Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Chief Izevbizua Iyamu, the Esogban of Benin, one of the four Town Chiefs, wearing ehaengbehia. Benin City, Nigeria, December, 1981. Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.

The kingdom was ruled by an Oba (divine king) with a complex pyramidal bureaucracy of palace chiefs, town chiefs, minor palace officials, chiefly retainers, and members of a guild that included craftsmen who produced sculpture in wood, ivory, and brass, embroidered cloths, and other court regalia. This 1981 photograph shows a member of the court in costume that is very much like that seen in the ancient art. Here, one of the highest ranking Eghaevbo n’Ore (town chiefs) is seen wearing the ododo cloth armor that has been depicted for centuries in brass and ivory. Because the color scarlet embodies power to overcome hostile forces, this bright red imported cloth has always been reserved for those in authority.