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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Terracotta Maternity Figure
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Terracotta Maternity Figure - MT.0277 (LSO)
Origin: Africa
Circa: 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 35.5" (90.2cm) high
Collection: Decorative Art
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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This sculpture of a seated woman with a child seated on her right knee is a maternity shrine figure from the latter days of the Benin Empire, Nigeria. The representation is indisputably that of an elite personage, as judged from the seated position (stools are prestige items in African tribal groups), the well-nourished body shape, the ornate crown/coiffure and the jewellery. The face is traditionally Benin, with a rounded chin, oval, rimmed eyes and the trefoil designs at the edges of the mouth. It is remarkable in the five- stripe “ikharo” scarifications over each eye. While not rigid in terms of definition, these are associated with women, and also with foreigners (representations of Benin males typically have 2 x 3 marks). The status markers imply that this represents a queen or ancestress of the Benin polity.

The kingdom of Benin can justifiably lay claim to having produced the finest artists and craftsmen in the history of the African continent. 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. 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 by the British in 1897.

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. 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. Major art forms include Oba and Iyoba (queen mother) heads, tableaux, brass animals, wall plaques, hip ornaments and aquamaniles. While impossible to confirm, this is likely to represent an Iyoba or other important figure in Benin society, designed to be shown on the low earth altars that characterised the royal compounds. The patination indicates that it is a fairly late example, but this does not detract from its sculptural qualities.

- (MT.0277 (LSO))


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