- Museum number
- Series: Benin Plaques
Relief plaque, lost-wax cast in brass. Wide plaque, rectangular in form with side flanges. Background surface decorated with river leaf patterns and stippling. Four nail holes at top, four holes at bottom. Depicts standing figure of Oba (possibly Esigie), facing front, flanked by two standing warrior figures holding shields above his head. Oba wears beaded crown with feather at left, deep beaded collar, multiple beaded necklaces, beaded bracelets and anklets, and patterned wrap-around skirt tied with sash on left hip. Holds ceremonial switch in right hand and places left hand on top of horn held by small attendant at side.
Two warriors have tiered hairstyle with single feather and coiled side lock at left side. Wear armlets, leopard's tooth necklace, patterned wrap-around skirts with sash tied over left hip. Both carry swords on left side. Smaller naked emada figures stand on either side of Oba. Figure on right has tiered hairstyle with shaven central section, wears patterned hip ornament tied on left hip and beaded necklace. Carries ekpokin box in left hand. Figure on left has crested haristyle and wears two beaded necklaces. Carries sword in left hand at front of body and holds horn in right hand.
- Production date
Height: 51 centimetres
Weight: 13.50 kilograms
Width: 38 centimetres
Depth: 11 centimetres
- Curator's comments
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 various 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, probably made in matching pairs, were fixed to these pillars.
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
Gunsch, Kathryn, 2018, 'Benin plaques: a 16th century imperial monument', London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Direct pair with BM plaque Af1898,0115.39. Oba carries flexible switch, uwenrhien otan, in preparation for sacrificial ceremony. His retainers shield him from the sun, and also from hostile spiritual forces.
Part of Processional Pillar Set 7. Row 3A. Oba with warriors holding shields aloft (Gunsch, 2018).
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.
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)
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.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
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
2017-2018, 10 Nov 2017 - 18 Feb 2018, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, India, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories
2018, 6 May- 30 June, National Museum, New Delhi, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories
- Fair; casting very thin in places. Several holes across top of plaque, edges of metal bent back in places. Repair in centre adjacent to Oba's head. Remains of iron (?) nail close to warrior's elbow on left side. Chip from left corner. Missing sections from bottom corners and along bottom edge.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were looted by British forces from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds. Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition.
The British Museum successfully petitioned the government to secure some of the relief plaques and over 300 were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies, on behalf of the Foreign Office, agreed a temporary loan of 304 plaques to the British Museum. In September these were placed on public display in the Assyrian basement where they attracted considerable public 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.
See Collection File: Af1898,0115.1-203 (previously Eth.Doc.185).
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Previous owner/ex-collection number: 181 (Foreign Office number)