Benin Kingdom

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

NigeriaBenin Kingdom artist

Head of an Oba


H. 29.2 cm (11 1/2")

Indiana University Art Museum, 75.98

Other types, however, are indisputably commemorative heads to be placed on the altars of former kings. Carved ivory tusks are placed in the top, for ivory was another material reserved for royalty, and there are special guilds of artists who only carve ivory for the king. Brass has special meaning in Benin. Because it never rusts or corrodes it represents the permanence and continuity of the institution of kingship. It is considered beautiful, and in the past the royal brasses (of which there are a wide variety: from pendants, plaques, staffs, and stools to masks and commemorative heads) were polished to bring out their shine. Brass “is red in color and this is considered by the Edo [people of Benin] to be ‘threatening,’ that is, to have the power to drive away evil forces” (Girshick Ben-Amos 1995: 88).

Chief Ima at Ugie Erhoba, Benin KingdomNigeria, 1994. Photo by Kathy Curnow.