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Brass head of the Oba of Benin

 

Height: 53.000 cm
Width: 33.500 cm
Depth: 35.000 cm

Gift of Mrs H.G. Beasley

AOA 1944.Af4.1

Room 25: Africa

    Brass head of the Oba of Benin

    Edo peoples, 19th century AD
    From Benin, Nigeria

    The king's divine status

    This head, typical of the late period in Benin art, shows the Oba (king) of Benin wearing elaborate neck and hand ornaments of coral. It is not a portrait of a particular Oba, but a generic royal image. The royal palace of the Edo peoples was the centre of their world and the Oba was believed to be descended from the Creator God of Benin. The king was also considered to be the counterpart, as ruler of the land, to the god Olokun, ruler of the waters. The king's wealth and power is believed to originate with the fifteenth-century Oba Ewuare, who is said to have gone to the river and brought back the coral beads and riches from Olokun's kingdom. This may, in fact, refer to the arrival of Portuguese travellers in the fifteenth century who brought coral from across the seas. Coral is of great significance to the Edo peoples, as only the Oba wears coral, in a complete costume of beadwork. They are said to contain the power of ase, that is, whatever is said with them in possession will happen. Thus they are the emblem and insignia of the king's divine status.

    Commemorative brass heads of deceased Obas or chiefs are placed in shrines dedicated to royal ancestors. On the top of each head is placed an ivory tusk with carved images of former kings, warrior chiefs, soldiers and animals with symbolic royal powers.

    P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

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