Animal Imagery

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Nigeria; Benin Kingdom (Edo) artist

Uhunmwun-ekhue (hip pendant)

Brass, copper, iron

H. 18.42 cm  ( 7 1/4")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.572

Political leaders, warriors, and hunters all draw upon powers of transformation and ambiguity, symbolized in creatures that can live in two realms, on land and in water, for example, or by animals such as the chameleon that can change colors to fit any environment. Benin hip pendants were worn by leaders of all ranks as part of their ceremonial attire, attached to the bunched cloth of the wrapper on the left hip. The cast head of the hip pendant is represented as wearing a crown of red fire coral beads. Below the chin a row of mudfish provide a metaphor for the divine status of an Oba. As a creature that exists in the liminal zone of a waterbed, the mudfish functions in Benin thought as a transitional figure between the land, the realm of the Oba, and water, the realm of Olokun, god of the sea. The mudfish is regarded as a symbol for the peace, prosperity, and fecundity of Olokun.