed and looted the ancient city compounds and in so doing brought the achievements of Benin to the world’s attention. The foundation of the Benin peoples was contemporary with the European late mediaeval period, when the kingdom of Benin was founded by a descendent of an Ife king in c.1180 A.D. In the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. the power of the empire stretched across most of West Africa, and those areas not under their control were indirectly influenced by the effect of their trade networks and material culture styles. Until the late 19th century, the Benin centers were a ruling power in Nigeria, dominating trade routes and amassing enormous wealth as the military and economic leaders of their ancient empire. The power of this empire was unequalled in its time, and the full extent of the rulers’ wealth only became apparent in the aftermath of its destruction.
Benin art is primarily based around a court context, and was designed to venerate the achievements and/or memory of the Obas, the divine rulers of the Benin polities. The artists and craftsmen were typically attached to a specific court, and charged with manufacture of objects solely for their ruler. Their work in bronze and copper, ironworking and sculpting in a range of materials that particularly included ivory was extremely refined and effective; indeed, smelting, forging and cire perdue (lost wax) metalworking methods exceeded any seen in Europe until the 19th century. Obas were immortalized as one or several bronze/brass heads, which were used as supports for holding elephant tusks in a crescent across the top of commemorative altars. Brass leopards, spears, statues, tableaux (depicting the Oba and his followers) bells (to awaken the spirits) and rattle- staffs (ukhurhe) are also known, although it is perhaps for the famous brass plaques that Benin artistic heritage is best known. In them it is possible to read the history of the Benin peoples, from the earliest kings to the arrival of the Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, to lion/leopard hunts and war scenes, populated by the Oba and his family, regal attendants, musicians, soldiers, noblemen and priests.Login to view price