The Head in Focus

Benin Art and Visual History

Benin art has held the imaginations of scholars and art dealers spellbound since the turn of the twentieth century. It was the first noted example of African art to truly confound racist assumptions and ethnocentric prejudices when it first came to Western attention after the tragic British punitive expedition of February 17, 1897, during which the Benin kingdom was sacked by British colonial forces, and the reigning king, Oba Ovonranwmen, was captured and sent into exile. The old Benin kingdom’s influence was widespread in the area described as the Lower Niger, located in present-day Nigeria, southwest Nigeria, and across swaths of areas on the West African coast. Whereas Benin art was greatly admired and treated reverentially by Western audiences upon its discovery, as the cited commentary suggests, the kingdom and her artists were at the same time inscribed “within a racialized discourse of degraded savagery.”1 (Today the Benin kingdom, a shadow of its former glory, comprises mostly Benin City, the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria.)

The Benin kingdom’s corpus of palace art, as seen in the head of a king in the RISD Museum collection (Fig. 1), highlights the technical mastery and artistic accomplishment of Benin artists over the ages. RISD’s head consists of a crown of intricately crosshatched beads, bold jutting knots on two sides of the crown, four flowing threads of beads with stops close to the base, and two strips of braided hair that dangle at both sides of the face. Cast in bronze, the crown mirrors the coral-bead headdress worn by the oba (king). The actual beaded crown consists of tiny red beads stitched together with brown vegetable fiber. The beads carry the essence of the office of oba. A single cowrie shell sits on the forehead, flanked by three scarification patterns called ikharo above each amplified eye. The tubular bead-collar covers the neck and chin, extending all the way to the lower lip. With its remarkably stylized features, the crowned head is a portrait of elegant symmetry and dignified comportment. The absence of a flange at the base suggests that it is an eighteenth-century-style commemorative head. The object is one of the two Type 3 heads belonging to the Middle and Late periods in the classification of Benin art, per the late anthropologist Philip Dark.2

The discovery of these treasures resembles that of a valuable manuscript. They are a new “Codex Africanus,” not written on fragile papyrus, but in ivory and imperishable brass.3

In many African societies, the human head holds significant symbolism. It is explored at length in forms and performances arts (including masking traditions). Although the human body is equally celebrated as a reliquary that carries the soul in the mortal life and afterlife,4 the head holds deeper ramifications. It determines the individual as marker of personal identity and physical identification, and ties the individual to family, ancestors, extended family, and community. More importantly, it determines a person’s destiny. Among the Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria, the head is the wellspring of wisdom and seat of divine power (àse). The head is divided into the external head (orí òde), emblem of individuality, and the interior or spiritual head (orí inú), the life source that controls the outer head. Ontologically, though all inner heads look the same, they are essentially different when bestowed on individuals.5 If one is bestowed with good inner head, the person’s àse ensures success in life. As such, the head is cast proportionally bigger that other parts of the body in visual representations, whether it is rendered naturalistically, stylized, or in abstract form.6 The three modes of representation have different symbolic undertones. Similarly, the Benin considers the human head as imbued with spiritual energy (ehi) placed by the creator-god Osanobua and his eldest son, Olokun; this energy guides the mortal individual throughout his or her lifetime on earth. Ultimately, the sculptured head is a corporeal memento in honor of revered deceased individuals such as ancestors. When it is covered with a coiffure, crown, or headdress, such elaborate details are emphasized.

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Fig. 2 Portrait of King Osemwende Around 1810 Nigeria, Kingdom of Benin, court workshop, Bronze The Rietberg Museum, Zurich.

RISD’s head of a king holds added significance and prestige as an altar object that honors a royal ancestor. For the Benin, commemorative heads are idealized portraits commissioned by an incoming oba to honor his departed predecessor as part of the extravagant coronation ceremony. The portrait of King Osemwende (1816–1848, Fig. 2), in the collection of the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, is an example of a commemorative head that has been connected to a specific oba. Other examples abound in Western museums, such as the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, which has one of the biggest repositories of Benin art.

