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This beautiful brass figure comes from the Kingdom of Benin and represents the Oba or Divine King of Benin.
The powerful ancient Benin kingdom was founded by the son of an Ife king in the early 14th century AD. It was situated in the forest area of southern Nigeria, 200 kilometres southeast of Ife. The art of bronze casting was introduced around the year 1280. The kingdom reached its maximum size and artistic splendour in the 15th and 16th centuries. For a long time the Benin bronze sculptures were the only historical evidence dating back several centuries into the West African past, and both the level of technical accomplishment attained in bronze casting, as well as the monumental vigour of the figures represented, were the object of great admiration. Benin bronzes are better known than the artworks from Ife or Owo due to their presence in Western museums since the 1890s. Primarily made of cast brass, Benin art was produced mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin – a divine ruler for whom the craftsmen produced a range of ceremonially significant objects.
The royal arts of the Benin Kingdom affirm the centrality of the Oba, portraying his divine nature. While recording the kingdom’s significant historical events and the Oba’s involvement with them, they also initiate the Oba’s interactions with the supernatural and honor his deified ancestors, forging a continuity that is vital to the kingdom’s well-being. The materials used in Benin’s royal arts—primarily brass, ivory, and coral— were endowed with sacred power. The innate value of these materials within Benin and the time and skill invested in working them reflect the earthly and otherworldly influence of the Oba and the great wealth of his kingdom.
A newly installed Oba was responsible for creating an altar dedicated to his father, commissioning the appropriate objects to adorn it and activating it on a regular basis with sacrifices of food or animal blood. The Oba did the same for his mother if she attained the title of Iyoba, or Queen Mother. While bells and rattle staffs were placed on all ancestral altars, commemorative brass heads and figurines were made specifically for royal altars. An Oba’s courtyard was the focal point for rituals in his honor. (When British troops invaded the Benin Kingdom in 1897, they reported 18 altars dedicated to previous Obas.) The display of royal artworks served above all to exalt the king, the queen mother, the princes and royal household, army commanders, shown with their arms and armour and their retainers (huntsmen, musicians), or alternatively depicted important events. The Oba’s divine right to rule was always reiterated in his regalia. His coral crowns, aprons, necklaces and accessories refer to those that Oba Ewuare – an ancient Benin King – is said to have stolen from Olokun, the god of water and prosperity.
The Oba employed a guild of artisans who all lived in the same district of the city. Bronze figures ordered by the king were kept in the palace. Brass casters were the highest-ranking craft guild within the hierarchical structure of Benin society, followed by blacksmiths and ivory and wood carvers. The origins of brass casting in Benin are debated. One popular story credits Oba Oguola (enthroned c.1280) with sending for a master brass caster from Ile Ife, the capital city of the ancient Ife Kingdom to the northwest, and with later establishing a royal brass-casting guild. Others suggest brass casting developed independently in Benin and may have mutually benefited from exchange with Ile Ife. Casters in both regions used the lost wax method, in which a precisely detailed wax model is formed over a clay core. When the model is complete, clay is carefully applied over the wax. It is then heated, melting the wax, which exits from a narrow channel. Next, molten metal is poured into the mold. Once cool, the hardened clay is chipped away, leaving behind an image now cast in bronze.
Following the British invasion of Benin, about three thousand brass, ivory and wooden objects were consigned to the Western world. At that time, western scholars and artists were stunned by the quality and magnificence of these objects. It was thought impossible that any ‘primitive’ African craftsmen could produce such fine artworks and it was assumed that they must have come from some ‘lost civilization.’ Many theories were put forward – ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, a lost tribe from Israel – anything other than indigenous African people. Despite the disappearance of the Benin kingdom, the Yoruba people living on its territory continue to produce artwork inspired by the great royal art of Benin.
Size: 610mm x 250mm x 240mm
1 in stock