Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Nigeria; Edo peoples (Benin Kingdom Court Style)

Figure of a king

18th-19th century

Copper alloy

H x W x D: 41 x 17.1 x 15.2 cm (16 1/8 x 6 3/4 x 6 in.)

Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966


Photograph by Franko Khoury

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

A number of highly centralized African political systems prior to colonialism were based on divine kingship. Divine kings are characterized by three principal attributes. First, a candidate to the throne becomes divine only through some transgression that renders him ambivalent, at the same time beneficent and potentially malevolent. Often this transgression occurs during the course of the investiture process and may include incest, murder, or the consumption of otherwise forbidden food. Second, the king must undergo rejuvenation rites at regular intervals, which enable him to continue the task of leadership.