Benin Oba and Queen Mother
commemorative heads

This page is for educational purposes only.
I do not have any Benin items in my collection.
Benin Oba commemorative heads

As a result of the abrupt and violent manner in which most royal art forms of the kingdom of Benin were removed from
their original context by the British in 1897, there is a dearth of documentation to situate individual works historically.
This has led art historians to propose stylistic theories concerning their chronological execution.

Current leaders of the kingdom of Benin trace their origins to a ruling dynasty that began in the fourteenth century.
Brass commemorative heads are commissioned by each oba (king) in the first years of his reign to honor his
immediate predecessor. Although these heads represent specific obas, they are not portraits in the sense that they
capture the individual features of the kings. Rather, they are idealized depictions that emphasize the trappings of
kingship. Consequently, the attribution of specific heads to particular obas has eluded scholars. However, since these
heads document a unique historical narrative, scholars have attempted to determine the sequence in which they were
created based on their stylistic and physical attributes.

The current accepted theory is that the smallest and most naturalistic heads are the earliest, with a gradual
progression toward increased size and degree of stylization. Between 1500 and 1800, the Benin kingdom gradually
grew in both wealth and power, primarily through extensive trade with the Portuguese. In the arts, this expansion is
manifested in a dramatic increase in the size and ostentation of royal regalia. Crowns of Edo kings grew steadily more
encrusted with coral beading and this appears to have been reflected in changes in commemorative representations
as well. Additionally, the largess of royal patronage decreased artisans’ incentive to be judicious with expensive
materials, allowing them to create ever-larger objects. Therefore, in the attempt to construct a chronology for Benin
art, it makes sense that later heads would be both heavier and larger objects that conspicuously consumed greater
quantities of imported brass and emphasized the more elaborate regalia.

The earliest heads have light thin walls and a tight-fitting collar that does not cover the chin. They have no beaded
crown. The next period includes heads that are larger and heavier. The beaded collar reaches the mouth, with the
addition of bead clusters to the crown. The head is far more stylized and has a wide and cylindrical shape;
additionally, the cheeks appear swollen and the eyes are enlarged. In the third period, the flange is expanded and
the features are further exaggerated. There are winglike projections on the crowns, which are thought to represent
the ceremonial swords of the court. There are also representations of beads that hang in front of the eyes.

Emma George Ross
Research Assitant, part time
Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Head of an Oba, 16th century (ca. 1550)
Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Brass; H. 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.86)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The leaders of the kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria trace their origins to a ruling dynasty that began in the
fourteenth century. The title of "oba," or king, is passed on to the firstborn son of each successive king of Benin at the
time of his death. The first obligation of each new king during this transition of rule is to commemorate his father with a
portrait cast in bronze and placed on an altar at the palace. The altar constitutes an important site of palace ritual and
is understood to be a means of incorporating the ongoing influence of past kings in the affairs of their descendents.

Though associated with individuals, this highly stylized genre of commemorative portraiture emphasized the trappings
and regalia of kingship rather than specific facial features. In the Edo world view, the head is considered the locus of a
man's knowledge, authority, success, and family leadership. The burden of providing for his family and seeing them
through times of trouble is often described as being "on his head." The oba is often called by his praise name "Great
Head," accentuating the head of the living leader as the locus of responsibility over and for the Benin kingdom.

The idealized naturalism of this work reflects conventions of depicting the king at the prime of his life. The
straightforward gazing eyes, which would have included iron inlays, possess the ability to see into the other world,
communicating the divine power of the oba to survey his kingdom. The beaded headdress and collar are depictions of
the king's coral regalia. Coral is of particular importance to the Edo because of its associations with the ancestral
realms of the sea and to the immense wealth of the oba gained through ocean-going trade with Europe.

The relatively minimal amount of brass used to make this light cast and the proportionately small amount of regalia
depicted indicate that the head was created during the earlier half of the sixteenth century. Art historians have
suggested that over the centuries, as greater quantities of brass became available, casters had less incentive to be
economical with the material, and the trappings of office worn by the kings of Benin became more ostentatious.
Head of an Oba (King), 18th century
Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Brass; H. 13 in. (33 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.2)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The overall cylindrical shape, beaded collar covering the chin, and
addition of bead clusters to the crown identify this Benin brass head
as belonging to the eighteenth century. The crown, with its pattern of
crisscrossed beads with junctures marked by a dot in the center, is
characteristic of this period, as are the three raised marks above each
eye which are called ikharo, believed to represent scarification marks.
Men would usually have three, while women and foreigners would
wear four. The pointed oval eyes are outlined with heavy stylized rims,
which are not decorated with incisions like those of later examples.
Additionally there is no wide-lipped flange at the base of the head,
which became an integral component of nineteenth-century heads.
Head of an Oba (King), 19th century
Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Brass, iron; H. 18 in. (45.7 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991 (1991.17.3)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This example of a brass casting of a Benin head may date to the
mid-nineteenth century. The extreme degree of stylization, swollen
cheeks and enlarged eyes, the size of the flange at the base, the
weight of the casting, and the winglike projections attached to the
crowns are characteristic of brass casting during this later period of
Benin royal court.


