Height: 26.7 x 19.7 x 21.6 cm (10 1/2 x 7 3/4 x 8 1/2 inches)
West Africa; Nigeria
Gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich
This bronze head is an idealized representation of an oba (king) of the Edo people of Benin, West Africa. Made in the same time period as surrounding works of European art in this gallery, this example illustrates the technical mastery of royal Benin artists, who were introduced to lost-wax casting techniques by neighboring Yoruba artists. Metalworking remains an important tradition in this part of Africa today.
Commemorative heads such as this one were commissioned by an incoming oba to honor his departed predecessor, and were placed on ancestral altars in the royal palace. The oba’s high status is indicated by his cap of coral beads and the single cowrie shell placed on the middle of his forehead. Braids and additional beaded
strands frame his face. Above each of his eyes—opened wide to signify that he was all-seeing—are three scarification patterns. A tubular bead collar covers his chin and neck. An elephant tusk, carved using techniques acquired through trade with the Portuguese, once protruded from the hole on top of his head.
The oba possessed political and religious authority and held sweeping powers over his subjects. The official owner of Benin lands and final adjudicator of justice, he oversaw resources and regulated trade with other African kingdoms and with European traders, including the Portuguese and Dutch. During the period in which this sculpture was made, the Benin Empire exerted a powerful presence on the west coast of Africa.
In 1897, following unsuccessful attempts at annexation, British forces sacked the Benin kingdom, burning cities, forcing the reigning king into exile, and looting works of art and other treasures in a campaign known as the Benin Punitive Expedition. Soon after, museums and individuals throughout Europe and the United States began collecting Benin bronzes, including this one.
The RISD Museum recognizes the looted status of this sculpture and has initiated communication with the current Benin oba, Oba Ewuare II, and with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. The Museum acknowledges the histories of colonial looting that are inherent in geographically comprehensive museum collections and embraces this opportunity to identify and confront those injustices.