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Relief plaque showing a Portuguese
Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
Length x width: 45.7 x 33 cm (18 x 13 in.)
Medium or Technique
Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)
This bronze plaque, depicting a Portuguese man carrying a staff and sword, is part of a set of more than 800 that once decorated the pillars in the audience hall of the Oba, or king, of Benin. The artist has emphasized the foreigner’s large, sharp-ridged nose and has also paid special attention to his long hair, beard, and style of clothing, all details that separate the figure from Benin men. The Portuguese began trading with Benin in the 1480s, when they were seeking new sources of pepper to undercut the Ottoman Empire’s monopoly on spices from Asia. Trade quickly expanded to include ivory and slaves from Benin in return for cloth and metal from Europe. Benin was interested in purchasing weaponry from the Portuguese, but they refused. The court’s interest in Portuguese military technology and luxury cloth may explain the artist’s careful observation of the figure’s sword handle and clothing. The small floral decoration on the lower right is commonly found on plaques of this period, and would have been repeated in all four corners of the plaque, three of which are now missing.
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, probably taken from the Royal Palace during the British military occupation of Benin. By 1973, Commander H.H. Ridler, England; March 26, 1973, Ridler and others sale, Sotheby’s, London, lot 190 to James Kirkman for £3400. By 2011, Robert Owen Lehman, Rochester, NY; 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.
Robert Owen Lehman Collection