Benin plaque: the oba with Europeans
Benin, Nigeria, Edo peoples, 16th century AD
There are over 900 plaques of this type in various museums in England, Europe and America. They are thought to have been made in matching pairs and fixed to pillars in the Oba's palace in Benin City.
Most of them were taken from the palace during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. They show aspects of Benin court rituals in the sixteenth century, shortly after Europe's first contact with West Africa. They also celebrate major historical events and convey representations associated with kingship.
Benin society was highly structured with a King (Oba) who was believed to be a direct descendant of Oranmiyan, the legendary founder of the dynasty. The Oba was the spiritual, secular and ritual head of the kingdom, considered a deity and held in the highest veneration. He retained control over the major export resources (ivory, slaves, gum and palm kernels) and over trade between the kingdom and Europeans. Art was an important instrument of ideology and the Oba controlled the artistic production of the palace craftsmen.
This plaque has the figure of the Oba in the centre, dressed in a loin-cloth with a plaited border and a close-fitting, sleeved upper garment, covered with cylindrical beads. He is accompanied by two attendants, as well as representations of long-haired Europeans which are shown either side of his head.
Showing the ruler flanked by two attendants is a typical pictorial composition of brass and ivory works from Benin. One interpretation of it is as a reminder of the heavy burden of kingship. This is based on the myth of Oba Ewuare (about 1440-1470) one of Benin’s famous warrior kings, who having stolen the coral-bead regalia of Olokun, god of the sea, felt the heavy weight of the spiritually-charged regalia symbolising the kingship and related obligations, and asked the people to help him carry it.
The composition can therefore be seen as referring to the weight of office and to the responsibility of the people to assist their ruler.