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The themes of power in Benin society are examined in this exhibition. Regalia served as a representation of wealth and commerce, but rulers also used them to show off their status, promote their religion, and enforce their rule. This exhibition's artwork connects the three pillars of power: political, commercial, and spiritual. For more than 50 years, the Benin culture's arts have served as tools to uphold authority and spread beliefs and traditions.
Visitors are immediately confronted by the Oba's head, the exhibit's focal point, as soon as they reach the exhibition area. The other 5 objects are placed in a circular position around the center piece to enforce the idea that, the king is the sacred focal point of Benin culture, and that he radiates outward with other subjects who form a circle around him. The circular nature of the exhibition also reinforces the societal hierarchy with the centrality that reiterates in its placement.
Regalia in Benin culture acted as symbols of wealth and trade. The Oba is represented by the regalia, symbolic of his status in Benin culture. Regal items embellish his cloth, which is of high quality and meticulously woven from his guild. Benin was an important regional power that traded with Europeans. The inclusion of Oba heads, regalia such as elephant tusks and coral beaded swords as well as plaques in the exhibition are meant to imitate the Ancestral Altars, which are dedicated to past kings as well as well as the current. The royal objects are arranged on circular semi-clay platform used to promote physicality and warfare.
Benin Palace Ancestral Altar, dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen, Benin City, Nigeria
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Exhibition Figure 1. Commemorative Head of an Oba
Commemorative head of an Oba, 16th c., Copper alloy, iron
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The king is named the "great head". It leads the body. It is enlarged. The Head used as transfer of power, dynasty of Oba Nigeria between the 16c. To 19th c century
The sculpture is an idol in the likeness of a king or an oba clad in a cap made of coral beads. The cap is from iron alluding to the firmness and powers of the King. Oba is considered to be divine since as opposed to other men, he neither drinks nor sleeps. Instead, he has great mystical power drawn from the gods. Therefore, he is an object that commands fear and reverence. One bead runs to the forehead from the headdress making a bilateral symmetry (Blier 86). On the lower part of the neck, the commemorative head of the Oba has a collar which is rolled an imagery that presents Benin leaders. Furthermore, the top of the head has a circular opening which is large enough to take in an elephant tusk. The king wore coral bead caps on each side while large single beads graced his head. In the first half of the sixteen century, this sculpture would have occupied a prominent place Kingdom of Benin's palace (Visonà et al., p.110). This is because the sculpture represented the authority and prestige of the King who was revered with awe and respect all across the land.
The roots of the Oba's of Benin can be traced to a bloodline which started in the 14th century where Oba's title was inherited by the first born after the death of the ruler. The most urgent duty of the new ruler was establishing a shrine and dedicating it to the previous king. The shrine would also serve as the medium of communication between the new king and his predecessors who would guide him to rule the people with wisdom and diligence (Visonà et al. 116). The shrine was equipped with carved and cast artifacts that illustrated the continuity of the dynasty. The commemorative head served as the vessel through which the new king gained power from the predecessor. The Edo people considered the king as the moral compass for the community meaning that the ruler was expected to demonstrate knowledge, authority and family leadership. Furthermore, the sculptural head was a constant reminder to the present ruler of the idea of family succession in the bloodline. The name, "Great Head" was used to refer to the Oba pointing to the fact that the current ruler was in charge of the Kingdom (Ezra 98). Hence, it is prudent to state that the commemorative head of the Oba contributed to the prestige of the King and galvanized his authority in the dynasty.
Exhibition Figure 2: Plaque
Plaque: Warrior and Attendants, 16th-17th century, Nigeria, Court of Benin
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The plaques exemplified power demonstrating a huge palace both in size, scope and significance to the kingdom. According to a 17th Century Dutch account, the plaque was subdivided into beautiful palaces, apartments and houses of the courtiers covered with cast copper from top to bottom. Besides, the walls were engraved with pictures of war and were kept impeccably clean. (Ezra 117). The plaques were in line with the hierarchical proportions where the ruler is the largest figure since he had the greatest rank and authority and given that he sought his guidance from the predecessors. In this regard, the ruler is the chief warrior at the center surrounded by soldiers of lower ranks ready to follow the command of their ruler (Blier 76). The position and the depiction of the ruler in the plaque reveals the status and the authority that the ruler wielded over his kinsmen. Also, the depiction of the chief warrior presents him as a brave and fearless ruler ready to protect his kingdom (Visonà et al. 97). For instance, the ruler is shown with leopard spot marks and a leopard tooth necklace illustrating the ferocity and stealth of the king while guarding his people and the kingdom. Furthermore, the plaque portrayed the king with a coral studded helmet, a brass ornament on the hip and a sword in the one hand and a spear on the other; all pointing to the honor and loyalty of the king.