In accordance with longstanding traditions instituted during the reign of Oba Ewuare I in the fifteenth century and which survived the changes that came in the wake of the punitive expedition, a new king’s commission for the production of a commemorative head is a physical act of ushering the most recent king into the pantheon of ancestor-kings. The new head is placed alongside others on the royal ancestral altar in the palace of the oba. Except in unusual cases, the deceased predecessor is usually the father of the new oba. One notable example from history was during the tumultuous seventeenth century, when the kingdom was embroiled in a civil war after the death of the last warrior king, Oba Ehengbuda, and following the short reign of his son, Ohuan. Different factions of the royal family vied for the titular kingship in the absence of a direct line of descent. By venerating and memorializing their predecessors through corporeal representation, successive obas enabled the practice of visually inscribing Benin history.

Typically, the crown prince, or edaiken, undergoes an elaborate and demanding ritual process. He is escorted from the palace of the heir-apparent in Uselu, where, upon the death of the oba, he has repaired for ninety days, and he slowly proceeds through various important sites in the kingdom, accompanied by Uselu chiefs. His first stop is at the sacred palm tree, Udin Amamieson-aimiuwa, at the outskirts of Benin City. He climbs the tree symbolically, a practice that harks back to the fifteenth century, when Oba Ewuare I established it. The crown prince then continues to Usama to complete several important rites, including picking his dynastic name. Usama was where Oranmiyan, the progenitor of the post-Ogisos dynasty, built the first palace, and where succeeding obas lived until the palace was moved to the center of Benin City by Oba Ewedo in late thirteenth century. Finally, when the heir-apparent reaches the royal palace in a triumphant procession and great fanfare in the company of palace chiefs, heralded by traditional songs and outpouring of solidarity by his people, he is formally declared the oba, taking over the throne of his fathers. At the recent coronation of Oba Ewuare II on October 20, 2016, commemorative heads accompanied his final installation ceremony in memory and honor of his departed father, Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa, and his royal forebears (Fig. 3). The objects were placed at the foot of his throne and around the palace room where he welcomed visitors (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3 Oba Ewuare II, installation ceremony. Benin City, October 20, 2016. Photo courtesy Dr. Peju Layiwola, Nigeria
Fig. 4 Bronze and brass heads at the foot of Oba Ewuare II’s throne. Royal Palace, Benin City, October 20, 2016. Photo courtesy Dr. Peju Layiwola, Nigeria

Traditionally, the oba combines political and religious authority. Before colonialism, he held sweeping powers over his subjects. He was the nominal owner of Benin land and final adjudicator of justice, and controlled external trade, among other roles. Although his political power has waned and is now largely ceremonial since the end of colonial rule in Nigeria, he still commands the total respect of his subjects, owing to his divine kingship. Perhaps more in the past than in the present, the oba was the arbiter of taste, introducing aesthetic criteria and affirming or critiquing styles and technical approaches and the resulting forms. As the custodian of Benin culture, the oba aligned artistic production with cultural values and communal idiosyncrasies. The most skilled members of the casters’ and carvers’ guilds produced palace objects, interpreting the royal perspectives and conveying the highest ideals of Benin aesthetics. It is in this sense that the objects plundered during the British sack of Benin were significant cultural achievements, perfected over many centuries and bearing the royal seal of approval.

Many innovations in Benin art are traced to the time of Oba Ewuare I (circa 1440 to 1473), the first warrior-king and empire builder. The introduction of commemorative heads and large metal sculptures and forms into the Benin corpus is attributed to him. Though Benin metalsmiths already worked in brass and bronze before his time, Oba Ewuare I reorganized the guild systems by family and rewarded them with important titles based on technical competence and innovative ideas and techniques. Legend holds that he commissioned the royal guilds of casters and carvers to create his portrait. Whereas the casters portrayed an idealized image of the king at the prime of life, the carvers accurately captured his old age at the time of the commission. In his anger, Oba Ewuare I elevated the casters’ guild (Iguneronmwon) above the carvers’ guild (Igbesanmwan). Scholars have cited this piece of oral history as proof for the formal introduction of the commemorative bronze heads, dating it to about the fifteenth century.7

