- Museum number
- Series: Benin Ivory
Carved ivory armlet inlaid with brass. Depicts the Oba between inlaid brass plaques.
- Production date
- 18thC (?)
Height: 13 centimetres
Width: 9.50 centimetres
Depth: 7.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Plankensteiner 2007:
When dressed in elaborate beaded regalia, the Oba often covers each wrist with an armlet of ivory. This solid cylindrical cuff will not snag on he networks of beads, as he deftly twists the ‘eben’ ceremonial sword. Titleholders also need armlets, particularly when they must toss the ‘eben’ repeatedly during the annual festival of Igue. Theirs are typically commissioned from the Igun Eronmwon bronze casters, and hammered and forged bronze can also be used. During some periods of history, elite officials have also commissioned armlets of ivory from specialist masters. Although these armlets are among the most unusual of Benin’s ivory cuffs, they have very little in common, other than the similar materials from which they are made.
The alternating ‘eben’ ceremonial swords and abstract faces that appear on this armlet, which builds a pair with another example at the British Museum, are entirely traditional in origin. A master carver has sculpted the edges of this intricate ivory in a delicate braided form that also appears on other armlets of this quality. Inside of the braided border, two rows of tiny knots appear to fasten each ‘eben’ handle to the braid. A second tier of ‘eben’ is attached to the first, and the third tier rests upon similar rows of knots and braids around the other border of the ivory. Portuguese heads with bulbous, patterned hats are compressed to fill the spaces between the multiple images, and small bronze discs are inlaid into the ivory to form their eyes. The heads orient the design, to make it appear that the ‘eben’ swords on the surface are all suspended downwards. This position indicated an acknowledgement of ancestral influence in Benin’s affairs.
Although patterns of repeated ‘eben’ and foreign heads are not unusual in Benin, this master carver enriched the ivory surface of each ‘eben’ with inlays of carefully-shaped metal, a painstaking procedure that was also employed in creating a number of other 18th-century ivories. The process implies that these carvers worked in tandem with equally talented artists from the Igun Eronmwon bronze caster’s guild.
In contrast to this original treatment of an often-repeated Benin design, the artists who created the inlaid armlet were inspired from abroad. From the 16th century onward, the kingdom’s crafts guilds were in contact with sea traders and crewmen who made regular journeys to India, Ceylon, Japan, and China. It is therefore not surprising that at least one very delicate carved armlet found in Benin City was certainly imported directly from Asia. This Asian armlet, now in Philadelphia, features repeated medallions that alternate with tiny linear figures of the Oba of Benin (Hall 1922:146, 148, figs. 62-63). The diminutive scale of the embossed lines that form these images is unknown on any other Edo artwork. The medallions on this fragile Asian ivory were once inlaid with metal, which has since been lost.
Two other inlaid Benin armlets on display were apparently inspired by this Asian prototype. Wherever the metal is missing from their inlaid medallions, the ivory shapes that remain are nearly identical to those on the Asian example. The metal decorations that remain on the surfaces of these two armlets were also apparently imported. They appear to have been pre-cast in either Asia or Europe, and the armlets were carved to receive these uncharacteristic shapes as inlays. The result is a reminder that West Africa has a very long history of contacts with other cultures. Benin was not at all isolated from the rest of the world.
It might be possible for a specialist to locate the origin of the imported Asian prototype armlet, along with the time period during which it was made. The unusual metal decorations that remain on the inlaid armlet could also be investigated, to determine their source. There are also other anomalous ivory objects in Benin with inlaid designs that imply overseas origin or influence. Without further research into Benin’s internationally-inspired art, it is difficult to establish the age of these unusual ivories.
- 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
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
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Purchased from Messrs Glendinning with the note that the inlaid work is European, and that this had been reproduced in von Luschan.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number