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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Archive : Benin Ivory Leopard Head
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Benin Ivory Leopard Head - AM.142B. (LSO)
Origin: South-Central Nigeria
Circa: 1600 AD to 1800 AD
Dimensions: 7.75" (19.7cm) high x 4.5" (11.4cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory

Additional Information: sold

Location: UAE
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This remarkable piece of inlaid ivory is a hip ornament from one of the royal enclosures at the court of Benin. The artists of Benin were without doubt 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 aesthetic sense makes their works among the greatest of African art treasures. The current specimen is a case in point. 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 destruction, that the true achievements of the Benin polities became apparent to western scholars. Their metalworking technology was incredibly advanced, while their sculpting in a range of materials, including ivory, was extremely refined.

The masquette is extraordinarily dramatic. Based around an elongated leopard's head, it is made from ivory that has developed a very strong mottled patina of age. The forehead is high, with leaf-form ears on the apices, folded on top of the head. The almond-shaped eyes are rendered in relief, with iron inlay rims and pupils. The nose is long and slender, with a gradually-expanding end and a septum that connects with the upper lip in what is known as “phlemen behaviour” – when large cats “smell” the air while in a watchful state. The lower canines are exposed and curve up to the upper lip, while the mouth is framed by two sets of three upcurved whiskers. Most striking, however, is the fact that – rather than being carved in light relief, as is conventional on early brass models – the leopard's rosettes are rendered using inlaid brass studs that define the main contours of the face and then fill in all available space in the blank areas. The polished stud heads make for a highly dramatic impact. Most of the socially elevated members of the Oba’s court were entitled to wear such pieces on their left hips as part of their stately regalia. They appear in the form of human and animal heads, but there are suggestions that the leopard was especially significant as this is the animal with which the Oba is most strongly associated in ethnographic and mythical terms. It should also be noted that ethnographic and historical reports describe how most of the courtly notables wore metal hip ornaments, but that ivory pieces were worn only by the Oba.

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 help date them. There are, however, some indications that might assist in assignation of age. The first is the ageing of the ivory, which has turned the orange-red and irregularly stippled colour of advanced age. Second, the eyes are inlaid with dark metal rims (iron?), which is a characteristic seen in many early Benin bronze pieces. The inlaid metal studs are also indicative, not only stylistically (it is likely to be a mark of contemporary innovation, perhaps as a response to early western contact) but also in terms of how worn they have become through time. Judging from the manner in which the studs are worn, and the relief parts of the face (nose, teeth and forehead), it is also possible that an older mask was taken and then inlaid at a later date. This would explain the erratic wear on the mask but the even wear on the studs. In any case, what we have here is an exceptionally rare and interesting piece of elite royal adornment from arguably one of the most important indigenous craft traditions in the world. - (AM.142B. (LSO))


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