Robert Owen Lehman Collection

MFA receives gift of African art

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has received the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of 34 rare West African works of art. Thirty-two objects are from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day southern Nigeria and two are from present-day Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Lehman Collection is the single greatest private holding of objects from the Benin Kingdom (not to be confused with the West African Republic of Bénin, the former Dahomey) dating from the late 15th century to the 19th century. The gift, which includes 28 bronzes and six ivories, will go on display in late 2013 in a gallery dedicated to the arts of Benin. In addition to highlighting these works in a gallery, the Museum will present a number of public programs that further the appreciation of the Kingdom of Benin’s renowned arts, cultural heritage, and complex history.

Famous for its sophisticated artistry, the Benin Kingdom dates back to the late 13th century. The kingdom expanded and flourished from the late 14th through the late 19th century, when it came under British influence upon the conclusion of a treaty with Britain in 1892. Five years later, after Benin soldiers attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action. Numerous pieces were later sold in Great Britain to defray the costs of the campaign, and were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe and the United States. Many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder likely left at the same time.

Among the most famous works from the kingdom are its bronzes (copper alloy pieces created in the lost wax-casting technique), which range from sculptural heads of kings and freestanding figures to pendants and high-relief plaques that once adorned the walls of courtyards in the palace. Artists also crafted beautiful utilitarian objects in bronze and ivory. Among the most notable bronzes in the collection is the Commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader (late 15th–early 16th century), shown above, thought to depict a foreign ruler subjugated by the Benin army during the kingdom’s expansion. It was once displayed on an ancestral altar created in honor of a deceased Oba (king), recalling his achievements and connecting his successors with the royal ancestor. This work and the many others are a testament to the world of the Benin kings and the brilliance of artists who worked for the court.

Above: Artist unidentified, Commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader, late 15th–early 16th century. Robert Owen Lehman Collection. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.