This imposing piece of Benin brass-work is a hip ornament, a ceremonial item designed to be worn as a marker of social rank within the royal court. The piece would have been worn as a belt accessory, attached by loops on the dorsal aspect. This piece is a typical example of the genre, which can be differentiated from pectoral masks and hip pendants on the basis of size, convexity/complexity and subject matter. The piece depicts an oba (the divinely-appointed and hereditary leader of the Benin polity), with an ornate headdress (representing a coral crown), and a large “ruff” made up of coiled mudfish arranged in a semicircle. These fish were a harbinger of good fortune – as well as a staple dietary item – for the Benin people. They often appear in association with Obas, to reflect his relationship with Olokun - the god of the sea - from whence he gains his power to rule. The face is long and fairly slim, a rather youthful face with a rather geometric layout. The eyes are almond-shaped with raised rims and large irises/pupils, and the lips are straight yet full, with a central cleft in the lower lip. The nose is an inverted “T” shape, with a hatched geometric design reaching from the forehead to the tip of the nose (this is sometimes inlaid with a different metal, although not in the current case). This represents the “urebo”, a mixture of sacred substances applied to the forehead of the Oba for protection during certain ceremonies. It has also been argued that it represents a stripe of blood applied by a priest during rituals, although this theory has not gained wide acceptance. There are three vertical lines above each eye, which denote the “ikharo” keloid scarifications that are bestowed as markers of rank and social affinity. The apex of the head is decorated with a coral crown and a fan-like latticework headpiece with coral bead adornments.
The kingdom of Benin can justifiably lay claim to having produced the finest artists and craftsmen in the history of the African continent. 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 (Bacquart 1998).
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 AD. In the 15th and 16th centuries AD 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 centres 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 immortalised 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, faces, 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. However, it is perhaps personally-owned and worn items such as this that are the most evocative.
This piece may have been worn by a member of the royal family, but ethnographic sources suggest that the Oba would wear an ivory piece on the let hip, whereas high-ranking members of is court would wear metal pieces. The design of the current piece closely resembles that shown in Ezra (1992: 152), although the manner in which the features have been rendered are in fact distinct. Dating these objects is difficult, for despite enthusiastic efforts by Fagg, there is no hard-and-fast stylistic progression. While brass heads and plaques are relatively diagnostic, theories concerning what style came 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 help date them. The piece that most closely resembles this one has been tentatively dated to the 18th century, but the method in which is it made is suggestive of an early 19th century date. Whatever the age, however, this is a beautifully-conceived and executed piece of African art, and a deserving addition to any serious collection.
Ezra, K. 1992. Royal Art of Benin: the Perls Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
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