675 x 1000 Benin Kingdom Leadership Regalia, Page 14 - Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

Benin Kingdom Leadership Regalia

by Kathy Curnow
Cleveland State University

Chief’s wives at Thanksgiving ceremony, Benin KingdomNigeria, 1994. Photo by Kathy Curnow.

At the palace, the chief's wives line up behind the ritual drums. They, like the drums and the chief himself, are marked with chalk (actually kaolin), a ritual material denoting joy.  The heavy velvet of their wrappers is imported, and has been for centuries, neither the cloth nor the style is now daily wear.  One woman tops hers with a Yoruba strip-cloth, a popular contemporary fashion. The women's natural hair is supplemented or covered with a wig. This "bee-hive" style, decorated with coral beads and brass, is actually a prerogative of royal wives, but the Oba often grants this privilege to his chiefs.  Like the wrappers, the hairstyle is now ceremonial.  In the past, chiefs often had dozens of wives. While this is no longer the norm, formal rites like this necessitate a complement of at least four women.  Chiefs sometimes fill in the ranks of "wives" with their sisters or other female relations.