1700 AD to 1897 AD
7.25″ (18.4cm) high
South Central Nigeria
The metalworkers of Benin were among the finest craftsmen on the African continent, and still rank among the very highest echelons of ancient craftsmanship. Their grasp of complex technological processes, combined with a distinctive and visually stunning sense of the aesthetic makes their works among the greatest of African art treasures. The current specimen is a case in point.
First, it is perhaps appropriate to supply some social context to the Benin polity. A small yet extremely powerful unit within the Nigerian Yoruba empire, the Benin people were particularly renowned for their innovative artworks, which were mostly designed to honour the achievements and/or memory of the Obas, the divine rulers of the Benin polities. 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 the British 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. The technology of bronze and brass smelting, 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.
This piece is a hip ornament, designed to be worn on the left hip by aristocratic members of the Oba’s court as evidence of their high social status. It may have been made for and worn by the Oba himself, as the leopard was the animal with which the Oba was most strongly associated. Dating is a key issue that has yet to be fully resolved. While brass heads and plaques are relatively diagnostic, theories concerning what style was first have not been reconciled. To further confuse matters, these items are mobile and are therefore not often found associated with any altars or other contextual information that might date them. As a general rule, however, fine casting with thin metal seems to have been particularly notable in the 16th and 17th centuries, while more robust and interpretationalist pieces are more common from the mid 18th century onwards. The refined and delicate work of this piece thus suggests an earlier date.
The workmanship is outstanding. The piece is generally oval in shape, with the forehead and nose forming a raised level above the flattened lower face. The ears are almond- shaped with raised rims and incised marking of the iris/pupil. The mouth is in a wide grin with the tongue – decorated with hatching – protruding between the lips. The canine teeth are dagger-like and meet across the lips, while the premolars are block-shaped and fill the rest of the mouth. Each side of the mouth gives rise to four large whiskers that rise up to just below the eyes in a narrow fan; this motif is also seen on many Yoruba pieces from the same period. The ears are extraordinary, each made up of two separate pieces that are fused together to give a substantial yet spatulate appearance. Further, they are shaped and decorated to look like leaves, with a central spar running the length of the ear and giving rise to numerous perpendicular lines. The whole ground is decorated with exquisitely delicate rosettes, comprising hollow circles made up of closed bands, on a background of tiny indented dots. The presence of two small holes in the midline suggests that it originally wore a diadem or some form of added decoration. The pose of the lips and nose indicate that it was in phlemen behaviour. This characteristic, unique to large cats, indicates a state of suspicion and watchfulness – literally “smelling the air”. This is perhaps some comment upon the Oba, who would presumably have had to be ever-watchful in the event of court intrigue. Whatever its significance, however, it has survived in perfect condition, with a lovely even patina commensurate with its age. This is a superb, magnificently conceived and beautifully executed piece of Benin art, which would be the star of any collection.Login to view price