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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Benin Brass Head of an Iyoba
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Benin Brass Head of an Iyoba - FZ.246 (LSO)
Origin: Benin City, Nigeria
Circa: 18 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 11.5" (29.2cm) high x 3.75" (9.5cm) wide
Catalogue: V12
Collection: African
Medium: Bronze

Additional Information: Thermoluminescence Tested by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Location: UAE
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This powerful brass head is a representation of a queen mother (iyoba) from the Nigerian kingdom of Benin.

The style of this piece is one of the earliest recorded for the Benin polity. The first major stylistic convention for such pieces was a very high, pointed headdress fitted closely around the head. The faces were typically naturalistic, and rather finely rendered. The current piece, while certainly created in this image, is likely to be made somewhat later, probably in the 19th century. The neck is tall and slender with a ringed base, running up to a rounded jawline and a slim yet robust face. The lips are sensitive yet thick, with a deft handling of the flesh of the cheeks that implies that the woman depicted as of a certain age. The nose is trilobate, with a strong central stem and distinct, rounded nostrils. The eyes have definite rims, a characteristic most clearly seen in 18th century pieces, and pupils that were once inlaid with iron. The forehead is decorated with six vertical pellets, a number which is usually reserved for the oba himself (iyobas usually had eight pellets). The high, forward pointing headdress is typical of the early period, being rendered in a gridwork relief pattern.

The vast majority of Benin’s artworks are 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 palaces were a sprawling series of compounds, comprising 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. The technology of bronze and copper 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.

Brass or bronze Oba heads were made to honour the memory of a deceased king. Typically, the son of the dead king – the new Oba – would pay tribute to his father by erecting an altar in his memory. These altars, low platforms of mud that were arrayed around the perimeter of the royal courtyards, were decorated with these heads, and with various artefacts alluding to the Oba’s achievements in life. In traditional Benin society, the queen mother (Iyoba) is also commemorated in this way, following an edict laid down by Oba Esigie in the early 16th century. The first wife of the Oba to give birth to a live male son receives this title, for in a divine kingship system she is as important as Mary is to Christians, or Amina to Muslims. Iyoba heads can be differentiated from those of Obas by the forward-pointing “chickens beak” hairstyle which forms a shape known as the “ede Iyoba”. The typological systematics of these heads are endlessly argued over. In brief, there are two major types: the thin-walled and delicate type that is usually deemed to be earlier, and the more powerfully-built, geometrical and heavier type with a mouth-high cylindrical beaded collar that is associated with Oba head grades 4-5 of Dark’s monumental typology (? 18th century). This piece has the style of the early, tall-headdress type, but with detailing more reminiscent of later periods. It is probably a reiterative work by an enterprising sculptor in the last century of Benin’s independence.

This outstanding piece is in excellent condition with no flaws and no restoration, and would take pride of place in any good collection.

- (FZ.246 (LSO))


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