Commemorative head of a king (Oba)
Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
late 16th century
Height x width: 9 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (24.1 x 16.5 cm)
Medium or Technique
Copper alloy, iron
Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)
As the Benin kingdom grew in wealth and regional power, the splendor of court regalia also increased. This commemorative head, once surmounted by an ivory tusk and placed on the memorial altar to a deceased king, wears a fortune in coral. His eighteen coral-beaded collars, the fine coral-beaded net headdress, and the large coral clusters above his ears signal his high own rank, as well as the king’s wealth. Coral beads were the property of the king of Benin, given to his courtiers to wear at royal pleasure. King Ewuare, who reigned in the mid-15th century, is credited with bringing coral regalia back from the palace of Olokun, the god of wealth said to live under rivers and oceans. The style of the face, however, suggests that this commemorative head was cast long after Ewuare’s reign. The large eyes, set deep into the face, and the smooth abstraction of the facial planes are associated with the late 16th and 17th centuries.
1968, L. Hope, England; December 3, 1968, Hope and others sale, Christie’s, London, lot 76, to Alexander Martin for £ 20,000. 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.
Robert Owen Lehman Collection