Sotheby's Paris  150,000—200,000 EUR  Session 1 03 Dec 04 3:00 PM

Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   456,000 EUR

haut. 40,5 cm

alternate measurements
16 in

Cette tête représente un oba, identifié par la couronne royale, le bandeau frontal et le très haut collier à 28
rangs composé de perles de corail. Chaque côté de la tête est orné d'un motif en forme d'ailette, au bord ajouré.
Le visage présente des traits naturalistes travaillés avec une très grande finesse, les sourcils signifiés par des
hachures régulières, de très fins cercles gravés sous les yeux dont ils suivent la ligne courbe, le front orné du
motif classique de triple scarifications. La base traitée en collerette offre un décor d'une très belle qualité de
fonte, alternant les motifs traditionnels royaux de celts, de léopards - dont la tête est projetée en haut relief, de
grenouilles, de vaches et de trompes d'éléphants. Patine brun foncé. Excellent état de conservation.


Rapportée par le Fleet-Paymaster William Hawken Rowe, R.N., lors de l'expédition punitive menée par les
Anglais en 1897 sur Benin City
Sa fille, Dorothy A. Walker l'a mise en vente chez Sotheby's, Londres, le 4 juin 1962, lot 144
Queen Mother heads
Fig 20. Head of a queen mother.
Nigeria, Edo; Court of Benin, 16th
century. Brass; h. 20 in. (50.8 cm).
Staatliche Museen Preussischer
Kulturbesitz, Museum fur Volkerkunde,
Berlin. Ill C 12507
Fig 6. Head of a Queen Mother
Nigeria, Edo; Court of Benin
18th-19th Century
Brass, iron; h. 20.5 inches
Lent by Katherine Perls
Altars dedicated to past lyobas, or queen mothers, like those of past Obas, are furnished with cast brass
commemorative heads. These altars are found in the lyoba's palace at Uselu and in the Oba's own palace. Like the
altars to the king, the queen mother's altars also contain bells, rattle-staffs, and other types of sculpture, such as
altar tableaus and cast brass roosters. The title of queen mother was introduced by the early-sixteenth-century
Oba Esigie to honor his mother, Idia, for her help in averting two serious threats to his rule and the integrity of the
kingdom (Ben-Amos 1980:24; Nevadomsky 1986:44). Like Idia, the queen mothers are known for their ability to
bring their own supernatural powers to the aid of their sons.

Queen mother heads are distinguished by a special type of coral-bead crown with a high, forward-pointing peak, an
elongated version of an elaborate coiffure known as "chicken's beak," worn by high-ranking Edo women (fig. 19;
Ben-Amos 1980: fig. 25). The projection on the queen mother's crown is called ede lyoba, akening it to the
spiritually potent ede projection on top of the Oba's crown (Blackmun 1991:60). The right to wear a coral-bead
crown is limited to the Oba, the queen mother, and the Ezomo, the Oba's principal war chief, and thus conveys the
queen mother's importance in the Benin political hierarchy. An Oba has many wives, and the Qrst one who gives
birth to a son, who will succeed his father, will eventually become the lyoba. She is granted the title several years
after her son is crowned. Oba Erediauwa has recently named his mother, Aghahowa N'Ovbi Erua, as queen
mother; she is the first to hold the title since 1897. The lyoba advises the Oba and is the only woman considered
one of the senior Town Chiefs. Like them she is responsible lor administering a portion of the kingdom for the Oba.
In her case, ihis is the former village of Uselu, which is now part of Benin City. The queen mother heads can be
divided stylistically into two types (Dark 1975). One group resembles the early types of commemorative heads for
kings: they have a tight-fitting bead collar under the chin; the facial features are sensitive and relatively naturalistic;
and they are extremely thin-walled, delicate castings (fig. 20; von Luschan 1919: pi. 52). A second group of queen
mother heads is closer in style to later Oba heads, Dark's types 4 and 5. As seen in cat. nos. 6, 7, and 8, these
heads are large, thick-walled, heavy castings. They have a high cylindrical bead collar that comes up to the mouth.
They also have a semicircular opening at the top to enable them to support an ivory tusk, probably on a wooden
peg placed inside the head. In addition to the collar and the pointed bead crown with bead clusters on each side,
the queen mother is shown wearing a beaded headband, which wraps around her forehead and is tied with a bow
in the back, a type worn usually by male chiefs in Benin (see fig. 48). As on the heads of Obas, the lower part of the
face balloons outward, and the eyes, inlaid with iron irises, are enlarged in an exaggerated, heavily outlined stare.
In cat. nos. 6 and 7 the rims around the eyes are carefully incised with regular, narrowly spaced striatioris. Above
eacli eye are four raised ikharo, or gender marks. The flanges around the bases of these heads are less ornate
than those on the kings' heads. They are decorated with the looped strap motif, and cat. nos. 7 and 8 also have a
single elephant-trunk/hand-with-leaves motif at the front. Like the heads of kings, the queen mother heads are
dominated by the sheer quantity and extent of their coral-bead regalia, which frames the face at top, bottom, and
sides, alters its natural contours, and gives its human elements an extraordinary aspect.