As oral traditions suggest, it was also during the reign of Oba Ewuare I that the stately beaded dress worn by the oba and the council of chiefs was introduced. He is also credited with introducing the coral-bead crown, which has become an important insignia of the monarchy. Though the oba alone can be entirely bedecked in coral beads, from his crown to his dress, as one of his praise names—“child of the beaded crown, child of the beaded dress”—suggests, the oba reflects a wider Benin sartorial outlook. This is on full display during august occasions and ceremonial events such as the coronation (Ugie Erha Oba), which celebrates and honors the royal lineage, and at the annual Igue, one of the most important ritual ceremonies, devoted to safeguarding and enhancing the spiritual power of the oba. During these ceremonies, the oba’s wives, the council of chiefs, and high-ranking members of the Benin kingdom dress up in ceremonial attire, bead necklaces, and headdresses, as was the case during the final installation ceremony of the new king Oba Ewuare II, the thirty-ninth oba of Benin, on October 20, 2016. At the ceremony, people turned out in large numbers in ceremonial wear and beads, showcasing the elegant and fastidious attention the Benin pay to bodily appearance and self-presentation.

Founded by Edo people, ancient Benin was one of the most powerful of Africa’s historical kingdoms known to the European world. Benin’s first rulers, the Ogisos (sky kings)—who claimed direct descent from the creator-god Osanobua through his youngest son, Idu—created a nascent state by integrating autonomous settlements, according to Benin oral traditions. An important economic power in an area described as the Guinea Coast in old maps (comprising present-day West Africa), Benin was already a thriving city-state and warrior kingdom when Portuguese explorer Duarte Pacheco Pereira visited in the 1490s. Art in Benin served multiple functions, ranging from commemoration, ancestral deification, and trade to historical documentation and literary purposes. Benin people are profoundly proud of their past successes, which were documented and advanced from the Benin court’s perspective.8

The commemorative heads provide a sense of a chronological outline of the Benin past. Together with other sculptural forms produced by the guilds of royal casters and carvers, they chronicle political, militaristic, social, economic, and religious histories of the kingdom. Whether the art in question is cast in brass, bronze, or any other form of metal or carved in ivory or wood, contestations and debates remain in respect to chronological sequencing tied either to dates or dynasties. Many scholars recognize the excellent work done by the late anthropologist Philip Dark in creating a typology of the Benin cast traditions to align with a chronology of Benin kings. Similarly, a lot of work has also been done by conservators in analyzing material compositions of Benin art, but outcomes vary and remain inconclusive.9

Edo peoples Altar Portrait of an Oba Fig. 5 18th century Bronze 11 5/8 × 9 × 9 in. (29.5 × 22.9 × 22.9 cm.) The Menil Collection, Houston Photo: Paul Hester

Relatively speaking, RISD’s head is of a different style when compared to the Menil Collection’s altar portrait of an oba (Fig. 5), whose provenance is traced directly to the Benin royal court, having once belonged to a British colonel who participated in the infamous sack of Benin. Unlike RISD’s bronze head, the Menil Collection’s example has a flange encrusted with defied zoomorphic forms (such as the royal leopard), as well as mudfish, crocodiles, and pythons associated with the revered water goddess Olokun. The flange became an essential part of commemorative heads in the nineteenth century, suggesting innovations in Benin’s visual practice that were catalyzed by transfer or adoption of new techniques, availability of new materials, and introduction of new aesthetic ideas. In addition, whereas RISD’s head appears tilted backward in its orientation, the Menil Collection’s portrait seems sturdier and ramrod straight. The ears of the two heads are also different, which could either signal an artistic or symbolic intervention. Both stylized heads are remarkably different from the more naturalistic uncrowned head (Fig. 6) in the St. Louis Museum’s collection, although all three are altar pieces, displayed in the palace’s shrine. The uncrowned heads, or trophy heads as they are now called in scholarship, are considered the earliest examples of Benin bronze heads. There is a consensus that they are also the first examples of Benin heads produced using cire perdue or lost-wax, a traditional method of metal casting that involves creating a wax model, covering it in clay to create a mold, heating to ease out the wax, adding liquid metal to the vacant space, and then leaving it to firm. The heads produced using the cire perdue technique vary from the smaller and thinly cast to more sophisticated larger and thicker examples, which suggest improvement in casting techniques as time went by.

Quite often, notions of cultural authenticity and artistic purity are ascribed to historical African art, negating a long history of cultural exchange and economic relationships between the African continent and the rest of the world. Benin art is a good example where the impact of external and internal mercantile connections is strongly felt in visual representations and artistic mediums. For example, the Benin’s first contact with Europe, according to known records, was with Portuguese traders in the fourteenth century, and it had significant cultural ramifications. Changes in representational styles in Benin sculptures as typified by the commemorative heads and in ivory carvings capture some of the assimilation of outsider ideas and influences.

