Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

NigeriaBenin Kingdom peoples

Equestrian figure


H. 47 cm (18 1/2")

Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. Ford II, 1992.290

Works of art made from durable materials such as bronze provide tangible evidence and information about ancient kingdoms for which little documentation exists. This cast brass equestrian figure was created for the court of the Benin Kingdom, a highly centralized state founded in the thirteenth or fourteenth century in southwestern Nigeria. Although members of the brass casters guild continue to cast regalia today, most Benin objects in collections around the world, including this work, date from the period before the British “punitive expedition," which attacked Benin in 1897, looted the palace and burned it. The unusual dress and accoutrements of this equestrian suggest that it may depict a foreigner, either an Igala vassal or a Yoruba prince from the neighboring kingdom of Ife, and demonstrates how art can be a source of invaluable historical information.