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Relief plaque showing a mudfish
Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
Length x width: 40.6 x 16.5 cm (16 x 6 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)
Although seemingly a humble subject, mudfish are a metaphor for the power of the Oba, or king, of Benin. This bronze plaque is part of a set of more than 800 that once decorated the pillars in the audience hall of the Oba. More than 40 of these plaques portray mudfish as the main subject. These fish live in streams and rivers, and so are associated with the god of wealth who lives below water. Yet mudfish can also live on dry land. They burrow into mud in the dry season and lie dormant until seasonal streams and rivers return during the rainy season. This ability to live on land and in the water makes the mudfish exceptional, and so they are compared to the Oba, who can move in both earthly and spiritual realms. Some mudfish have an electrical charge, which calls to mind the Oba’s fearsome military and judicial power.
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. 1898 until 1972, British Museum, London (No. 98.1-15.187); 1972, acquired from the British Museum by Robert Owen Lehman, Rochester, NY; 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.
Robert Owen Lehman Collection