This attractive rabbit-shaped container was made
by the artisans of the Benin Empire. The striking
naturalism of the rendering attests not only to
their technical and aesthetic skill, but also to their
flexibility towards foreign influence. The piece is
an accurate depiction of a prone rabbit, its ears
wrapped around is flanks, and divided into two
halves horizontally along the midline to create an
ornate receptacle. Items such as this were not
usually made by the Bini (the technical term for
the Benin populace), and it reflects European
tastes in the closing days of the empire.
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.
Endearing pieces such as this were emblematic
of the decline and eventual fall of the empire, but
is at the same time symbolic of the survival of
Benin’s proudest sculptural traditions. This is an
endearing piece of African art.
Ezra, K. 1992. Royal Art of Benin: the Perls
Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC,
Bacquart, J. 1998. The Tribal Arts of Africa.
Thames and Hudson, UK.
Phillips, T. (ed). 1999. Africa: The Art of a