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The Oba with Europeans / Benin Plaques

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    Af1898,0115.23

  • Title (object)

    • The Oba with Europeans

    Title (series)

    • Benin Plaques
  • Description

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

    Depicts central seated figure of Oba flanked by two kneeling supporters. Oba wears elaborate coral bead regalia comprising: long-sleeved shirt; deep multi-strand collar; anklets and single string of beads at waist; cylindrical crown with tall protrusion which is surmounted by a finial. The crown has three large cylindrical beads down front and one on each side. Strings of coral beads hang at each side of his face. The Oba wears a straight skirt with deep interlace patterned border and has metal wristlets on each arm. Pendant masks in the form of human faces hang from waist at front of skirt. In his right proper hand he holds a axe. The two attendants wear similar attire: long-sleeved beaded shirts, straight patterned skirts, beaded anklets and metal wristlets. Pendant masks in the form of crocodiles suspended from waist. Both wear deep multi-strand collars and cylindrical helmets with protrusions and finials. Multi-string panels hang on either side of face and at back of head.

    Head and torso of two small European figures flank either side of Oba's crown. Both shown in profile facing inwards. Characterised by long hair and helmets with three large bosses topped by a feather. Figure on left proper holds manilla in right hand; other figure

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  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 16thC-17thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 43.5 centimetres
    • Width: 41 centimetres
    • Depth: 10.7 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Triad plaques depicting the Oba flanked by two assistants (Enobore) are a key image of the hierarchical nature of royal power and authority in Benin art. They refer to the king's need for the support of his people to enable him to perform his duties.

    Five triad plaques are known in which the Oba is seated and his attendants are kneeling on either side of him. More usually, the Oba and his assistants face towards the front and are standing. This plaque also features the distinctive cylindrical crown with tall protrusion (oro) worn by the Oba and the similar helmets worn by the attendants.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 compositions. 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 Humphries.Read & Dalton 1899:
    Group of three figures, the king in the centre seated on a cylindrical stool, with an attendant kneeling on either side. The king is dressed in a close-fitting garment with tight sleeves, the whole of which is closely covered with cylindrical beads, and to the bottom of which small human masks edged with bells are attached. In his right hand he holds up an axe. He wears a loin-cloth in the shape of a skirt with a plaited border, the broad bead-work collar and anklets, and a cap with a tall spike, also covered with beads, and ornamented in the front with larger cylindrical beads. From its lower edge hang bead-work pendants. The kneeling figures are dressed very like the king, except that their garments and helmets have horizontal bands, while the masks are, in their case, those of crocodiles. On either side of the head of the king is a bust in relief of a long-haired European with a feather in his hat. One has a Manilla in the right hand, the other holds a globular object, possibly a flask or bottle, to his mouth.

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  • Bibliography

    • MacGregor 2010 77 bibliographic details
    • Read & Dalton 1899 pl XVI.4 bibliographic details
  • Location

    G25/od

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:

    1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
    2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'

  • Condition

    Fair. Top corners are missing; bottom section of plaque is missing. Side flanges are missing in places.

  • Subjects

  • 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

    Af1898,0115.23

Plaque made of bronze.

Plaque made of bronze.

Image description

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