On the basis of their similarity to Dark's type 4 and 5 kings' heads, these queen mother heads are dated to the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This seems to have been a period when altars to the queen mothers became
more elaborate, as indicated by the quantity of these heads (Dark 1975:88—89) and by the creation of oilier forms
of sculpture, such as altar tableaus and roosters, to be placed on the altars. Surprisingly, no objects dedicated to
the queen mothers have been attributed to the middle period of Benin art, from the mid-sixteenth through the
seventeenth century, although several women held the title during that time.

From the fantastic book: Royal Art of Benin - The Perls Collection
Fig. 19.   Wives of the Oba wearing
"chicken's beak" hairstyle with
coral-bead ornaments. Photograph by
Joseph Nevadomsky
Publications and books that are great
resources for the art of Benin
There are 2 issues of the African Arts publications that are almost entirely dedicated to the Benin
culture and the articles are amazing (although I haven't read them all) but I have both copies.

Click on the blue link to go to the back issue page of African Arts to order these volumes.

Vol. 30, Issue 3 - Summer 1997  

feature articles Studies of Benin Art and Material Culture, 1897-1997
Joseph Nevadomsky

The Great Benin Centenary - Benin City, February 17-23, 1997 Opening Ceremony Address
Thorold Masefield

Opening Ceremony Address
Oba Erediauwa

The Dialectics of Definitions:"Massacre" and "Sack" in the History of the Punitive Expedition
Ekpo Eyo

Aesthetics and Evolution
Elazar Barkan

Praise Songs to Oba Ovonramwen

Early Images from Benin at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Christraud M. Geary

Casting Identities in Contemporary Benin City
Charles Gore

Felix von Luschan and Early German-Language Benin Studies
Stefan Eisenhofer

Continuity and Change
Barbara W. Blackmun


first word The Great Benin Centenary
Joseph Nevadomsky

books The Art of Benin by Paula Girshick Ben-Amos
Reviewed by Kathy Curnow
Museums and the Community of West Africa Edited by Claude Daniel Ardouin and Emmanuel Arinze
Reviewed by Gilbert Amegatcher

recent exhibitions Great Benin
Reviewed by Susan Picton
African Galleries: Reinstallations of the Permanent Collection
Reviewed by Marie-Thérèse Brincard

Vol. 30, Issue 4 - Autumn 1997  
The Benin Centenary, Part 2 Edo Art, Dynastic Myth, and Intellectual Aporia
John Picton

Images of Benin at the Pitt Rivers Museum
Jeremy Coote and Elizabeth Edwards

Remembering R. E. Bradbury
Charles Gore; Interview by Peter Morton-Williams

The Art of Fasting
Kathy Curnow

Contemporary Art and Artists in Benin City
Joseph Nevadomsky

Susan Mullin Vogel

first word Why? Notes from Asia
Michael Harris

books The Kingdom of Benin in West Africa by Heather Millar
Reviewed by Dan Ben-Amos
Benin Kingdom of West Africa by John Peffer-Engels
Edo: The Bini People of the Benin Kingdom by Chukwuma Azuonye
Reviewed by Joseph Nevadomsky
Höfische Elfenbeinschnitzerei im Reich Benin: Kontinuität oder Kontinuitätspostulät by Stefan
Reviewed by Barbara W. Blackmun
Lamidi Olonade Fakeye: A Retrospective Exhibition and Autobiography by Lamidi Olonade Fakeye
and Bruce M. Haight
Reviewed by Jean M. Borgatti
The Culture and Technology of African Iron Production Edited by Peter R. Schmidt<
Reviewed by P. L. Shinnie
click image to see larger version
Top photo: Interior of a shop filled with contemporary brasscastings. Brasscasters
quarter, Igun Street, Benin City, 1995. Photo: Joseph Nevadomsky.

Bottom photo: Copying from art books, artists from Igun Street create and artificially
patinate reproductions of pre-1897 objects. Benin City, 1995.
Photo: JosephNevadomsky.

CLICK HERE to go to an article called: Art and science in Benin bronzes
African Arts,  Spring, 2004  by Joseph Nevadomsky
It's an interesting article on the "issues" of Benin bronze objects