Benin Kingdom Leadership Regalia

by Kathy Curnow
Cleveland State University

 Oba of Benin’s palace, Benin KingdomNigeria, 1995. Photo by Kathy Curnow.


On the day of a chieftaincy thanksgiving, the palace is full of functionaries, other chiefs, entourage members and visitors. Established chiefs wear the traditional hairstyle, marked by a raised transverse crest at the front.  Their dress, a twentieth-century modification of a Catholic priest's garment, is one of several standard palace "uniforms," and is usually white, the color associated with peace and prosperity.  Hair, dress, and jewelry mark the chiefs' distinctiveness and guarantee them public respect. Their personal wealth varies greatly.  That and other factors (influence, ritual skill, closeness to the Oba) influence their internal hierarchical relations, but they remain a united presence of the Oba's authority within the modern state.  The chiefs stand before a pair of large wooden doors.  Their reliefs show court scenes, and similar examples are popularly used in chiefly architecture as well.  Igbesanmwan (wood and ivory-carving guild members) produce them, as do carvers outside the palace guild structure.