Benin Kingdom

By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Edo peoples (Benin Kingdom Court Style)


Mid 16th-17th century

Copper alloy

H x W x D: 47 x 34.2 x 8.2 cm (18 1/2 x 13 7/16 x 3 1/4 in.)

Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979


Photograph by Franko Khoury

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

Figures appear in hierarchical perspective: those who are more important are depicted larger. The servant who holds the sword is smaller than the king or war chief who dominates the center of the plaque. Several Portuguese appear with their stylized hats and hair, but it is not certain whether they are meant to be real men or a symbol of Olokun, the god of the waters and wealth. Girshik Ben-Amos interprets the background quatrefoil design of many of the plaques as a symbol of Olokun (1995: 40). All the plaques show nail holes, evidence that they were once attached to pillars or walls of the palace. By 1700 they were no longer being used and had been removed, and in 1897 they were all found stacked up in storage.

Oba Erediauwa II, the Oba of Benin, at Igue Ceremonies in the Royal Palace, Benin City, Nigeria, December 1981. Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.