Benin Kingdom


The vast array of castings in bronze and leaded brass taken from the palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897 have been dispersed throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. The interest generated by these artworks, along with the ivory carvings and coral regalia, has been a major factor in the development of Benin studies. The sculpture from Benin has come to represent the achievements of the Edo Kingdom of Benin in museums around the world. Within Africa they have been utilized in the construction of national and pan-national identities to reaffirm links to the autonomy of a precolonial past.

In 1938, ground was being dug to construct a house in the Wunmonijie Compound, now immediately behind the palace in Ife, but formerly within the palace wall. The workers found two groups of castings. Most were of life-size heads, two were smaller than life size and wore crowns. In addition, there was the upper part of a figure that closely resembles that of a king (Ooni) found in 1957 at Ita Yemoo. Their portrait-like naturalism astounded the Western art world despite the fact that the German explorer and ethnographer Leo Frobenius had called attention to the artistry of these figures as early as 1910, when he discovered a crowned metal head and a score of terracotta sculptures. It was no more considered in 1938 than in 1910 that these could really be the work of African sculptors unless they had worked under a European master. Soon after World war II, William Fagg argued persuasively that these were indeed objects made by the Africans before Europeans first landed on the Guinea Coast.

The head was cast from a wax original over a clay core. The top of the head was cut back on the wax before casting to make it fit an existing crown. Holes were provided in the neck to allow it to be attached either to a column or more likely to a wooden body. It is not clear how such heads were used. Perhaps they carried the crown and other emblems of office of a dead ruler in a second burial ceremony to show that, though the incumbent had died, the office continued, or they may have been used in annual rites of purification or renewal for the ruler and his people.






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