Edo peoples, 15th-16th century
From Benin, Nigeria
This ivory armlet is worn by the Oba (king) of Benin in ceremonies in which he wears a coral costume, dances with a ceremonial sword and carries a gong. The armlet helps to prevent the coral beads from becoming entangled during the Oba's dance.
Ivory formed an important part of the accessories worn at ritual ceremonies by the Oba. One of the series of annual rituals is the Bead Festival (Ugie Ivie) created by Oba Esigie, a great warrior-king of the sixteenth century, in remembrance of his military successes. The Bead Festival commemorates the struggle between Oba Esigie and his brother, Arhuaran of Udo, over the possession of the royal coral beads, used in a ceremony to announce the capital city of the kingdom. During the ceremony all the beads of the king, his wives and chiefs are placed upon the altar of Oba Ewuare, who first brought coral beads into Benin, and over them are poured the blood of a cow. The sacrificial blood imbues the beads with the mystical powers required for the remaining ceremonies.
The Oba is represented on the armlet with mudfish legs and his hands raised to the sky, thus linking him with the great god Olokun, ruler of the sea. The mudfish has symbolic significance among the Edo people as it can live on land and sea. Similarly, the Oba is invested with divine powers from the spiritual world above and the secular world below.
P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)