- Museum number
- Series: Benin Ivory
Arm-cuff, one of a pair; made of elephant ivory. Depicts the Oba (king) in centre of first and third rows flanked by two warriors.
- Production date
Height: 13 centimetres
Width: 9 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Pair with Af1922,0313.06
These luxurious armlets are among six very similar works by one of Benin's extraordinary 18th century ivory carvers. Throughout much of Benin's history, the use of ivory was restricted, and anyone who wished to commission the Igbesanmwan placed his request through the Oba. During the 1700s, this prohibition was relaxed. The Dutch had replaced the Portuguese as the principal European traders on the rivers of the Niger Delta. Their efforts to fill the demand for ivory in Europe brought unparalleled wealth for whoever supplied their ships. Elephant hunting was intensified, and firearms increased the efficacy of the hunters. Thousands of tusks were exported to Europe each year (Ryder 1969:133). Hundreds were retained for skilled artists, who created the earliest of Benin's richly-carved altar tusks, as well as ivory containers, ornaments, and armlets.
Many of the images used by the artist who carved these armlets resemble motifs inherited by the Igbesanmwan (Blackmun 1984, II). However, the guild is divided into hierarchies of specialists, and the style of this master is unique. The surface of each armlet is divided into four rows of standing figures. Each row of these images is repeated once, so that the first and third rows are duplicates, as are the second and fourth rows. Throughout the surface, intricate forms are interwoven with the figural motifs, to link each of the rows with the next.
The Oba of Benin appears in the centre of the first and third rows, accompanied by two helmeted warriors. He wears an elaborate crown and a beaded band diagonally across his chest. A leopard-face mask on his left hip secures the stiffened end of his wrapped kilt, which rises behind him. His right hand grasps a ceremonial 'eben' sword, and with his left hand he firmly holds the forearm of one of the warriors. This central royal figure, with its restraining gesture, is repeated on all but one of the six armlets. With variations, the Oba's gesture is also found on ancestral altar tusks. The motif seems to indicate that Benin's military might is under the Oba's control.
The central motif in rows two and four is another richly dressed figure, also with an 'eben'. He wears the leopard teeth necklace, quadrilangular bell, and tight chest band of a warrior, combined with the peaked helmet, beaded collar and stiffened hip ornament of a prominent titleholder. He is accompanied by two active Europeans, and the artist has added an odd detail: the foreign figures wear the chest bands of Edo warriors. These bands are designed to increase endurance and strength, and their portrayal by the artist suggests that the Europeans may be military allies. More-over, the cntral figure with the peaked helmet is a common central motif on ancestral tusks, where it is always accompanied by Benin's warriors. Today's carvers no longer remember that figure's identity. However, it is unlikely that it portrays a ruler, and the image implies military strength. A similar ivory figure depicted on a number of Ugie Oro idiophones suggests that it represents the hereditary war commander, the Ezomo of Benin
If the figure portrays the Ezomo, the two superb armlets (and three of the four that resemble them) present his status as equal to the Oba of Benin. This unusual emphasis suggests that the armlets were commissioned by the Ezomo himself, who maintained a lavish court outside Benin City. Ezomo Ehenua rivaled both Oba Akenzua I and Oba Eresoyen in political power. Later, the wealth of Ezomo Odia and Ezomo Ekeneza far surpassed the resources available to Oba Akengbuda, Benin's ruler during the second half of the century (Egharevba 1969c:18-22). Any one of Benin's three 18th-century war commanders could have commissioned these extraordinary ivories.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1989, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 7), 'Treasures of the Collections'
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
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
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Af1922,0313.1 to 6 were purchased from Lady Campbell, and recorded as a series obtained by her late husband "Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Campbell, KCMG, CB, DSO, at the capture of Benin, 1897".
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number