Head of a king (oba)
Unknown artist, Bini people
Head of a king (oba), ca. 1550-1650
24.4 cm (9 5/8 inches) (height)
Gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich 39.054
Brass heads were among the assembled objects comprising memorial shrines for past kings of Benin. These heads were not individualized portraits but instead embodied the idea of kingship, honored the achievements of the deceased (sometimes referred to in carved elephant tusks supported by the heads), and served as an important point of contact between the reigning king (oba) and his ancestors. Brass heads were introduced into palace ritual in the mid fifteenth-century reign of Oba Ewuare, but precedents exist in other materials, notably ivory (for royalty), wood, and terracotta. In 1897, after a colonial conflict, the British took many historic heads such as this one. A tradition of casting heads in brass continues to this day in Benin City, where they sit on reestablished altars in the reconstructed royal palace.