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Relief plaque showing a king (Oba) or official with a staff of proclamation
Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
Length x width: 26.7 x 17.8 cm (10 1/2 x 7 in.)
Medium or Technique
Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)
This bronze plaque—part of a set of more than 800 that once decorated the pillars in the audience hall of the Oba, or king, of Benin—has significant damage, and the primary figure’s legs and part of his crown are missing. The figure holds a metal-working hammer, used in creating bronze casts. He is well dressed, with a richly detailed brocade wrapper, an elaborate projection of his costume behind his left shoulder, a beaded tunic, and a coral-beaded collar, or odigba, given by the Oba to high-ranking courtiers. Although the entire crown is not visible on this particular plaque, other plaques show this figure wearing a tall crown with a basketry projection from the top, called an oro, which designates the Oba or his closest advisors. Oba Esigie (reigned 1517 to about the 1550s) elevated the head of the brass-casting guild to the top of the court hierarchy, alongside generals and other members of the privy council. This plaque may depict the brass-casting guild head, or possibly the Oba himself. One of the Oba’s first art commissions must be the bronze heads, carved ivory tusks, and other artworks for his father’s memorial altar. The Oba is required to cast part of the altar installation himself, either by physically pouring the bronze or, more commonly, by supervising the process. For this reason, lavishly dressed figures on the plaques that are wearing the special oro projection and carrying a metal-working hammer are often identified as the Oba.
16th century, commissioned by Oba Esigie (r. 1517-1550s) or his son Oba Orhogbua (r. 1550s-1570s), Royal Palace, Benin City; by descent to Oba Ovonramwen (Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, b. about 1857 – d. about 1914; r. 1888 - 1897); 1897, taken from the Royal Palace during the British military occupation of Benin. 1899, William Downing Webster (dealer; b. 1863 – d. 1913), London and Bicester, Oxfordshire, England; January 23, 1899, sold by W. D. Webster for £ 4.10 to Lt.-General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (b. 1827 - d. 1900), Farnham, England; until the 1960s, kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, and passed by descent within the family [see note]; 1970s, sold upon the dispersal of the collection. By 2011, Robert Owen Lehman, Rochester, NY; 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.
The collection of the privately-owned Pitt-Rivers museum passed by descent through Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s son Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966) and his common law wife, Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers). The museum closed in the 1960s and the collection was sold.
Robert Owen Lehman Collection