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Benin Plaques

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    Af1898,0115.38

  • Title (series)

    • Benin Plaques
  • Description

    Relief plaque made of brass cast using the 'cire perdue' (lost wax) technique. Rectangular in form with side flanges (largely missing). Holes for attachment at top and bottom right. Background surface is decorated with stylised quatrefoil (river leaf) patterns and stippling.

    Depicts a king with four attendants. The king wears a high beaded choker, a multirow necklace, beaded cap with feather and pendants, arm and foot rings, a wrapper, and a belt-and hip decoration with a mask. In his right hand the king holds a ceremonial switch. His left hand rests on the hand of one of two small attendants, who carries a sword. The small attendant figure to the left of the plaque carries a spool-shaped 'ekpokin' box. The two small attendants are naked but for their jewellery. Two larger attendant figures flank these small figures, and wear wrappers and jewellery. They protect the Oba's head from both sides with raised shields. The two large figures have a hair lock at their left ear.

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  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 16thC
    • 16thC-17thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 51 centimetres
    • Width: 38 centimetres
    • Depth: 11 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Blurton, 1997

    Brass was intimately associated with kingship in the Benin empire and plaques, cast by the lost-wax process, were used to cover the wooden beams that supported the roof in the royal palace, the centre of religious activities that controlled the well-being of the entire empire. Those seen here show scenes of court life and ritual which involve rulers, warriors and officials. Naked figures are royal pages, their nudity contrasting with the splendid cloth and coral-bead costumes of royalty.
    Depictions of the European adventurers and traders, who sold the metal from which the plaques were cast, also appear and local interest centred on their long hair, hooked noses, dress and weapons. Since they were seen as messengers of the god Olokun, a white-faced deity who sends wealth and children over the sea, their presence in the palace is probably less a celebration of their own wealth and power than those of the Oba (king), who is said to have defeated Olokun in battle, stripping him of his riches and finery.This plaque shows an Oba surrounded by his attendants, two of whom are depicted holding up their shields in a formal protective stance. Only the Oba was allowed to be shaded in this way within the city.

    P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in varius composiitons. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th - 17th centuries.

    In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, possibly made in series, were fixed to these pillars. While belonging to well-established West African tradition of royal palace decoration, the Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters.

    Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund HumphriesPlankensteiner 2007:
    These two plaques [with Af1898,0115.39] simultaneously arrived at the British Museum in 1898. Though a little different in size, iconographically and stylistically they are nearly identical. The corresponding features make it all the more likely that they were meant to be a pair. As is known about the old palace buildings at the time of these plaques' manufacturing, this sort of plaque was attached - and demonstrably in symmetrical ordering - onto the pillars of the verandas and entrances.
    The opulent jewelry of the central figure, identified as Oba Esigie by Barbara Blackmun (1997) based on a comparisson of depictions on carved ivories and plaques, comprises of a high beaded choker, a multirow necklace of agate and coral beads, large agate pendants hanging on the sides of the coral beaded cap, adorned with a feather, arm and foot rings, a precious wrapper, presumably made from imported Indian or Portuguese fabrics, and a luxurious belt-and hip decoration with a mask.
    In his right hand the king holds a ceremonial switch. His left hand rests on the hand of one of the two small and - except for some jewelry - naked attendants, who also carries a sword. The small attendant figure to the left of the plaque carries a spool-shaped 'ekpokin' box. The two larger figures wear precious clothes. They protect the Oba's head from both sides with raised shields. All attendant figures have an unusual hairdo: a hair lock adorns the left ear of the two shield carrying figures, the hairstyle of both small attendants are reminiscent of those worn by the Ooton priests and the hair crest of the Oduduwa masks. The depicted scene presumably represents a ritual at a palace ceremony, the Igue, for instance, or the Ugie Erha Oba.

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  • Bibliography

    • Blurton 1997 288 bibliographic details
    • Plankensteiner 2007 8 bibliographic details
    • Read & Dalton 1899 pl XXIV.5 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
    1993-1997, London, Museum of Mankind, Great Benin: a West African Kingdom
    1997 13 Oct-1998 5 Jan, India, New Delhi, National Museum, The Enduring Image
    1998 9 Feb-3 May, India, Mumbai, Sir Caswasjee Jahangir Hall, The Enduring Image
    2003, Apr-Sep, BM, 'Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures'
    2003 Oct, Japan, Setagaya Art Museum, Art and Memory
    2003 18 Oct-14 Dec, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2004 17 Jan-28 Mar, Kobe City Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2004 10 Apr-13 Jun, Fukuoka Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2004 26 Jun-29 Aug, Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2005 11 Apr-10 Jul, Seoul Arts Centre, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2005 25 Jul-8 Oct, Busan Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2005 27 Oct-2006 31 Jan, Haengso Museum, Keimyung University, Daegu, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2006 18 Mar-4 Jun, Beijing, Capital Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2007 May-Sept, Vienna, Museum für Völkerkunde, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
    2007-2008 Oct-Jan, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
    2008 Feb-May, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
    2008 Jun-Sept, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1898

  • Acquisition notes

    Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by the British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms. The British Museum successfully petitioned the Government to safeguard some of these objects and over 300 brass plaques were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. Numerous other objects brought out of the city were sold or exchanged on the coast; many pieces were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction or were retained by soldiers of the expedition. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies on behalf of the Foreign Office agreed with the British Museum a temporary loan of 304 plaques acquired during the Benin Expedition. In September these were placed on public display and attracted considerable attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number

    Af1898,0115.38

Plaque made of bronze.

Plaque made of bronze.

Image description

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Object reference number: EAF14516

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