Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

NigeriaBenin Kingdom peoples

Queen Mother head


H. 53.3 cm (21")

Detroit Institute of Arts, City of Detroit Purchase, 26.180

In the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria great altars were constructed to commemorate the passing of royal family members. This particular head portrays the Iye Oba (Queen Mother), who was responsible for guiding her son in his task of ruling the kingdom. After her installation as Queen Mother, she would have been removed to a separate palace. Although extremely influential, she is not permitted direct contact with the Oba, and they may only communicate with one another through emissaries. When the Queen Mother passes away, the Oba commissions a commemorative head that is to be placed on the altar dedicated to her memory. Every year he pays tribute to her memory by adding newly commissioned altar pieces to the assemblage. Ornately carved ivory tusks were inserted into the chamber in the back of the head when it was placed on the altar. The distinctive hairstyle portrayed in this piece is symbolic of a chicken’s beak (Ben Amos 1980). The Benin bronzes, as they are known, are cast of brass using the lost wax casting technique.