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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Benin Brass Head of an Oba
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Benin Brass Head of an Oba - PF.3365 (LSO)
Origin: South Central Nigeria
Circa: 1700 AD to 1897 AD
Dimensions: 8" (20.3cm) high
Catalogue: V19
Collection: African
Medium: Bronze

Location: UAE
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This beautiful brass head represents an Oba, one of the hereditary God-Kings of the ancient Kingdom of Benin. The head represents a young man wearing a ringed collar (which acts as the base of the piece) and an ornate crown that encircles his head. Strips of coral beads emanate from the rim and hang down over his ears and the nape of the neck to his shoulders. The apex of the head is open, to admit an elephant’s tusk. The face is fairly rounded, with full cheeks, a flat brow and a wide, flat nose. The eyes are pointed ovals with elevated rims that are extensively cross-hatched, and the ears rendered as geometric shell-like forms. The lips are sharp and slightly parted. The forehead is decorated with six pellets indicating his status and rank. The profile is superb, with the proportions perfectly observed, and his importance is further underscored by the outstanding artistry of the piece’s execution. This is heightened by an excellent patina.

In the eyes of the Benin populace, the Obas were divine beings, and these heads were created after their demise in order to be displayed on altars dedicated to their memory. Until the late 19th century, the Benin centres were a ruling power in Nigeria, dominating trade routes and amassing enormous wealth as the military and economic leaders of their ancient empire. This changed with the appearance of British imperial forces, which coveted the wealth of the royal palaces and found a series of excuses to mount a punitive expedition against the Oba’s forces in 1897. It was only at this point, the moment of its destruction, that the true achievements of the Benin polities became apparent to western scholars.

Benin royal palaces comprised a sprawling series of compounds containing accommodation, workshops and public buildings. As it grew, the buildings pertaining to previous Obas were either partially refurbished or left in favour of newer constructions; this led to a long history of royal rule written in sculptural works that rank among the finest that African cultures have ever produced; until European advances in the 19th century, they were the finest bronzes that had ever been made. Brass or bronze Oba heads were used to honour the memory of a deceased king. Typically, the son of the dead king – the new Oba – would pay tribute to his father by erecting an altar in his memory. These altars, low platforms of mud that were arrayed around the perimeter of the royal courtyards, were decorated with various artefacts alluding to the Oba’s achievements in life. These heads were typically arranged in pairs, each supporting an elephant’s tusk that was inserted through the hole in the top of the head. Further decorations included spears, statues, cast brass altars depicting the Oba and his followers, brass bells to awaken the spirits, rattle-staffs (ukhurhe) and magical objects that included Neolithic celts (known as “thunder stones”). The new king would pay homage to his father in this way, guaranteeing the succession and demonstrating the continuity of divine kingship.

Stylistically, the Benin heads follow certain conventions through time, but there are inconsistencies in all typologies. The current piece is comparatively non-naturalistic and probably dates to the later part of the 18th and into the19th centuries. Taken as a whole, the piece is remarkably effective, powerful and well- rendered. In this sense it is a true Benin masterwork in that it underscores that polity’s importance to the development of African and even world art traditions. This piece would take pride of place in any serious collection of African art

- (PF.3365 (LSO))


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