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Figure 6 Unidentified Edo artist Commemorative Head (Trophy) 15th - 18th century Court of Benin Bronze, iron 7 11/16 x 7 1/8 x 6 7/8 in. (19.5 x 18.1 x 17.5 cm) Saint Louis Art Museum

Some of the excellent casting techniques and use of new materials such as copper came with the Portuguese, whose image also became part of the visual lexicon in Benin art, signaling militaristic might and affluence. The intricately carved long ivory tusks that sit atop royal portraits in the traditional altar settings (and are absent in museum settings) are excellent indicators of the adoption of Portuguese carving techniques, presenting hybrid representations of locals and foreigners alike. Examples abound of the iconic image of Portuguese sailors finely attired in period clothing, Portuguese coats of arms, and equestrian figures. In addition to supplying Benin with firearms and mercenaries to wage their wars, the Portuguese also supplied Benin with the highly coveted coral beads in larger quantities, and with brass manilas that were melted for casting.

Furthermore, studies have shown that although the practice of placing the carved ivory tusks on commemorative heads and royal altars started in the early seventeenth century, the practice of this display increased significantly in the early eighteenth century with increased ivory trade between the Benin kingdom and Dutch merchants.10 The higher commercial value of ivory resulting from international trade enhanced the material’s social and symbolic capital and was reflected in ritual and artistic practices. In a sense and in addition, cultural auras and values of the Benin’s trading partners were organically assimilated, as shown in the art. It can thus be argued that while the commemorative heads illuminate the dynastic history of Benin, the ivory carvings—including those created as souvenirs for the European market, which clearly represent the prosperity that attended the glory years of empire—visually narrate the economic history of the kingdom.

Although visual records show that the Portuguese had a tremendous impact on Benin art through the introduction of brass and new carving techniques, the earliest outside influence on Benin art came from their immediate neighbors, particularly the Yoruba. Oral traditions suggest that Oba Oguola requested a master caster from the Oni of Ife, who sent Iguegha to him. Iguegha introduced several styles and techniques, including the lost-wax casting technique, and became deified upon his death, worshipped ever since by the guild of brass casters.11 The naturalism achieved earlier on in Benin art, as seen in the uncrowned or trophy head, is attributed to a virtuosity learned from Ife, the ancestral heartland of the Yoruba.12 Naturalistically rendered and idealized terra-cotta commemorative heads are part of the corpora of both Benin and Yoruba arts, although there are stylistic differences which are culturally specific. For instance, whereas the Benin terra-cotta heads are more robust looking, with rounded cheeks and eyes, the Ife terra-cotta heads have leaner features. Also, the scarification patterns run from top to bottom on the Ife heads, while those on the Benin heads are often three or four incisions above the eyes.

In addition, several cultures abutting the kingdom, such as the Igbo (neighbors farther to the east) and the Igala (in central Nigeria), would have influenced Benin art, and vice versa. Trophy or uncrowned heads (such as the St. Louis Museum’s collection’s example) are decapitated heads of defeated kings, a practice of headhunting attributed to the Igbo.13 The heads were sent to guilds to be cast in bronze or brass to be included in the Benin war altars memorializing the kingdom’s great victories in major battles, such as those against the Igbo and Igala,14 and/or to serve as a cautionary note to potential renegade vassal states.

The Benin’s artistic achievements, among the most revered and celebrated in African art, continue to fire contemporary imagination. Though the sovereignty and influence of the present-day Benin kingdom have been largely diminished, its rich ritual traditions continue to thrive, having withstood the force of the colonial encounter. The year 1997 marked the centenary of the punitive expedition, the historic event that changed the fate of the last holdout against British colonial forces in Nigeria. A life in exile in Calabar for Oba Ovonramwen, the last precolonial king, and his subsequent death in 1914 marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new chapter for the kingdom as a part of Nigeria. In 1914, the British colonial power restored the role of the oba, allowing Oba Eweka II to ascend the throne of his father, Ovonramwen, and amalgamating its southern and northern protectorates to create the country of Nigeria.