The figure was presented in a natural manner through similar adjustments were made to embellish the power of the king and hold him in high esteem. For instance, the eyes were made to look elongated and the hair helmet-like. Also of importance is the fact that the head is disproportionately larger compared to other parts of the body and this reflects Benin's association of the head with knowledge, character, family leadership and judgement (Visonà et al. 97). Therefore, by portraying the head to be larger than other parts, the plaque signified that the king was the epitome of knowledge and wisdom in the kingdom. The fact that the dynasty held annual ceremonies to strengthen the head of the Oba and to worship the heads of the previous Oba's attests to the significance of the head in the kingdom (Blier 44).
Exhibition Figure 3: Figure of a King
Edo artist, Benin kingdom court style, Nigeria, Figure of a king, 18th to 19th century, Copper alloy
On the left hand, the Oba is holding a staff which added more weight to his words and deeds. The decorated staff had a shape of a two-sided percussion instrument (Ezra 116). On the right hand, the official sword illustrated his strength, willingness and determination to go to war to defend his kingdom. Also, the sword illustrated the power that the king wielded over his subjects and slaves as well as over resources such as ivory and pepper (Duchateau 13). The ruler controlled the trade and the Europeans were sometimes taken by shock given the king's unpredictable decisions. This inconsistency later contributes to the British Expedition.
Exhibition Figure 4: Elephant Tusk
Carved elephant tusk, Benin; 1991.13.2. Pitts River Musuem
Ivory was a valuable commodity of trade since it was a source of revenue. It was custom that every time an elephant was killed; the tusk was offered to the king. The ivory represented the longevity of the Oba's reign since even after death, the kingdom continued to honor and invoke the Oba. The elephant represented Oba's physical strength while the premium value of ivory depicted the Oba's wealth (Visonà et al. 110). Furthermore, the whiteness of the ivory symbolized the purity of the Oba and the tusks were whitened through the application of citrus juice.
Exhibition Figure 5: Ceremonial Sword
Ada, ceremonial sword, sheathed in coral beadwork. Aside from a sword like this one, the Oba would also have owned ceremonial garments - a headdress, fly whisk, and jewellery, all of coral beadwork. Benin; 1991.13.17
The materials of Kingship were such as coral and Jewelry which were obtained through trading with Europeans facilitated by the Coastal trade. These items demonstrated prestige and wealth of the kingship. Coral was made into beads similar to the ones covering Figure 5. The royal coral beads were symbols of kingship hence they determined who sat on the throne (Visonà et al. 97). Besides, the royal coral beads were considered to have spiritual powers since any curse made by the Oba while holding the beads will materialize.
All these elements contribute to the enduring importance of Benin kingship. The king still conducts rituals of igue, which revitalize Benin's focus on the divinity of the king for many generations to come. The exhibition is meant to help the audience better understand the social and political institutions and historical experiences and interactions that helped shape Benin society.
Ada, ceremonial sword, sheathed in coral beadwork Benin; 1991.13.17. Retrieved from: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/benin
Benin Palace Ancestral Altar, dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen.Benin City, Nigeria
Blier, Suzanne Preston, Henry Louis Gates Jr, and Kwame Anthony Appiah. "Benin, Art of the Early Kingdom." Encyclopedia Africana (1999).
Carved elephant tusk, Benin; 1991.13.2. Pitts River Museum. Retrieved from: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/benin
Commemorative head of an Oba, 16th c., Copper alloy, iron. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved from: https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/310283
Edo artist, Benin kingdom court style, Nigeria, Figure of a king, 18th to 19th century, Copper alloy. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from: https://africa.si.edu/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/alonge/royal-court-photography/
Ezra, Kate. Royal art of Benin: the Perls collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.
photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970.
Plaque: Warrior and Attendants, 16th-17th century, Nigeria, Court of Benin. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/310752
Visonà, Monica Blackmun, et al. A history of art in Africa. Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.
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