Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom

by Barbara W. Blackmun
Professor Emeritus, San Diego Mesa College

A chief’s altar commemorating his paternal ancestors. Benin City, Nigeria, October, 1981, Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.

It is the responsibility of the male head of every lineage in Benin to maintain altars honoring his deceased ancestors. The altar commemorating paternal ancestors is constructed of molded clay in a courtyard of the family’s compound.  Clay is a material with sacred associations, since it combines soil from the land with water from a river.  In the Edo view, the land belongs to the Oba of Benin, while the water belongs to Olokun.