The kingdom’s visual history unfolds with greater vigor each time we engage RISD’s head. We are forced to ask critical questions about its former life as an altarpiece that served important ritual function for the Benin people, as compared to its status today, as a museum object admired for its aesthetic qualities and as a vector of Benin’s cultural past. The goal is not to point accusatory fingers, as Oba Erediauwa (1979–2016) stated in his opening speech during the centenary event.15 Instead it is to seek fresh pathways for the past to enlighten the present.

Depending on which side of the art-historical debates one finds oneself, Benin art has either remained stuck in pre–punitive expedition aesthetics and styles or has evolved in small increments since the monarchy was reestablished in 1914. Art historian Joseph Nevadomsky charges that “virtually all of the art historical work devoted to Benin takes 1897 as its terminus ad quem,” with less regard for innovative strategies that have continued to flourish in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.16 Similarly, Charles Gore argues that that major innovations in casting techniques and accompanying social practices in the twentieth-century have not attracted sufficient art historical attention. Yet, as he equally suggests, present-day Benin art remains wedded to its precolonial past. In part, this is the result of its success in the Western imagination, boosted by the intellectual work of art historians and anthropologists and the subsequent allure of commodification.17 Or perhaps, and beyond the demands of the market, the post-1914 royal court and guilds of casters and carvers have been nostalgic for the precolonial glory days of the kingdom, longing for an authentic Benin identity that only the visual past can provide.

Yet as Benin’s visual history has shown, if we are to consider the ingenious hybridism that attended the arts over the many centuries preceding the punitive expedition, the royal palace and the various artistic guilds have always responded to a changing world. The reliance on stock imageries and forms which now constitute cultural heritage might be understood as the way in which the oba and the Edo people today reimagine and negotiate what it means to be Benin in postcolonial Nigeria, against the backdrop of existential conditions and the force of contemporary globalization.

  • 1Ibid.
  • 2Philip J. C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).
  • 3O.M. Dalton, “Booty from Benin,” English Illustrated Magazine, vol. XVIII (1898), 419. Cited in Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 7.
  • 4Alisa LaGamma, “Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary,” African Arts 40, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 32–43.
  • 5Babatunde Lawal, “Orí: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture,” Journal of Anthropological Research 41, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 91–103.
  • 6Rowland Abidoun, “Àse: Verbalizing and Visualizing Creative Power Through Art,” Journal of Religion in Africa 24, fasc. 4 (November 1994): 309–22.
  • 7Rowland Abidoun, “Àse: Verbalizing and Visualizing Creative Power Through Art,” Journal of Religion in Africa 24, fasc. 4 (November 1994): 309–22.
  • 8Ben-Amos, The Art of Benin, rev. ed., 20.
  • 9See, for example, Frank Willett, Ben Torsney, and Mark Ritchie, “Composition and Style: An Examination of the Benin ‘Bronze’ Heads,” African Arts 27, no. 3 (July 1994): 60–67.
  • 10Ben-Amos, The Art of Benin, rev. ed., 37.
  • 11Jacob Egharevba, A Short History of Benin, rev. ed., (Ibadan: University of Ibadan, 1968, 12).
  • 12See, for example, Douglas Fraser, “The Fish-Legged Figure in Benin and Yoruba Art, in African Art and Leadership, ed. Douglas Fraser and Herbert M. Cole (Madison, Milwaukee, and London: The University of Wisconsin Press), 261–94.
  • 13Barbara Blackmun, “Altar Heads,” in African Art from the Menil Collection, ed. Kristina Van Dyke (Houston: Menil Foundation, Inc., 2008), 128.
  • 14Charles Hercules Read and Ormonde Maddock Dalton, Antiquities from the City of Benin and from Other Parts of West Africa in the British Museum (London: British Museum; Longman and Co [first ed.], 1899), 6; cited in Ben Amos, The Art of Benin, rev. ed., 39.
  • 15Oba Erediauwa, “Opening Ceremony Address,” African Arts 30, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 30–33
  • 16Joseph Nevadomsky, Contemporary Art and Artists in Benin City,” African Arts 30, no. 4 (Autumn 1997): 54–63.
  • 17Charles Gore, “Casting Identities in Contemporary Benin City,” African Arts 30, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 57.