- Museum number
Commemorative head of an Oba (uhunmwun elao); lost-wax cast in brass. In form of human head depicted wearing coral bead regalia: openwork cap with side wings, strings of beads at sides and back of head, beaded wires projecting across face, and high beaded collar. Central coral bead suspended from centre front of cap. Head has three raised scarification marks above eyes; irises inlaid with iron. Inner eyelids incised with short marks. Flanged base decorated with figures of leopards and stone axe-heads.
- Production date
Height: 53 centimetres
Weight: 30.90 kilograms
Width: 33.50 centimetres
Depth: 35 centimetres
- Curator's comments
See Collection File: Af1944,04.1-77.
This head, typical of the late period in Benin art, shows the Oba (king) of Benin wearing elaborate neck and hand ornaments of coral. It is not a portrait of a particular Oba, but a generic royal image. The royal palace of the Edo peoples was the centre of their world and the Oba was believed to be descended from the Creator God of Benin. The king was also considered to be the counterpart, as ruler of the land, to the god Olokun, ruler of the waters. The king's wealth and power is believed to originate with the fifteenth-century Oba Ewuare, who is said to have gone to the river and brought back the coral beads and riches from Olokun's kingdom. This may, in fact, refer to the arrival of Portuguese travellers in the fifteenth century who brought coral from across the seas. Coral is of great significance to the Edo peoples, as only the Oba wears coral, in a complete costume of beadwork. They are said to contain the power of ase, that is, whatever is said with them in possession will happen. Thus they are the emblem and insignia of the king's divine status.
Commemorative brass heads of deceased Obas or chiefs are placed in shrines dedicated to royal ancestors. On the top of each head is placed an ivory tusk with carved images of former kings, warrior chiefs, soldiers and animals with symbolic royal powers.
P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
- On display (G25/dc6)
- Exhibition history
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
2007-2008 Apr-Oct, Bristol, Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Slavery, Abolition and the Making of Modern Britain
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- During the British Expedition to Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory, coral and wood were looted by British soldiers from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds.
Some of these objects were sold or exchanged in West Africa. However, many were brought to the UK where they were retained by members of the expedition and subsequently inherited by their families; put up for auction; or donated, lent, or sold to museums.
This head was previously in the collection of the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum established by Harry Geoffrey and Irene Marguerite Beasley in 1928.
Much of the Beasley collection was distributed following Harry Beasley’s death in 1939. This formed part of the donation made by Irene Beasley to the British Museum in 1944 (for the whole gift see Af1944,04.1 to 337).
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number